Sox Top Sloppy Cards
By Roger Angell, October 24, 2013
World Series opening games can feel like a sunny day at Camp 6, a deserved picnic where we enjoy the fabulous views we’ve attained and contemplate the last push to the summit, but all images of the sort flew away quickly last night, when the inept Cardinals gave up five runs in the first two innings at Fenway Park, in the course of an 8–1 pasting by the Red Sox. Jon Lester, the lefty Boston starter, struck out eight Cards over seven and two thirds innings, and David Ortiz knocked a home run and a single and a sac, driving in three runs: thrilling star material on a better night, but only satisfactory here. The Cards, the best defensive team in the National League, were stinko, with three infield errors, two of them by shortstop Pete Kozma. The pattern of the game became clear when the veteran Cardinal starter Adam Wainwright could only smile wanly after allowing a feeble pop by Stephen Drew to drop like a thrombosed dove at his feet, to begin the Sox’ second. One never knows, do one, as Fats Waller said.
Big Papi’s most telling blow may prove to have been his fly ball out to the rim of the Sox’ bullpen later in the second—a near replica of that grand slam in the A.C.L.S. sixth game that pinwheeled the Tiger right fielder Torii Hunter. This ball, not quite a line drive, came down a yard or two north of that one, and was plucked back niftily from beyond the barrier by the Cards’ Carlos Beltran, who slammed heavily into the four-foot wall there but held on. (Tim McCarver, the sterling Fox commentator, pointed out that that low bullpen wall is safe enough for outfielders when their backs are turned but deadly whenever they raise their arms.) Beltran’s contused rib forced him to leave the game, and his absence tonight and perhaps later on, removing his powerful bat from the order, would be worse for the Cards than losing a trifling opener.
The Never Before moment arrived early, when Ortiz, the fourth Boston batter of the evening, hit a soft grounder to the right, where second baseman Matt Carpenter flipped to Kozma to begin a potential double play. When the ball came loose out there, second base umpire Dana DeMuth signalled that Kozma had held it long enough for the force, even though everyone in the northern hemisphere, including my watching fox terrier and I, could plainly see that Kozma had barely touched the toss with the tip of his glove. The out stood up, stare decisis—or would have in an earlier era of umpiric reasoning. Here, though, and to my amazement, five neighboring umps came circling in, like crows or undertakers, and, after consultation, DeMuthed the call—safe on an error, the out cancelled. Justice and common sense had prevailed (along with a snub to the possibility of instant electronic replay to decide such calls next year), but a part of me felt a twinge of loss. Umps should always be right, even when they aren’t. In their hearts, as Bill Klem said, they never missed a call.
A Spirited Series, Now Tied
By Roger Angell, October 25, 2013
Good game last night, a certificate of the high-end excitement we demand in October. The imposing starters—sour-faced Boston veteran John Lackey and the Cardinals’ tall, twenty-two-year-old righty Michael Wacha—scooted us through a quick five innings, with most of the fans’ attention, I think, going to Wacha’s fastball, which comes out of his hand like an escaping barn swallow and slips, barely noticed, into the upper level of the strike zone. With a Sox runner aboard in the sixth, he chose a change-up, to David Ortiz, however, who deposited the ball just over the sill of the Green Monster, in left, for a shocking, reversing 2–1 Boston lead.
The night’s main news was just ahead, an unravelling little run of Cardinals élan and Sox mistakes in the top of the seventh: a one-out walk, a single, and—with a fresh pitcher, Craig Breslow, now dealing to the bottom of the order, shortstop Daniel Descalso—an astounding, scenario-changing double steal. Descalso walked, and when Matt Carpenter knocked a sacrifice, game-tying fly ball to left, the Bosox, on the instant, came apart. Jonny Gomes’s peg home, wide to the right, was misplayed by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, allowing the ball to skip into foul ground, where it was snatched up by Breslow and flung wildly past third and into a left-field photographers’ booth. Three–two, St. Louis, now—and 4–2 when the next batter, Carlos Beltrán, hit a single.
This was almost all, it turned out, but there was time for me to award some multiple medals and cheek kissings in the manner of a French Maréchal. The daring front man in that Cardinals double steal was a pinch-runner, Pete Kozma, who had committed two errors while playing shortstop the night before: now he was back from Fort Ougadou. Beltrán, it will be remembered, had banged up his ribs in that same game when he smacked hard into the bullpen wall: taped up and unexpectedly back, he delivered two hits and the extra run. Croix de guerres, also, please, for Carlos Martinez, an excitable twenty-three-year- old Cardinals reliever, who struck out two batters in the eighth, and to the Cards’ manager, Mike Matheny, who left him in there to pitch to Ortiz, with a man aboard; Ortiz singled but to no avail.
Everything in this spirited Series is now changed—unless it isn’t. When play resumes on Saturday, the Cards will be on home ground, with the better pitching and no designated hitters. The teams are tied, but the Cardinals’ opportunism and the numbers of their kiddy participants—their closer, twenty-three-year-old Trevor Rosenthal, struck out the side in the ninth—make you feel as if they’re ahead.
Without private evidence, I will take a pass on the frail case of Jon Lester and the Twittered glob of something-or-other in his glove. Cheating was more blatant and more fun in the old days, when the Giants’ Gaylord Perry would smilingly stand with upraised arms while an ump frisked him for K-Y Jelly or other skulking lubricants. When a Phillies pitcher, Kevin Gross, allowed sandpaper to fall out of his glove, he indignantly denied that he’d been doctoring the ball. No way! A great dad, he’d been employing idle dugout moments to fashion a little birdhouse for his daughter.
By Roger Angell, October 27, 2013
The Red Sox, who had fallen behind the Cardinals in the first inning and again in the seventh, could have lost the third game of the World Series in routine fashion, but managed to do it spectacularly and historically, on a play and a call, in the ninth inning, not previously matched in the game. The rest of the action can thus be folded into summary—feeble but also staunch work by the veteran Sox starter Jake Peavy, who gave up four hits and two runs in the first inning, and pitched out of something worse, then escaped a further pickle, in the fourth, when he loaded the bases with no outs but wiggled free. The Bosox, who never led, came back two times from two-run deficits to tie things up, and there were breathtaking infield plays along the way: by the Cards’ second baseman, Matt Carpenter, and then his substitute, the rookie Kolten Wong; and once again by the Sox’ Dustin Pedroia. The pitching wasn’t up to previous levels—there were twelve hits by the Cards and blown saves by two Cardinal relievers, including by the eventual winner, Trevor Rosenthal. A line-drive double in the bottom of the ninth, whacked by pinch hitter Allen Craig on the first pitch from the previously impregnable Sox closer Koji Uehara, set up the last scene of the opera.
With Craig on second and Yadier Molina, who had singled, on third, John Jay hit a ground ball to second—not deep enough to deliver the slow-footed Molina, who was tagged out at the plate by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The catcher, finding Craig approaching third base—he was slowed by an old ankle injury—fired there, perhaps in time to nail the runner, except that the ball went past the diving third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, and out into left field. Craig, scrambling to his feet again to head home, half-stumbled over the recumbent Middlebrooks before he could resume his gimping trip, and was out there, on the return peg—only he was not. Home-plate ump Dana DeMuth signalled “safe,” then pointed meaningfully to his colleague Jim Joyce, out at third, who had properly called the tangle an obstruction by Middlebrooks.
Shock. Rejoicing. Horror-struck Sox pleading. Game over. Sorry, guys, but the obstruction rule, as entrenched as Marbury v. Madison, does not require evil intent by the obstructionist. Craig, who had reinjured his ankle while sliding and believed himself out, can be forgiven for not quite understanding all the excitement around him. Not quite believing it remains true for us all. I could not recall a game ever ending this way, and neither could Tim McCarver or Joe Buck, up in the booth. Another First Ever, then, right to the gizzard for all of New England.
The Red Sox, returning to the field Sunday evening, might expect to find crime-scene tape surrounding home plate, third base, and much of left field. Fatal pegs from home and past third have now caused both of their losses, and they must win tonight to give themselves a reasonable chance in this series. I would still not call this the most amazing outcome of any set of peg-and-tag plays in the annals, reserving that honor still for some unlikely moments in Seattle, in 1985, when Blue Jays catcher Buck Martinez (he’s their longtime TV announcer now) tagged out a sliding Mariners base runner at the plate but broke his leg in the collision. Spotting another Mariners base runner headed for third, he somehow arose and threw the ball in that direction. The heave went wild, with the ball sailing out to the left fielder, who had begun the whole thing. Again, he threw home, where Martinez made the second of his two tag-outs on the same play, and fainted from shock and pain.
Chinny Chin Chin
By Roger Angell, October 28, 2013
Last night’s game, like Saturday’s, ended with a losing-team player disconsolate in the dirt, but this time without an attached ruling to talk about. Kolten Wong, a ninth-inning Cardinals pinch base runner, was cleanly picked off first base by the Boston closer Koji Uehara, for the last out of the game. No excuse: Sox win, 4–2, knotting the series at two games apiece. The play was a fillip, not a filibuster, with the evening’s main event remaining Jonny Gomes’s three-run homer in the top of the sixth, which broke a 1–1 tie, and held up, guaranteeing that the teams, no matter who wins tonight, will return to Boston on Wednesday, for a sixth and then possibly a seventh and determining contest. Serious stuff by then, with every pitch tense and fraught, and winter now just down the street. No more fun, I mean, so let’s pause here and for one last time talk about beards.
In resuming the topic, I don’t expect to match or approach the charming and scholarly essay recently posted by my friend and colleague Richard Brody, who said that “one of the beauties of the beard is that its lushness is polysemic, lending itself to an interpretive exuberance to match its flow.” Yow, Richard, and excuse me, but might I demur?
Beards are kudzu.
Jonny Gomes’s beard—a brown frigate bird’s nest—is among the uglier sported by the hairy Sox this year, and when numbers of his teammates began grabbing it and ritually tugging on it upon his return to the dugout after his blast I was among a minority in the land who were hoping they’d pull it off. Gomes, a nice guy from Petaluma, California, has broad sloping shoulders and a pleasant, or O.K.-ish, everyday expression, but he’s shaved his head now, too, which doesn’t help, unless you’re eager to join the crowding recent hordes of the undead. C’mon, Jonny.
Gomes’s isn’t the worst Sox beard—the title goes to backup catcher David Ross, whose unkempt cabbage includes a clashing streak of white that cascades over his chin—perhaps relic of a childhood moment when he ran into his grandfather in the narrow back hall outside the bathroom. The other catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, has a raggedy garden-border growth, in keeping with the encircling back-yard shrubbery of his hair. Mike Napoli’s beard is thickest; Dustin Pedroia’s the weirdest, since it comes with his desert-saint stare and that repeated on-deck or between-pitch mannerism of opening and stretching his mouth into a silent O: a screech owl with laryngitis.
I’m a gentle fellow, and intend no lasting hurts here. I admire Big Papi’s plunging mid-cheek parenthesis, which has been there for many seasons, of course, and now feels as familiar and locally reassuring as a statue by Daniel Chester French. I also offer praise for the angle-iron jawline wool sported by tonight’s Boston starter, Jon Lester: an aesthetic so clearly modelled on Gunnar Björnstrand’s trimmed-down growth while he portrayed Fredrik Egerman in Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night.”
Can I ask a question? Where are the Red Sox wives or sweetie pies in all this? Have none of them spoken up—privately or in the Globe or in a thousand tweets—to protest this office fad? How does it feel to wake up, night after night, in immediate proximity to a crazed Pomeranian or a Malamute or an Old English sheepdog stubbornly adhering to the once caressable jaw of the guy on the nearest pillow? Doesn’t it scratch? Doesn’t it itch? Doesn’t it smell, however faintly, of tonight’s boeuf en daube or yesterday’s last pinch of Red Man? And what about the kids—how long can you keep putting them off with another recital of “The Three Little Pigs” or Edward Lear? Who does your husband/significant other think he is, anyway—Dostoyevsky? Brigham Young? Darwin? An Allman brother? Alexander Cartwright?
Come on, guys, think this over. Time to grow up. And what if you lose in the end this week, beards and all? Is this a lifetime commitment?
Hmmm. (Rubs chin.)
By Roger Angell, October 29, 2013
Boston wins, 3-1, Lester tops Wainwright once again, and the Sox head home ahead by a game, with a chance to wrap up baseball for the year in Wednesday night’s Game Six. That’s the short line, in an account perhaps shrivelled by the welcome tautness and economy of last night’s pitching duel, in a game without errors (the teams had together committed eleven in prior play) or base-path melodrama, that got itself over with in a brisk two hours and fifty-two minutes. Big Papi continued to astound, with a run-scoring double on his first pitch of the evening, two singles, and a line-drive out. He is batting .733 for the series—as against a cumulative .151 for the rest of the Boston hitters—and now sometimes gives the impression that he is stopping by to play in these little entertainments, in the manner of a dad joining his daughter’s fifth-grade softball game. When he came up to bat once again in the sixth, Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright essayed some uncharacteristic little pauses and stutter steps on the mound, trying to throw off that implacable swing. It was like trying to disconcert winter.
Wainwright struck out ten batters in his seven innings, and bore a look of earnest excitement while out there. For me, the game’s turning point was a trifling at-bat in the seventh by Sox shortstop Stephen Drew, who came up with the score still tied, 1-1, and a teammate on first. Drew’s lone hit in the series to date had been a comical bloop in the opener, which somehow fell untouched between the mound and home plate, but I noticed now that Wainwright had become a fraction uncertain in his work, and wondered why. The count went from one-and-two to two-and-two, then three-and-two, and the critical walk ensued. The next Red Sox hitter, catcher David Ross, batting in the eighth slot, whacked a ground-rule double just inside the foul line in left field, scoring both base runners and winning the game, it turned out, and possibly this series as well. Thinking about it afterward, I decided that it wasn’t Drew who was discombobulating Wainwright but some unwanted twinges of weariness and perhaps even a passing vision of himself forever in the annals as a valorous two-time World Series loser.
Jon Lester, who has a columnar neck and powerful arms, appears locked away when working, firing and backing up to the mound and firing again—fastballs and change-ups, for the most part—and he scarcely turned his head to watch his lone mistake, a fourth-inning homer by Matt Holliday, depart the premises. He has now done in Wainwright twice, in critical meetings, and might even be back on Thursday, if needed, and ready to do it again. That would guarantee an M.V.P. in any year but Papi’s.
From Beantown to Beardtown
By Richard Brody, October 23, 2013
Stick with any style long enough, and it’s bound to come back. I wanted a beard before it was biologically possible, and have let mine grow, most of the time, since I was a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies. But I’ve been a Mets fan even longer—therefore, by baseball’s implacable logic, also a Red Sox fan (the enemy of my enemy)—which is why I take special delight in Boston’s championship drive. Midway through the summer, when the Mets’ chances had dwindled to historic improbability, I clicked for consolation to the YES (“Yankees’ Entertaining Schadenfreude”?) Network to see them battle their nemeses from the north, and was shocked to see that Beantown had morphed into Beardtown.
The surprising luxuriance of the Red Sox’s facial foliage brought to mind a family memory—my father’s snarky suggestion, when I first grew a beard, that I might try out for the House of David. (He had to explain the reference to the barnstorming teams—featuring bearded and long-haired players—that were formed by a Christian sect that looked back to ancient Israel; his jibe about the Smith Brothers, of the cough drops, I got.) Those teams, of course, traded on the splendid incongruity of athletes with quasi-rabbinical beards, and yet, with the modern-day Red Sox, the beards makes perfect sense.
There’s no point to a trimmed and well-groomed beard, which resembles exactly the sort of suburban lawn that often led to the growing of the beard in the first place. (That’s why my hero among this year’s pennant-winning crop is Mike Napoli, whose dense and colorful beard is as gonzo as his all-or-nothing, free-swinging style at the plate.) One of the beauties of the beard is that its lushness is polysemic, lending itself to an interpretive exuberance to match its flow.
A beard is a celebration of nature that brings appearance closer to that of untamed human animals—a Rousseau-esque gesture that was crucial to the age of Aquarius, a time when long-established norms of behavior collapsed and made public life a clearer expression of formerly unspeakable private desires. By contrast, the shaven and crew-cut athlete suggests a martial fury that is joyless—a grim, self-denying efficiency that may work in war but is exactly the opposite of the essence of baseball, which, for all its competitive ardor, is playtime. (And the over-all increasing regimentation and militarization of modern life has no more powerful, intimate symbol than the fanatical prevalence of depilation.)
For an athlete, the beard suggests a return to nature as well, to a different sort of battle—to the feral ferocity of medieval or primitive men, or, at least, to the rugged outdoorsiness of nineteenth-century man in confrontation with the elements, both on and off the stubbly and rock-strewn sporting fields. Yet the religious or sacerdotal side of a beard is never far behind: it implies a monastic indifference to worldly cares, a hermetic withdrawal from ordinary concerns, and a fixed focus on the higher mysteries, whether divine, philosophical, or the split-finger fastball.
So it should be pretty obvious which team I’m rooting for in the series, all the more so because there’s still bad blood between me and Adam Wainwright.
Big Papi Nation
By Ben McGrath, October 25, 2013
Suspend my passport if you like: this once loyal citizen of Red Sox Nation hadn’t watched an inning all season, until Wednesday night. I kept hearing, of course, that they were an interesting and likeable bunch, in contrast with their recent predecessors. No more Bobby V. (though I somewhat enjoyed him, in the rubbernecking sense). No more Beckett. No more Youkilis. (I know this may be blasphemous, but the Greek God of Walks had long since stopped embodying discretion at the plate, and his beards were all menace, with none of the chuckle that his dainty batting stance might recommend—they lacked the klezmer charm of the current lot.) Even John Lackey, I gathered, had become a redemptive figure, absolved of the chicken and biscuits, and the double-fisted Bud Lights.
What explains the inattention? Much has been made recently about the presumed retreat of baseball from the so-called national conversation, and the aging of its fan base. (The median age of last year’s World Series viewers was 53.4, more than a dozen years older than the equivalent for the NBA Finals.) As Keith Olbermann observed on Thursday night, the ratings for this World Series will be far lower than those for the last Series between the Red Sox and the Cardinals, a decade ago, and something like a fifth of what they were in the days of Roberto Clemente’s Pirates. Surely some of these demographics have to do with the flight from live television itself—I streamed Games One and Two over the Internet—but Olbermann’s contention is that the sport has become a localized fixation, and, well, I don’t live in my team’s locale. The tabloids down here, in New York, spent the final month of the regular season parsing the legal woes of a man more famous for kissing his own reflection in the mirror than for his six hundred and fifty-odd home runs.
I’m all for regional sports—I love hockey, for example, and my favorite team on ice, the New Jersey Devils, has a Q rating that only a bowling phenom would envy. My Red Sox malaise, if anything, stems from the opposite problem: the growth of a national brand so strong that its particulars are only compelling when opposed to those of an even more dominant and pervasive one. (Bring back the Evil Empire!) Outside of New England, at least, rooting for the Red Sox in the second decade of the John Henry era has become a little like wearing a Livestrong bracelet or a tattoo. After the third or fourth standing ovation for Bill Buckner, you’re no longer honoring a tradition of noble failure in a “lyric little bandbox”; you’re gloating. You’re saying, essentially: we revived Neil Diamond.
But, as I’ve been reminded anew these past couple of nights, we also have David Ortiz, and who wouldn’t celebrate Big Papi? Last week, the Red Sox adviser Bill James wrote on his personal Web site that he thinks of Ortiz “as a modern Babe Ruth literally every day.” This was after Ortiz hit his grand slam against Detroit, the one that gave us the bearded-bullpen-cop meme. Three years ago, I wrote about the Nation’s collective angst over the seeming demise of its great hero. Yet here Papi still is, the only remaining link to the 2004 team that erased the supposed Ruth curse. He’s no longer spitting into his batting gloves with such regularity; instead, he seems consumed with the Velcro straps, as if in homage to his old teammate Nomar Garciaparra. I’ve watched—and rewatched—the clips of his two Series home runs thus far, and also the would-be slam that Carlos Beltran sacrificed his ribs to yank back, but the image that I’m sticking with, as the games shift to St. Louis, is not of the ball but of Ortiz himself in flight. The sight of his airborne slide, after he scored from first on a double, on Wednesday, was enough to keep me tuning in, for now.
The Value of Arguing and the Gift of an Overturned Call
By Ian Crouch, October 24, 2013
Last night, in the bottom of the first inning of Game One of the World Series, something very odd happened. The longtime Fox analyst Tim McCarver said he couldn’t recall ever seeing such a thing. It wasn’t a record-breaking home run or a startling new pitch but instead a basic procedural matter: Red Sox manager John Farrell argued a call with the umpires, and he won.
With one out and runners on first and second, the Sox’ slugger David Ortiz hit a weak grounder to the second baseman, who flipped it to short for what had the makings of an inning-ending double play. Except that the ball flicked off the glove of the Cardinals’ shortstop, Pete Kozma. The umpire watching the play, Dana DeMuth, called the runner, Dustin Pedroia, out at second. It was immediately clear that he’d made a mistake: people watching at home knew it, the announcers knew it, and so did the fans in the stands, who let out a collective groan once the replay had been shown. (Even Roger Angell’s fox terrier knew it.) But too bad—the call had been made. Baseball has its share of bad breaks, and this one broke against the Red Sox. First and third with two outs, then, right? Maybe not.
When a manager scurries out to argue a call, it seems like just another of baseball’s ritualistic wastes of time—sound and fury, signifying nothing. With the outcome essentially assured—the call will stand—the act becomes a moment of mechanical theatre, with the manager left to question, stare incredulously, or else rage. There are several reasons for the practice. Managers will often arrive to intervene in an argument between ump and player, protecting their guy from being tossed from the game. Or else, they will get a word in on a call they disagree with, in the hopes that it might somehow sway the umpires to look upon another close play later in the game with a conscious, or unconscious, generosity. Sometimes, it is said, a manager will make a scene in an attempt to motivate his team—though this causality seems circumstantial at best, since baseball players don’t necessarily do better if they try harder. And, let’s be honest, a lot of the time these arguments are just what they look like: an exercise in rather babyish male frustration. Skippers like Earl Weaver and Lou Piniella made legends with their shows of outrage, but they didn’t get many calls changed in their favor.
As we saw last night, there is one more reason for a manager to go through the motions of arguing: it halts the movement of the game, and gives the umpires on the field time to ask themselves a few tough questions. The ingrained etiquette of umpiring has it that the man closest to the play is left in charge of calling it. Many of these plays are close, and the idea is that an ump has to make a snap decision, and then, as the saying goes, “sell it” to the players, coaches, fans, and even to his colleagues. Anything less invites chaos and mistrust—a pulling back of the curtain to reveal the basic human imperfection of how baseball’s rules are applied. No one on last night’s umpiring crew would have run in to challenge DeMuth; umpiring is tough work, and those who do it protect their colleagues’ egos, if not always their integrity. Missed calls are often, unfortunately, referred to as “blown” calls, as if the work is easy, and an us-versus-them attitude has emerged over the years. And yet, last night there they were, all six umpires huddled on the infield, openly debating a very high-stakes play. After a short conference, they brought Pedroia back onto the field, reversing the call and leaving the Red Sox with the bases loaded and just one out. The next batter, Mike Napoli, smacked a double to left-center, giving the Sox a 3–0 lead.
The former manager Joe Torre, who now works as an executive for Major League Baseball, quickly came on the broadcast to explain what had just occurred. He attempted to downplay the novelty, saying that such an overruling happens often. Everyone knew better; Torre was, in this case, gamely offering the company line. But he also provided some insight: the umpires, he explained, have a signal that they can use to call their colleagues in for a conference if they think an egregious mistake had been made. Fox had a microphone on one of the umpires, so viewers at home got to hear an edited version of their conference. All five of DeMuth’s partners agreed that he’d missed it, and finally the decision to overturn the call was unanimous. Still, Torre’s explanation of the events may not have been entirely accurate: it was not clear that the reversal would have taken place had John Farrell not taken the time to challenge the play in the first place.
M.L.B. has dispensed with the idea that the umpire is infallible. This change was largely prompted by technological innovations such as slow-motion replays and pitch-tracking software, which reveal to an audience watching at home what really happened, regardless of what the umps on the field have decided. More recently, the league introduced replay options for home runs, admitting the plainly obvious fact that umpires sometimes need help. And next season, replay challenges will be expanded further, to cover plays just like last night’s. In a way, the whole scene was just the new challenge system arriving ahead of schedule.
After the game, DeMuth told reporters that he’d had “an awful feeling” during the conference—not that he’d made the wrong call, necessarily, but that his call was being questioned. But, he added, “I’ve got to be part of a team here and get the right call.” The alternative, for DeMuth, would have been significantly less pleasant. He’d have to face the kinds of questions that his crewmate Jim Joyce had to answer back in 2010, when he missed an out call at first base that cost the Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Afterward, Joyce was distraught. He admitted his mistake, and apologized profusely to Galarraga. The two even wrote a book together, about forgiveness. It was sad story and then a nice one. Last night, Joyce was in right field, and was one of the umpires who told DeMuth that he was “a hundred per cent sure” that he’d made the wrong call. It must have been tough news to deliver, but it was, in the end, a gift.
By Ian Crouch, October 20, 2013
Sometimes, the confines of the English language, spacious as it is, just can’t do a moment justice. And so, after the Red Sox defeated the Tigers to advance to the World Series, Shane Victorino had to come up with a new one as he was interviewed on the field.
What had his seventh-inning grand slam meant to him, the smack to left over the wall that put the Sox ahead for good? What had this entire season represented? “Rejubilation,” he said, creating, in a genius slip of the tongue or else in a moment of just plain genius, one of the better sports portmanteaus of recent memory. It was a perfect combination—of “rejuvenation” and “jubilation”—to explain a season, his first in Boston, that saw the team flip from worst to first in the American League East. It’s been a season of slogans (“Boston Strong,” since the awful days of fear in April) and iconography (beards everywhere, on most of the players, and on many of the fans). And, now, after a beautiful swing—on the third curveball he saw in the at-bat—a beautiful word. It’ll be on a T-Shirt by Wednesday, when the Cardinals come to town.
For the Tigers, who once again fell short in an October series, it will take other words to hash out the sombre facts of defeat. Like the poor performance hitting and fielding performance by their star slugger Prince Fielder, or the shakiness of their bullpen, or manager Jim Leyland’s decision, in both Game 2 and Game 6, to take the ball away from this year’s sure-thing Cy Young winner Max Scherzer perhaps a bit earlier than he should have. The Tigers lost both of those games, despite his fine pitching. Both times it was thanks to grand slams in the late innings off other pitchers by the Sox—the baseball equivalent of a Hail Mary—that did them in. Tactical errors, maybe, but also plain tough luck. David Ortiz’s series-changing slam in Game 2 made it over the glove of Tiger right fielder Torii Hunter by just a matter of inches. On Saturday night, Victorino got his chance thanks to a rare error by Tiger shortstop Jose Iglesias, who’d been traded from Boston to Detroit late in the season.
Red Sox skeptics are probably tired of hearing about those beards—the end is near, we promise, no matter who wins the Series—and so it is worth making special note of the beardless contributors for this team. There is first-year manager John Farrell, who deserves as much credit for the team’s turnaround as he does for somehow resisting what must have been some dogged pressure to put his daily razor away and grow some chin hair. And then there is Koji Uehara, also beardless, whom we might be tempted to call unflappable (that’s a word that gets stuck to closers a lot), if he weren’t so honest about the role that he has had to play since taking over the job this summer. He’s been almost completely perfect, but it has not, he has assured reporters, been easy. After getting five outs in the team’s Game 5 win in Detroit, he said that it had taken a lot out of him. “I’m too tired to even look back on it,” he said. And on Saturday night, after another solid performance, he looked both overjoyed and exhausted as he made his leap into the arms of the catcher. Later, on the podium to receive the most-valuable-player award for the series, he said, “To tell you the truth, I almost threw up.” Closers who stare down batters and who can throw hundred-mile-an-hour fastballs are intimidating and fun to watch, but Uehara’s eighties and nineties have proven to be even more thrilling. He’s thirty-eight years old, enjoying a sparkle of brilliance at the end of a career that began back in 1999, in Tokyo, for the Yomiuri Giants. His numbers in the series tell a story: six scoreless innings, just four hits, nine strikeouts, and no walks. And now, thanks to Victorino, there’s a word to describe his joyous smile and like-magic splitter. Is there a similar expression in Japanese?
The Greatness of Koji Uehara
By Nicholas Thompson, October 23, 2013
Koji Uehara, the best relief pitcher on the Boston Red Sox, only throws strikes. He threw eleven pitches in the ninth inning of Game Six against the Tigers: all were strikes. A really good pitcher has a strike-out-to-walk ratio of about two or three to one. Since August 3rd, Uehara has struck out forty-four and walked no one. In one stretch, he retired thirty-seven batters in a row—and threw twenty-five balls during the whole time. He has allowed the fewest hits and walks per nine innings of any pitcher in history.
Except sometimes Uehara throws balls on purpose. According to Boston’s manager, John Farrell, he will sometimes “fall behind on purpose to be able to use some of the hitter’s aggressiveness against his split[-finger fastball].” Last week, the New York Times Magazine ran a profile that suggested that Miguel Cabrera, the great slugger on the Detroit Tigers, sometimes swings wildly on purpose in order to lull a pitcher into complacency. Uehara apparently does the opposite. He’s a skinny thirty-eight-year-old with a slow fastball who may be having the best season of any pitcher ever.
Closers are the least predictable players in the sport. They get hurt all the time. Sometimes they mysteriously stink after being great. In 2010 and 2011, the Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He looked like he’d be closing games for the Sox for a decade. Then he literally forgot how to pitch. In one game the next year, he got five batters out, walked six, and hit two. He was sent to the minors, where he hit the backstop as frequently as the catcher’s mitt. The team released him this summer. This year, the Red Sox had three closers: Joel Hanrahan, who blew out his arm; Andrew Bailey, who blew out his arm; and Uehara. Hanrahan pitched for the Red Sox for a month and gave up eight runs. Uehara gave up nine all season.
The success of Uehara is also a reminder of how strange the success of the Red Sox is. Last year, the team was one of the worst in baseball; this year it might be the best. They’ve added terrific free agents, like Uehara, for one. They upgraded managers, from Bobby Valentine to John Farrell—which is roughly the equivalent of switching your morning beverage from Drano to orange juice. But the most interesting explanation may be cultural: they rarely ever quit.
I recently e-mailed with Eric Van, a statistician who worked for the Red Sox from 2005 to 2008, after John Henry, the team’s owner, read his postings on a message board. He pointed out that the 2012 Red Sox were historically bad in close games and in games in which they fell behind. Statisticians use a measure called “win expectancy” that measures a team’s odds of winning given the inning and the situation: your odds are fifty per cent if the game is tied in the top of the first; if you trail by one with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh, your odds are fifty-six per cent. Before August 25, 2012, the Red Sox didn’t win a single game after their win probability dropped to ten per cent. The 2013 club had won ten such games by that point. The 2012 team played seven extra-inning games at home and didn’t score in any of them. They were chokers and quitters. The 2013 team is neither.
Uehara doesn’t bat, and he usually doesn’t pitch when the team is losing. But when the team comes back, as it did repeatedly against Detroit, he makes the lead stick. He also has surely been part of the transformation of a tense and surly team into a relaxed and confident one. After victories, he allows David Ortiz, the paterfamilias of the team, to hoist him into the air like a toddler. The two men, declares Buzzfeed, have “the most adorable friendship in baseball.” In Game Two of the series with the Tigers, the Red Sox trailed by four with two outs in the eighth, giving them a win expectancy of seven and a half per cent. Early in the inning, it had been three per cent. Ortiz hit a grand slam and Uehara shut the Tigers down in the ninth.
Closers, with one exception, are unpredictable. The Cardinals might rock Uehara. His shoulder might pop. He might turn into Daniel Bard and fire the ball past the man in the on-deck circle. But it was hard to watch the end of the series with the Tigers—Uehara firing a strike-three splitter in the dirt, exhaling, leaping, almost crying—and not wonder if the series with the Cardinals won’t end the exact same way. Game One is tonight.
The Joy of Sox
By Nicholas Thompson, September 9, 2013
For the past ten years, the Boston Red Sox have resembled the cosseted child of a Tiger Mother. They have been given nearly infinite resources. They have been subjected to relentless scrutiny by a rabid fan base. (Of those to whom much is given, much is required.) They had terrific success for a while. And then they rebelled, exploded, and drove their car across the lawn and into the kitchen. In September of 2011 they collapsed as no other team had ever before. After the season, it was revealed that the players were eating fried chicken in the clubhouse and the manager was popping pills. Last summer, they came in a well-deserved last place. They shipped three of their star players to Los Angeles. Another summer in the cellar seemed almost certain.
And yet here they were in the Bronx this past weekend, pounding the Yankees and extending their lead in the division. The scores of the first three contests resembled the tally at a timeout in the first quarter of an N.B.A. game: 9-8, 12-8, 13-9. The Yankees eked out a 4-3 victory on Sunday, and they still have a decent shot at the wild card. But they trail Boston by ten games with nineteen to play.
On Thursday night, the Red Sox won by rallying in one of the very few ways possible against the great Mariano Rivera: single, pinch-runner, stolen base, single. On Friday, the Yankees were crushing the Sox 8-4 when Mike Napoli—a gruff, portly first-baseman with a beard that, by October, seems likely to reach ZZ Top proportions—came to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh.
First base is a fraught position in the Boston-New Yorker rivalry. The injured incumbent, who should have been playing the position for the Yankees, Mark Teixeira, was drafted by the Red Sox, but decided to go to college instead. Later he was almost signed as a free agent by the Red Sox. But he spurned and stunned Boston by signing with the Yankees. The Red Sox countered by trading for the brilliant Adrian Gonzalez, whom they then traded in last summer’s purge. And so they ended up with Napoli, a converted catcher with a bad hip and plantar fasciitis—one of those injuries that aging men get that makes it hard to walk. Only one player in the American League has struck out more times this season than he has.
Napoli swung fiercely and hit what looked, at first, like a deep fly ball. Inning over; crisis averted. But then it kept travelling. “Fly ball to right field. This will stay in the yard,” the announcer declared. “And it won’t stay in the yard!” Suddenly the game was tied, and Napoli was rounding the bases like a beer-league softball player. The face of the Yankees is Derek Jeter: so handsome and polished that he has his own line of cologne. (If you’re wondering, the top notes are “Spices, grapefruit, and oakmoss.”) This weekend, at least, the face of the Sox was Napoli. If he had a cologne, it would smell something like WD-40.
The return of the Red Sox is a delight, of course, for Bostonians. But it should also be a delight for sports fans. Baseball’s biggest problem is its drug scandal, but its second biggest might be the reign of statistics: the sense that every season is foretold. When the smart people crunch the numbers they can tell you how many games your team will win. This year, the Red Sox have defied those numbers, and they’ve done it through something that can only really be called spirit. They have a propensity for late-inning rallies; even on Sunday, before losing, they tied it in the ninth against the best reliever in history. Little breaks just seem to go their way. Over the past two years, the Red Sox had become entitled: lazy, grumpy, and dumpy. Now they’re the opposite. And they’re being rewarded by whatever God controls whether bunts roll fair or foul—or whether deep fly balls to right field stay in the park or just barely clear the fence.
The Ghost of David Ortiz
By Joe Posnanski, October 25, 2013
The baseball world buried David Ortiz years ago. He was too old, too slow, too big. Somewhere along the line, he became a ghost – a home-run-hitting, series-winning ghost.
BOSTON — We are watching a ghost. He must be a ghost because David Ortiz, the great designated hitter of the Boston Red Sox, well, he faded away years ago. He faded away at age 32, age 33, when players of his type almost always fade away. His bat slowed. He overcompensated. He started to guess which pitch was next. Once you get to that age, once you start guessing on pitches, your hourglass has just about run out of sand. Line drives became pop-ups. Foul tips become strikeouts. Small aches stretch on for weeks. It’s a story older than the game.
The ghost steps in to the box. It is Game 1 of the World Series. The people at Fenway Park chant his nickname. Pa-pi! Pa-pi! The air is chilled, and the stands are darkened by overcoats, and the Cardinals have a left-handed pitcher named Kevin Siegrist on the mound. It is a bland cliche to make age comparisons for narrative purposes, but how can we resist? Siegrist was 8 years old when the ghost made his major league debut. He was in high school when the ghost hit 41 home runs and led the Boston Red Sox to their first world championship in 86 years. He was still in high school when the ghost hit 54 home runs, more than any Boston player ever, more than Ted Williams or Jimmie Foxx or Carl Yastrzemski or Jim Rice.
Siegrist had walked his own hard road to get here — he was a college walk-on, a 41st-round draft pick, an utter non-prospect who worked and matured and developed a high-nineties fastball that left-handed batters simply cannot hit. Right-handers have trouble against him too, but lefties are all but helpless. Seigrist faced 79 lefties; eight got hits off him. None of those hits were doubles. None of those hits were home runs either.
The ghost had never faced Siegrist before. The ghost knew almost nothing about Siegrist. He was just another in a long, long line of hard-throwing lefties that managers have put up to terminate him. The ghost stepped into the box, and everyone chanted for him, and the atmosphere sparked, and he would say one thought went through his mind. Fastball. This kid was obviously going to throw a fastball.
David Ortiz stopped hitting fastballs years ago.
The ghost smashed that 96-mph fastball over the right-field bullpen and into the delirious stands.
“He’s got a good fastball,” the ghost told us all afterward. “And I can still hit fastballs.”
* * *
One legend goes that David Ortiz hit a home run the first time he swung a bat in a neighborhood game in his hometown of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Ortiz started this legend himself. When he first came to Boston, he told Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe that his childhood dream was to be a basketball player, like Michael Jordan. One day, he got pulled off the basketball court by his friend, a pitcher named Joel Paniagua. “Play one game,” Paniagua said. Ortiz conceded. He joined the baseball game. He hit a home run. And eight months later, the Seattle Mariners signed him.
Well, as mentioned, that’s one legend. Another — the one that Ortiz writes in his book “Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits” — is that he grew up with a deep devotion to baseball, just like most young boys in the Dominican Republic. He wrote that he would use whatever was necessary to play. He would sometimes steal the heads off his sister’s dolls and use them as baseballs. He and the other kids would sometimes throw bottle tops they had found in the dirt and try to hit them with broomsticks. Ortiz would insist that swinging at those spinning tops taught him how to hit the curve.
At a certain age, Ortiz worked his way into the Dominican Republic’s baseball system, where Major League scouts could get a look at him. At 16, he got hurt while working with the Florida Marlins’ prospects. He was discouraged. He thought his chance was gone. His father, Leo, who had played baseball his whole life, told him: “David, you are going to play in the big leagues someday.” Not long after that, he signed with the Seattle Mariners for $7,500.
There are still other David Ortiz legends. Lots of them. That’s the thing about Ortiz — there’s something larger than life about him. He was not like most of the other prospects to come out of the Dominican Republic. He was 6-foot-4, and he would quickly fill out to 250-plus pounds, and he swung hard and with the intention of hitting the ball over a fence somewhere. When he was 20, he was the player to be named later in a Mariners-Twins deal. When he was 21, he smashed 31 home runs for three different minor league teams — one in A ball, one in Class AA, one in Class AAA — and jumped right to Minnesota and the big leagues.
There have been many theories about the way the Twins handled Ortiz. The common perception has been that they discouraged his tendency to pull everything and tried to make him more of a gap-to-gap hitter. The common perception is that they did not understand his talents. The common perception is that he was a disappointment. Two people closely associated with the Twins said that isn’t exactly true. “We knew that David had tremendous power,” one Twins official told me shortly after Ortiz emerged. “The timing just wasn’t right.”
The timing led the Twins to release Ortiz after the 2002 season. He’d had a reasonably good season considering that he was hurt much of the year, and considering that he was grieving the loss of his mother, Angela Rosa Arias, who died in a car accident that year. Ortiz hit .272 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs and was a regular for a Minnesota team that reached the postseason. And his teammates absolutely loved him. Well, everybody loved him. Ortiz always was a big-hearted and lovable big guy who always seemed to be in the middle of the conversation and was the mark of countless practical jokes because nobody took them in better spirits.
So, yeah, the Twins loved him. But they saw him as limited. He really couldn’t play any defensive position. His power was not coming around as they hoped. And, most of all, he was almost certain to get a big raise in arbitration. Teams with low payrolls like Minnesota make cost-conscious choices all the time. They let David Ortiz go.
He went to the Dominican Republic and thrashed baseballs all winter.
And the Red Sox, though they had three other first basemen/designated hitters already, scooped him right up.
* * *
Speaking of legends, the story goes that when David Ortiz got to Boston, the manager, Grady Little, was not especially excited. Little already had several no-glove guys to put in those first base/designated hitter spots, starting with Jeremy Giambi, brother of Jason, who many seemed sure was ready to break out. He already had Kevin Millar, who was another all-hit guy. Little wanted what managers always seem to want — more guys who can play defense, more guys who can run the bases, more relief pitchers. What can a manager DO with David Ortiz?
The Red Sox kept Ortiz anyway. This was probably because GM Theo Epstein and his staff insisted. At first, Little would play Ortiz two or three times a week. Even that seemed too much for the way Ortiz was hitting. In mid-May, the guy was hitting .208 with absolutely no power. His biggest role on the team seemed to be befriending new free agent signing Manny Ramirez. At some point he had to start getting hits. He was frustrated. He was worried. “My situation’s kind of tough,” he told reporters. “And everybody’s seeing it.”
On July 1, he still had only four home runs — though he was hitting better. He told teammates that he was feeling something coming, something good. He felt like he was about to explode. And then, yeah, he exploded. A homer in Tampa Bay on July 3. Two homers at Yankee Stadium on Independence Day. Two more homers at Yankee Stadium on July 5. He crushed 11 home runs in August, seven of them in eight starts. Ortiz, the superstar, had arrived.
Everything went Hollywood smooth for a brilliant few years after that. The Red Sox in 2003 reached the postseason and lost another heartbreaker to the Yankees. But in 2004, Ortiz hit .301 with 41 homers and 139 RBIs. And in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees he became a Boston legend.
In Game 4, with the Red Sox trailing three games to zero, he hit the game-winning home run in the 12th inning.
In Game 5, he hit a home run that brought Boston back when the Red Sox seemed finished and then he hit the game-winning single in the 14th.
In Game 7, he hit a two-run home run in the first inning off Kevin Brown that made it clear to everyone that this time the Red Sox were going to beat the Yankees.
And then, the Red Sox swept the Cardinals and won their first World Series in forever.
* * *
When Ortiz came to Boston, he called everyone Papi. That was his nickname for everybody. He will tell you that he’s not much good at names. So Papi it is. He calls teammates Papi. He calls opponents Papi. He calls reporters Papi. He still does. It’s easier that way.
After the Red Sox beat the Yankees — and then beat the Cardinals in the World Series — Ortiz would forever be “Big Papi.”
* * *
How many players in baseball history have had a run as filled with excellence and glory and excitement as David Ortiz from 2004 to 2007? He was the key force in breaking the curse in 2004. He led the American League with 148 RBIs in 2005 and almost won the MVP award. Next year, he hit .287/.413/.636 with a league-leading 54 homers, 137 RBIs, 119 walks and 355 total bases. The next year, he led the league with a .445 on-base percentage and the Red Sox went back to the World Series. He hit .714 in a three-game sweep of the Angels. He and the Red Sox coasted to a four-game sweep over Colorado for their second World Series championship.
Everywhere Papi went, it seemed like there were parades.
And then, just like that, the fun ended. Well that’s baseball. Ortiz turned 32 in 2008. Big, strong, slow players like Ortiz don’t tend to age well. Look at players comparable to Ortiz. Former Boston star Mo Vaughn was more or less done at 32. So was Cecil Fielder. So was Big John Mayberry and “Big Klu” Ted Kluszewski and “Big” George Altman and “Big Donkey” Adam Dunn. Having the word “Big” in your nickname often means a free fall in your early 30s. Big Papi fell right in line.
First, Ortiz hurt his wrist. Then his power seemed to weaken slightly. Then his bat seemed to slow. He hit .264 with 23 homers in 2008. Hardly a Big Papi season. And 2009 was a nightmare. The average plunged to .238. Ortiz slugged less than .500 for the first time as a Red Sox player. In July, the New York Times reported that he allegedly had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs six years earlier in the 2003 survey testing. The results were supposed to be secret, but they leaked and Ortiz — who had been outspoken against steroid use — insisted he never used steroids or any other performance enhancing drug. Ortiz hit .083 in the division series against the Angels — this time the Red Sox got swept.
I closely watched Ortiz during a couple of spring training games the next year. He looked utterly helpless at the plate. I heard a couple of people call him “Big Pop Up.” I have never been so sure that a great player was done. It was too bad. Ortiz had been an extraordinary hitter but time caught up. It doesn’t matter how many legends build up around you — nobody can turn back time.
* * *
Everybody knows how things turned ugly for the Red Sox. In 2010, they were a pretty good team but they never could get untracked — they were in third place in the American League East every single day after Independence Day. General manager Theo Epstein thought the team needed a year to reload and rebuild with some younger players — a bridge year, he called it — but it was made clear to him that in Boston you have to win EVERY year. There are no bridge years. There are no reload seasons.
So during the offseason they acquired several high-priced players and in 2011 they actually won one more game than in 2010. But the season was a disaster. The Red Sox went 7-20 in September — falling out of first place and then out of the playoffs — and then reports came out of players eating chicken and drinking beer during games down the stretch. And then manager Terry Francona, who had led the Red Sox to their only two World Series championships since 1918, was sent packing. And then Epstein left.
Then the Red Sox brought in Bobby Valentine to manage and, well, nothing good happened after that. The team lost 93 games, Boston’s first 90-loss season in more than 45 years. They traded away as many of the big-money stars as they could just so they could start over.
But during all that mess, somehow, the ghost of David Ortiz started crushing baseballs again. Nobody seemed sure how it could happen. The bat sped up — bats don’t speed up. Strikeouts went down. That doesn’t happen. The batting average went up. Baseballs started sailing out of parks again. Nobody seemed entirely sure how any of it was possible. There were theories. Some thought that watching teammate Adrian Gonzalez hit every day helped Ortiz recalibrate his approach. Some thought that, in seeing the end, he rededicated himself to the game. Some thought he was playing for one more contract. Some thought it was just a mirage.
The reasons are theories. The performance is fact. In 2011, Ortiz hit .309/.398/.554. In 2012, he was hurt much of the year but slugged better than .600 in 90 games. And this year, he hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs for the first time since the last Red Sox World Series appearance in 2007.
“I always knew I could still play,” Ortiz would say. “I had no doubts about that.”
* * *
These days, David Ortiz is as much icon as ballplayer in Boston. It hasn’t always been flowers and chocolates, of course. When Ortiz was about to become a free agent after 2011, he hinted that he would be willing to sign with the despised New York Yankees. There was the PED report. There were a couple of public outbursts. A positive Boston Globe story this week still found room to twice refer to Ortiz as “churlish.”
But in many ways, I suspect those minor spats have made Ortiz MORE of an icon, not less. He has been so human, so awesomely human, with his countless hugs, with the happy chatter, with the way he spits on his hands and rubs them together, with the extraordinary performances along with the various moments of failure. Ortiz has been in Boston for 10 years. After the marathon bombing in April, it was Ortiz who spoke loudest. Of course it was.
“This is our [f———] city,” he shouted at Fenway Park. “Nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”
And then, he has been something more than human, a ghost of the man who looked utterly finished five years ago. It was this ghost of Ortiz who came up with the bases loaded and the Red Sox down one game and four runs to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series. Of course it was. He hit a grand slam off Joaquin Benoit. It was one of only two hits he would have in the entire series. But it was the only hit that mattered.
And it was the ghost in Game 1 of the World Series hitting a home run off a hard-throwing lefty he had never faced before.
Then, Thursday night, Game 2 of the World Series, and the ghost came up in the sixth inning with the Red Sox down two runs. He faced Michael Wacha, the Cardinals’ brilliant young starter. Again, you could do the age cliche comparison — Wacha was 6 when Ortiz got his first big league at-bat. Wacha basically throws two pitches, a blazing fastball and a devastating change-up. One feeds off the other. He had given up one run in the postseason.
He threw Ortiz the fastball first, missed for a ball, and then another which Ortiz fouled off. And then it was four straight change-ups — first for a ball, second was fouled off, third was in the dirt.
And then Wacha threw the fourth change-up. He clearly did not want to challenge David Ortiz with a fastball.
And the ghost with Ortiz on his jersey knew it. He knew all of it. He knew the park, knew the situation, knew what pitch was coming. He reached out, and hit the ball the other way, and popped it over the Green Monster for a two-run home run anyway. Amazing! Absurd! Another home run? Fenway Park was incoherent, a babbling mess of joy.
This time, though, the joy didn’t last. The Cardinals took the lead back. It was 4-2 St. Louis. The ghost came up a final time in the eighth inning. There was a runner on and one more homer would have tied the game. But who could really ask for one more home run? Oh, wait, everyone was asking for it. Everyone was hoping for it. In a way, everyone could FEEL it coming.
The kid on the mound, Carlos Martinez, could throw fastballs up to 100 mph. Where do the Cardinals find them?
The ghost stepped in and everyone knew what he was thinking. Fastball. It had to be a fastball. First pitch. Martinez threw it, and Ortiz swung with everything he had, only the trajectory of the ball was wrong. Instead of it lifting up, it instead descended hard, a blistering ground ball. Even though he hit it into the shift, it was hit hard enough and well enough to be a single.
Ortiz got to first base and, strangest thing, you could see something on his face that looked like disappointment. Only a single! And, even stranger, I suspect you could have seen that mild disappointment on faces all over New England. Only a single! Boston’s Mike Napoli followed with a pop-up to end the inning. The Red Sox lost the game, and the series is going back to St. Louis tied at 1-1, and, of course, everyone knows it’s ridiculous and unrealistic and even unfair to expect David Ortiz will hit a home run every single time the Red Sox need him to hit one. It’s utterly ridiculous. Heck, it’s ridiculous to expect that Ortiz, at his age, with his history, could be doing what he’s doing.
And yet … he is doing it. Well, it is October. It’s a good time to believe in ghosts.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports.
Mariano Rivera was the Perfect Athlete
Long After Perfect Ceased to Exist
By Joe Posnanski, September 26, 2013
Sometimes I wonder if, in all the celebrations and gifts and festivities and shouts of praise –- and even in the occasional backlash story that pops up — we are missing what it is that has made Mariano Rivera extraordinary. Sure, he has been an amazing relief pitcher. It’s also true he throws less than 75 innings a year. Yes, his postseason performances are so amazing the numbers look like typos. It’s also true he was on the mound from time to time when things fell apart.
He has been the indomitable finisher on the indomitable team of our time, the guy on the mound at the end when the New York Yankees win again.
But in the end, I think, there’s something else, something bigger than all of that.
Mariano Rivera has been the perfect athlete in a time long after we stopped believing in perfect athletes.
* * *
1920s: Babe Ruth. A perfect fit. The nation wanted to celebrate itself, and Babe Ruth hit the home runs to light up the party. He seemed big and jolly and looked funny as he minced around the bases. Reporters protected his dark side, his boozing and womanizing and fighting and Lord knows what else, while reporting the home runs he hit that healed sick kids in hospitals.
* * *
Could you imagine Babe Ruth in our time? Oh, Twitter would eat him alive. Deadspin would have a whole microsite devoted to him. This was a man who reporters would sometimes see being chased by half-naked women with knives. This was a man who, reportedly, tried to inject himself with an extract of sheep testicles to gain strength. The New York tabloids would each have a special reporter dedicated just to follow him. TMZ would have him on 24-hour surveillance.
And yet, Mariano Rivera lives in our time.
What do you know about him? Rack your brain. He’s from Panama. You certainly know that. His father was a fisherman. Mariano was a fisherman himself for a while. He’s deeply religious, sure. He’s modest. He’s unflappable. You might know he has been married to Clara since his earliest days in pro baseball — they met in elementary school. And what else? And nothing else. We live in a time where privacy is all but defenseless, and yet, somehow, Mariano Rivera has managed to be the most public of figures and, still hold close the most fragile and important parts of himself.
Think of the pitfalls today. One misstep. One misspoken statement. One insensitive tweet. One mistranslated thought. Celebrity life in the 21st Century is the wildest of high-wire acts, a thread-thin tightrope, fire above, no net below, and all the while people shoot pellets at your legs. Rivera did not just walk that tightrope. He danced on it. He did backflips on it. He did not just pass every test. He aced every test.
Remember in Boston when they cheered him in 2005 the year after he blew two saves as the Red Sox finally overcame the Yankees, then won the World Series? It was a classic Boston sneer, dripping in sarcasm and irony, a cheer representing a taunt, and it could have triggered any number of responses that would have made headlines and the television crawl.
Mariano Rivera smiled.
“I felt honored,” he told reporters.
* * *
1930s: Lou Gehrig: A perfect fit. The nation, mired in the Great Depression, searched for relief, for comfort, for a reason to believe. The Iron Horse came to work every day. He never seemed to take a moment of it for granted. And when the disease that would bear his name struck him down, he stood at the microphone at Yankee Stadium and said that he felt like the luckiest man.
* * *
Baseball’s closer, like football’s slot receiver and basketball’s point-forward, is a modern idea. We have become a nation of specialists. Try getting technical help these days. Oh, you’re using an iPhone? We’ll get our iPhone specialist. Oh, wait, you’re still on an iPhone 4S? Hold on, that’s another technician. Oh, wait, sorry, you upgraded your iPhone 4S to IOS7? Hold on, that’s a different department.
Mariano Rivera has done one thing more or less his entire career. He had come on to pitch the ninth inning — Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blaring over the speakers — with the Yankees in the lead. Now and again, especially in the playoffs, he has been asked to finish off a messy eighth inning or just keep the score tied, but mostly for Rivera it has been one thing and one thing only: Get three outs and turn a lead into a victory. In many ways, it’s an odd job.
Rivera did not ask for this job. He did not train for it. He was a fisherman in Panama. He liked baseball the way many people like baseball. He played shortstop for the local team; he was good enough that a couple of scouts took a look at him. He was not good enough to sign, though. That’s why he worked as a fisherman. He was hoping to become a mechanic. One day, for some reason or another, the team put him on the mound. He looked pretty good out there, even if his fastball topped out at only 83 or 84 mph. A Yankees scout, Herb Raybourn, liked him enough to offer $3,500. Rivera disliked fishing enough to sign. He was 20 years old.
The Yankees made him a starting pitcher. He showed promise. The fastball got faster. But the other pitches didn’t really develop. When Rivera was 25, the Yankees brought him up to start 10 games. His first four starts, he gave up 17 runs 15 innings. It is probably worth noting that in 12 of his 16 seasons as a closer, Rivera gave up fewer than 17 runs. They put him in the bullpen mostly because they didn’t really know what else to do with him.
And then in 1996, in the bullpen, as a middle-man and setup-man, Rivera had one of the great relief-pitcher years ever. He pitched 107 innings, struck out 130, the league hit .189 against him, he gave up one home run all season. One. The transformation was stunning — and perfectly timed. The Yankees won the World Series. The Yankees told Rivera that he was now going to be a one-inning closer.
Mariano Rivera, as he would do throughout his amazing career, nodded and took it in stride.
* * *
1950s: Willie Mays. A perfect fit. America was supercharged, ready to go, big cars, big ideas, sweeping changes – television, Sputnik, Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of the bus – and there was Willie Mays playing baseball like much of America had never seen it before. He could do everything: Hit, field, run, slug, throw. More, he could do everything with style. His cap fell off when he ran. “Say hey!” he would say when he met people and so they called him the “Say Hey Kid.”
* * *
Rivera would say the cutter was a gift from God. He was playing catch one day with buddy and fellow Yankees pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. He tried a new grip. The ball skidded and turned like it was driven by a Hollywood stuntman. What was that? He tried it again. And again the baseball made a hard left turn.
“How did you do that?” Mendoza shouted.
Rivera would always say: He had no idea how. That was the gift from God part. He would try to teach the cutter to other people. But none of them could throw it or, anyway, they could not throw it like he could. His cutter spun away from right-handed bats like Devin Hester in the open field. But, more significantly, his cutter attacked left-hander’s bats, shattered and exploded those bats, turned enough of them into firewood to heat downtown Toledo.
He never needed another pitch. For 16 years, he threw two pitches – his fastball and his cutter — and really it was one pitch because his fastball cut, and his cutter went fast, and the rest were technicalities. The best hitters on earth could not hit him. The numbers boggle the mind.
— His career ERA entering Thursday was 2.21, and the only pitchers even in his neighborhood played when the ball was dead and heavy and spit on.
— His career WHIP – that’s walks-plus-hits per inning pitched – was 1.001 and the only two pitchers with 1,000 innings pitched and a better WHIP are Addie Joss and Ed Walsh, both Deadballers who pitched 100 years ago.
— Of course, he has the record for saves – currently 652, which won’t be broken any time soon or, perhaps, ever. But he is also third all-time for a fun statistic called WPA for “Win Probability Added.” Win Probability is a pretty simple concept. Let’s say your team is up 10-0 with two outs in the ninth inning. Your win probability is pretty close to 100 percent. Then, let’s say the score is tied in the ninth inning, but the other team has a runner on third with nobody out. Now, your win probability is fairly low.
WPA measures how much a player’s performance adds or subtracts from the team’s chances of winning. If you hit the grand slam in the ninth to win the game, you have just hit the WPA jackpot. If you give up that grand slam, you have just bombed your WPA.
Rivera’s WPA is 56.59. Baseball Reference has compiled the statistic since 1945 … and Rivera is third among pitchers behind only Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. You might think: Well, he is a closer so of course his WPA is high. But no reliever is even close to him. Trevor Hoffman is the next highest reliever, and he trails Rivera by more than 22 wins. Almost every starter, even great ones like Tom Seaver and Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax, trail Rivera too.
The league has never hit .250 against Rivera in a season. The league has never managed a .300 on-base percentage. The league has never slugged better than the .355 batters have managed this season. His 4.1-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio is fourth all-time. He has done all of it with two pitches that are really one pitch.
And he has been even better in October.
* * *
1960s: Muhammad Ali. A perfect fit. He was a turbulent man in the most turbulent times. He bragged and preened and stood against the war. He rhymed and floated and stung. He changed his name and made people laugh and demanded his rights and trumpeted his religion. “I’m the king of the world!” he shouted joyfully after he upset Sonny Liston. “What’s my name!” he shouted as he bludgeoned a blinded Ernie Terrell.
* * *
Mariano Rivera, on his glove, has written “Phil 4:13.” This is Philippians 4:13, of course: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He has the verse embroidered on his cleats. He will tell anyone who asks that he pitches for the glory of God, and he will credit everything that has happened to him to God as well.
Faith remains a great dividing line in sports. Tim Tebow’s enthusiastic faith made him both a hero and a lightning rod. Boxers proclaim their faith after pounding another man into submission and kickers proclaim theirs after making game-winning field goals. To many, it’s the proper way to celebrate God. To others, it has no place in the games people play. Roger Kahn, in “The Boys of Summer” tells the story of a batter crossing himself before an at-bat. The catcher that day, Birdie Tebbetts, then crossed himself and said, “OK, it’s all even in the eyes of God, let’s play ball.”
In this, too, Mariano Rivera has walked the straightest line. He is open about his faith but not pushy. He is certain about his values but not judgmental. He is there to talk faith to anyone who wants to ask about it –- and he does this often — but he does not bear down on people who are not interested. I was talking with a friend the other day, a big baseball fan, and mentioned how extraordinary it is that Rivera is so deeply religious and, yet, it has never really been an issue for people.
“He’s religious?” my friend asked.
* * *
1970s: Reggie Jackson. A perfect fit. A war ended. A president resigned. Disco played. Gas lines lengthened. It was about me, all about me, and Reggie wanted a candy bar named for him. So: A candy bar was named for him. He entertained, he infuriated, he called himself the straw the stirred the drink. And in one World Series game, he hit three home runs on three swings. They called him Mr. October.
* * *
Let’s see if we can put Mariano Rivera’s postseason work in proper context with a few numbers. He has appeared in 96 postseason games. He pitched 141 innings. His ERA is 0.70. Yes, that’s a zero in front of the decimal point. It is, of course, the best postseason ERA for anyone who has thrown 40 innings. Sandy Koufax, at 0.95, is next.
OK, let’s try it this way: He gave up two home runs in those 141 innings. Two. He did not allow a single home run in his last 57 postseason appearances.
Maybe these numbers get us there: Batters hit .174 against Mariano Rivera in the postseason. More, they slugged .227. His postseason WHIP is 0.76 – and remember this is over 141 innings pitched. Nobody is even close.
His postseason genius is unparalleled, and still he is charged with blowing five postseason games. He gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar in a 1997 playoff series against Cleveland. He blew a 2-1 lead against Arizona in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series –- in all that inning he committed an error, hit a batter, gave up a single, a double and a bloop single to finish it off. He blew three saves in the 2004 playoffs, two of them to Boston in that famous seven-game series.
Rivera never shied away from his failures. This is another admirable part of Rivera. He had tried. He had been beaten. He moved on to the next challenge. “If I was perfect,” he said once, “I would not be a baseball pitcher.”
* * *
1990s: Michael Jordan. Perfect fit. He was thrilling and clutch and commercial and you could buy his shoes. He lived his private pain publicly, not by choice. He played basketball better than it had ever been played before. After his father was murdered, he quit basketball and tried to play baseball. He was publicly mocked for it. He returned to basketball with more of an edge, and he kept playing with a fury long after his body had started to wilt. Rumors swirled around him constantly. He played through.
* * *
People will always argue about the baseball greatness of Mariano Rivera. Much of the argument depends on the way you view baseball. If you view the ninth inning as a bomb that only the nerviest and most extraordinary people can defuse, then you probably see Rivera as an all-time great. If you view the ninth inning as just another inning, and view closers as specialists not unlike punters, then you might not see him as an all-time great. And there’s a lot of room in between.
But I do wonder if this misses the real story. How does someone close games in New York for 16 years and come out of it adored? How does someone who wears nothing but Yankees pinstripes his entire career — can you even picture Mariano Rivera without his Yankees cap on? — get honored at Fenway Park? How does someone in today’s Twittery, bloggy, First Take, Facebook, chat board, talk radio, GIF-infused world come out of a long career as universally beloved?
See, even people who loathe Mariano Rivera love him.
Scandal? Not a hint of it. Gossip? Never heard any. Embarrassing moments? Didn’t happen. Crisis manager Dan McGinn tells his clients: Biggest, best, most, first. He says that when you are one of those things, you are in the crosshairs, you are in constant danger of a significant fall. Mariano Rivera was all of those things. The biggest moments. The best closer. The most saves. The first option. And he comes out of it all immaculate, a sports legend. The perfect athlete of our time.
* * *
2000s: Mariano Rivera. A perfect fit. We are saturated with sports. We are saturated with entertainment. We are saturated with opinions. People go to crazy extremes to be noticed. They twerk. They bloviate. They outrage.
And, funny, when I think of Rivera, I think of a nothing game in Kansas City in 2004.
Sure, I was there for Rivera’s World Series brilliance, for much of his postseason excellence. I was there when he compelled Mike Piazza to fly out and knocked out the Mets in the 2000 World Series, and I was there a year later when he gave up the game in Arizona, and I was there when he pitched the last inning and two-thirds to finish off Philadelphia in 2009.
Still, somehow, the memory that lingers is of a meaningless game in Kansas City. The Royals were terrible, the Yankees were dominant, and New York led, 3-0, going into the ninth inning. It almost seemed a waste to use Rivera – like bringing out Meryl Streep for an elementary school play in Poughkeepsie –- but Yankees manager Joe Torre did anyway. Rivera grazed Ken Harvey with the second pitch he threw.
Rivera threw five more pitches in the game. That’s all. The first three struck out Calvin Pickering. The second pitch he threw to Desi Relaford turned into a double play grounder. It was so easy, so impossibly easy. Just about anybody could have finished off the Royals that day. But somehow, Rivera did in a way that, almost 10 years later, I still remember.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports.
Is the Game Over?
By Jonathan Mahler, September 28, 2013
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL is doing just fine. Unlike the N.F.L. and the N.B.A., it has been free of labor strife for nearly 20 years. It has more exciting young stars than I can ever remember. It has even achieved that elusive “competitive balance,” with seven different champions over the last decade. Teams across the country are playing in brand-new ballparks that they somehow persuaded local governments to help pay for. Over the last 20 years, baseball revenues have grown from roughly $1 billion to nearly $8 billion.
The game, in other words, has never been healthier. So why does it feel so irrelevant?
Maybe the best evidence of this admittedly unscientific observation is the national TV ratings. There’s no sense comparing baseball’s numbers to football’s, which exist in a whole other Nielsen’s stratosphere. But baseball is losing ground to pro basketball, too. In 2012, the N.B.A.’s regular season ratings on ABC were nearly double those of Major League Baseball on Fox. The last eight years have produced the seven least-watched World Series on record.
More to the point, baseball seems simply to have fallen out of the national conversation (unless the conversation happens to be about steroids, that is). The last time baseball felt front and center, culturally speaking, was the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. And we all know how that turned out.
What happened — is happening — to our national pastime? For all the moral hysteria, the answer, I think, has little or nothing to do with performance-enhancing drugs. It does have a lot to do with the broader cultural trends that have helped shape modern America. (We are talking about baseball, after all.)
Think for a moment about the very phrase “national pastime” now, in 2013. What sorts of images does it conjure? “It sounds like a guy sitting on a rocking chair on his porch listening to a game on the radio and maybe he’s whittling,” says Bob Costas of NBC.
As crazy as it sounds, baseball was once celebrated for its speed. Into the 1910s — before all of the commercial breaks and visits to the mound — it was possible to play a game in under an hour, says the author Kevin Baker, who is writing a history of baseball in New York City.
To the game’s early poets, baseball’s fast pace was what made it distinctly American. Mark Twain called it a symbol of “the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!” The 21st century, not so much.
Paradoxically, baseball’s decline began at the very moment we think of as its golden age, the 1950s and ’60s. The game held the country’s almost undivided attention. Baseball’s heroes were America’s heroes. Yet the forces that would undermine the game’s cultural supremacy had already been set in motion.
FOR all the pastoral gloss we like to smear on baseball — hey, is that Shoeless Joe emerging from those cornfields? — it was historically an urban game. The national pastime first took hold not in small-town America but in the industrial Northeast, which had the density of population to fill stadiums. Before the 1950s, baseball had 16 franchises in 10 cities, not one of them west or south of St. Louis.
But the same highways that led Americans south and west also pushed professional baseball into new territory: between 1961 and 1998, the number of franchises almost doubled.
You might think that spreading baseball across the country would be good for the game, and in some ways it was: more franchises equaled more spectators. In the process, though, a lot of teams wound up in cities without deep roots in the game.
This could be problematic for any sport, let alone one as obsessed with its history as baseball. Witness awkward spectacles like “Turn Back the Clock Night” at Tropicana Field, the Tampa Bay Rays’ annual attempt to whip up interest among its putative fan base. (How does a franchise that sprang to life during the Clinton administration go retro? By wearing the old uniforms of other teams, of course!)
Baseball’s never-ending nostalgia trip has made it an inherently conservative sport, one that’s forever straining to live up to its own mythology. This year, not a single contemporary player was voted into the Hall of Fame because so many eligible players were suspected of steroid use. Never mind that Cooperstown has its share of racists, wife beaters and even a drug dealer. (To say nothing of the spitballers.)
Expansion also helped ensure that baseball would become a largely regional sport. Economically, this has been great: local TV deals are where the money is. It’s been good for fans, too: They can now watch their hometown team play most of its games.
The downside is that only a handful of franchises can claim any sort of national profile. When the postseason rolls around and it’s time for baseball to take the national stage — well, it doesn’t, unless the Yankees or the Red Sox are involved. “If Tampa Bay plays Cincinnati in the World Series, I don’t care if the series goes seven games and every game goes into extra innings, baseball is screwed,” says Mr. Costas. “That’s not fair to the Rays or the Reds, but it’s true.”
It doesn’t help that the postseason starts in early October, which means it’s going up against a new season of TV shows and — yes — football.
You can’t talk about the decline of baseball without also talking about the parallel rise of the N.F.L. We’re a sports-crazed culture, gorging on the all-you-can-watch buffet of ESPN, fantasy leagues and video games. But even the 24-hour sports cycle lasts only 24 hours. Decisions must be made, and they invariably favor football. Not only is “Madden NFL 25” America’s hottest sports video game; fantasy football has far surpassed fantasy baseball in popularity.
The N.F.L. has certain structural advantages over Major League Baseball: teams play only once a week, and when the postseason arrives, every game is an elimination game. But its real advantage is that it’s louder, faster and more violent — which is to say, better in tune with our cultural moment. “We are a shouting culture now, shouting connotes excitement and engenders excitement,” says Daniel Okrent, who is considered the founding father of fantasy baseball. “Baseball is quiet and slow.”
It’s telling that professional football has been around for about 100 years, but that it didn’t find cultural traction until the age of television.
If baseball was a game you followed, football was one you watched. Beneath the surface, it was an enormously complicated sport. But the passing, the running, the tackling? This was great television. And under the lights, on Monday nights, with Howard Cosell making you feel like the country’s fate hung in the balance of even the most meaningless game? Forget about it.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the role that TV has played in determining our taste in sports. College football took off after a 1984 Supreme Court decision that allowed the networks to flood the market with college games. The N.C.A.A. basketball tournament has been around for 75 years, but it was CBS’s “March Madness” that made it a cultural phenomenon. Now even the president fills out a tournament bracket.
THE increasing interest in college football and basketball fed the increasing interest in the two pro sports. Both the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. drafts are now mega-TV events. And the baseball draft? You can follow along on the MLB Network. Chances are you won’t recognize a single name.
Why has college baseball failed to attract any meaningful interest? Mostly because there are already so many professional baseball games to watch. Or not watch. (Earlier this month, an Astros game had a .04 Nielsen rating in the Houston area, which translates to about 1,000 viewers.)
Baseball’s ubiquity was once its great advantage. With its 162-game season, it was the default sport; there was always a baseball game on. There still is, it’s just that now there are so many alternatives. And not just live games; you have SportsCenter and its countless highlight-aggregating imitators, too.
Sports are now as much a part of our popular culture as movies, TV shows or pop music. Athletes aren’t icons, they’re celebrities, and are marketed accordingly, which explains why there’s a course at Harvard Business School that studies LeBron James.
Yet for the most part, baseball stars haven’t really managed to transcend their local markets. To some extent, this is a byproduct of the steroid era; baseball’s zealous pursuit of juicers has torn down a lot of legends in the making. It’s also the nature of the game, which doesn’t lend itself as easily to superstardom as basketball. (Imagine LeBron going 3-for-4 and having that be considered a memorable performance.)
But baseball has also failed to sell its young stars to the broader public. There may be a wariness to do so, a sense that “branding” is undignified for our national pastime. It doesn’t help that the game has no pop-culture ambassadors to speak of — no Lil Wayne or Jay-Z. Look at the audience of an average N.B.A. postseason game and you’ll find a gallery of familiar faces; look at one of baseball’s, and you’ll find the strategically placed stars of the latest Fox sitcom.
Much has been made of the declining participation of African-Americans in baseball. Less has been said about the trickle-down effects of this in an era when hip-hop is such a powerful tastemaker in American culture. Baseball is not cool.
Can it be again? By all means. Sports rise and fall in cultural relevance. Football reigns supreme now, but given everything we are learning about its dangers, that could change. People are moving back into cities, which could work to baseball’s benefit, too. Also, the Chicago Cubs will presumably make it to the World Series again someday. People will want to see that.
For that matter, it’s fair to wonder how golden baseball’s golden age really was — and how much our perception of that era is just a function of baby-boomer nostalgia. After all, when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run on Oct. 1, 1961, Yankee Stadium wasn’t even half full. “I don’t think the game is fading,” says Will Leitch, a senior writer for Sports on Earth. “I think the notion of what the game is supposed to stand for is fading.”
That may prove to be a good thing for baseball. Maybe a new generation of fans won’t grow up thinking the game represents something more than it is. Maybe baseball will stop auditioning for another chapter in the Ken Burns saga. Maybe baseball can just be baseball. Yes, it’s quiet and slow, but if you hang in there, through all of the pitching changes and batting-glove adjustments, you might get caught up in the drama. If you don’t, there’s plenty else to watch.
Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Bloomberg View and the author of “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.”
Correction: October 6, 2013
An earlier version of this essay misstated Major League Baseball’s income. Over the last 20 years its revenues — not profits — have grown to nearly $8 billion from about $1 billion.9 months ago