Note to self: Never launch another book tour with a Red Sox season potentially going down in flames.
In my defense, back in mid-August (when we were planning the tour), the Sox seemed to be pulling away in the East, with New York's shaky hopes resting on the shoulders of unproven scrubs like Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon. Curt Schilling was rounding into shape. Keith Foulke was due back any day. Two fireballing youngsters (Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Hansen) were looming as genuine X-factors for the stretch run, a rarity for a franchise that never has fireballing youngsters ready for stretch runs. Manny Ramirez seemed invigorated by his trade-deadline saga, giving the Sox some much-needed protection behind Roy Hobbs -- er, Big Papi. All the dead weight was gone: Alan Embree, Mark Bellhorn, Wade Miller ... basically, everyone but Dale Sveum.
"So you're OK with starting the tour that final week?" they asked me.
"Yeah, absolutely," I told them. "I bet we clinch before it even starts."
Five weeks later, Chacon and Small had pulled a collective Kurt Warner on us (seriously, who could have predicted that one?), and in the words of Teddy KGB, the Yankees were still han-ging around ... han-ging around. They kept winning Those Games -- you know, those goofy games when somebody like Bubba Crosby hits a walk-off homer at Yankee Stadium, then runs around the bases in disbelief. Once Jason Giambi started hitting again, the Yanks suddenly looked like the most dangerous team in the American League. They certainly had the bats. They were getting the pitching. They had the eighth and ninth innings covered with Gordon and Rivera. And they wouldn't stop winning Those Games.
Meanwhile, by the second week of September, the Red Sox looked dead.
And I don't mean "dead" in the we-can't-make-the-playoffs sense. Watching the games, watching the body language, watching the little stuff -- the way someone chased a fly ball, the way a batter stretched his back between pitches, even the conversations in the dugout -- these guys were carrying themselves like an NFL team coming off a plane after a double-OT playoff game. After playing fourteen extra playoff games last season (including the debilitating Yankee series, which pretty much ruined Schilling and Foulke for 2005), battling numerous injuries and playing five months of "We're the champs and we have a big bull's-eye on us!" games, they were wearing down. You could see it.
The Gladwell-like tipping point happened on Labor Day, during a rainout makeup game against Chicago -- originally a much-needed off day -- when the White Sox passed through town for, like, six hours and found more than enough time to dominate Boston at Fenway. That was the "uh-oh" moment. I remember calling my buddy Hench and asking, "Do we look dead to you?" He couldn't have agreed fast enough. So when the next three weeks played out so predictably -- the Yankees making their charge, finally passing the Red Sox last week -- no real Sox fan was that surprised. You could see it coming.
The question remained: Could they hold on for a playoff spot?
This week, they looked finished. I monitored Tuesday's loss during a New York City signing at a bar filled with Red Sox fans ... you could feel the energy slowly drain from the place as the Blue Jays kept putting up runs. On Wednesday, I had a signing in Stamford, Conn., that started at 7 p.m. ET. Maybe a half-hour in, you could hear concerned murmurs from people in line who were catching updates on their cell phones. Down 2-0 ... Yankees just scored again ... oh, boy, the Jays scored again. I started signing books with tags like, "Keep the faith in 2005," if only because it seemed like the right thing to do. Deep down, I hated myself for agreeing to the tour in the first place. This wasn't how I imagined the season ending, sitting behind a table and signing my name on a book called "Now I Can Die In Peace" ... and wondering where the peace was. Didn't we win last year? Why did I feel sick?
That Wednesday game was particularly discouraging, a devastating 7-2 defeat to an aimless Blue Jays team. It wasn't just the loss, either. In the latter innings, in which the Fenway fans had been rallying behind these guys all season -- and simply because they always fought back, regardless of the score -- this time, everyone sat glumly in their seats, like kids trapped on a crummy vacation, feeding off the discernible lack of energy from the players. The next day, my old friend Strollin' Jim Nolan described the atmosphere as "funereal." And it was.
Everywhere you looked, the wheels seemed to be coming off. On Wednesday morning, following Schilling's discouraging collapse against the Jays at Fenway, the Globe ran a Schilling feature that delved into his unhappy 2005 season -- marred not only by his physical problems but also his profound disappointment in the way he had been treated by some of the fans, writers and even teammates. And he was right. The guy made an incredible sacrifice last October, jeopardized the twilight years of his career, tried to come back, anyway, struggled famously ... and he was still taking heat in certain corners (including an unnamed teammate who griped about a double standard for Schilling in Boston).
"Somebody on this team wants me to get booed to make them feel better, and that really bothers me a lot," Schilling told the Globe. "Those are the kinds of things that really make me look at this game and understand when I'm done in the game, I'll be done with the game ... if we get into the postseason and do well and win again, it will still never be like last year. Nothing will be like last year."
So much for the five-year grace period.
Reading that Schilling article actually made me sad; it seemed like a defining "loss of innocence" moment for anyone touched by the 2004 team.
From the moment Theo Epstein and the owners decided to tinker with a championship foundation -- leading to Derek Lowe, Dave Roberts and Orlando Cabrera heading to California and Pedro Martinez heading to New York -- I started worrying that 2005 would somehow affect my feelings for 2004, when everything crested for 12 unforgettable days, culminating in Schilling hoisting a champagne bottle and making his, "To the greatest Red Sox team ever!" toast. Eleven months later, Schilling sounded like a broken man, like he had sorely overestimated the bond between the guys on a championship team as well as the bond between a World Series hero and the city that allegedly revered him for pushing his body beyond its limits. You couldn't blame him if he didn't like playing baseball as much as he once did.
But that's been one of the casualties of last season: a loss of innocence. Like so many Sox fans, I assumed everything would fundamentally change after they won, that nine decades of negativity would be washed away. And like many Sox fans, I underestimated the ability of the local media to prevent that from happening. Regardless of last year's championship, they still need to sell newspapers and radio advertising, so they keep stirring the same crap up. For instance, the great Foulke, who threw almost 100 pitches during the last four games of the ALCS, was suddenly a selfish jerk for not getting knee surgery last winter (shades of Cedric Maxwell costing the 1985 Celtics a championship), becoming talk-show fodder for the entire summer. Did he make a mistake? Absolutely. Did he deserve to be ripped from pillar to post? Absolutely not.
(Note: During the last few weeks, with his season going down the drain, Foulke's paid weekly appearances on WEEI's "Dale and Holley" show were so painful, I started getting e-mails about it, so I decided to listen to one of them -- poor Foulke sounded about as upbeat as Billy Bob Thornton in "Sling Blade." Soon after, they scrapped the segment.)
The biggest problem was how most local media members made careers of gleefully seizing on unhappy situations -- that was the easiest way for them to push buttons, so that's what they did. Essentially useless during the honeymoon period after a Red Sox championship, they waited and waited ... then came after some of the players with both barrels. Foulke was an ingrate for not getting surgery. Bellhorn couldn't handle the pressure in Boston. Schilling only cares about himself and his legacy. Manny is selfish and lazy. On and on it went. And with the Red Sox commanding such a stranglehold on the summer in New England, many fans got caught up in this crap -- with the suffocating weather probably not helping anyone's sanity.
Somehow, Theo Epstein and Terry Francona escaped the wrath of the fans, even though their performances over the last 10 months have been lackluster at best. In particular, Theo greatly misjudged the sources of energy that helped make last year's team so unflappable -- Pedro keeping everyone loose in the dugouts on off days, Cabrera's spectacular defense and noticeable vigor at shortstop, Lowe's general wackiness, even the standing ovation that Roberts would have gotten for every appearance at Fenway. Throw that in with Kevin Millar's loss of confidence, Schilling's struggles, the departure of Embree and the recent injury to Gabe Kapler (two popular clubhouse guys), as well as some somber new faces (including the rookies, John Olerud, Alex Cora and the mortally serious Edgar Renteria), and there's just a different feel to this year's team.
Did Theo (and Francona) get lucky last year? I was wondering about that as I read an advance copy of David Halberstam's superb book about Bill Belichick, some of which delves into Belichick's logic behind putting together these recent Patriots teams. Belichick makes a point of avoiding cap-crippling deals, searching for character guys, clearly defining everyone's roles, and keeping some semblance of a year-to-year nucleus in place -- the proven winners who teach everyone else how to win.
Put it this way...
1. Belichick never would have gone near Renteria. Ever. Not in a million years. Either he would have signed Cabrera for $10 million to $12 million less, or he would have rolled the dice with David Eckstein as a significantly cheaper stopgap. And if he knew he was stuck with Renteria for three more years, he would have dispatched someone to Colombia to find Edgar's birth certificate by now, since that document would almost definitely reveal that he's between 38 and 43 (translation: contract breach!).
2. Belichick would have understood Pedro's significance on and off the field, as well as: (A) Pedro's desire for an extension last season (which was about pride more than anything), (B) the lack of reliable starters on the market that December, (C) Pedro's potential appeal to a big-market team that would overpay for him (like the Mets) ... and he would have signed him to a fair extension last year. I don't think Pedro was worth $54 million for four years, but they could have had him for Schilling money last year. To sign one and expect the other to stick around was downright dumb, if that was even the intention in the first place (personally, I think they wanted him out).
3. Belichick wouldn't have wasted the team's time, money or energy on an iffy reclamation project like Wade Miller, if only because he doesn't like distractions and "if that guy can help us soon..." scenarios. For further explanation, just ask Andre Davis and David Terrell.
4. Belichick would have brought Roberts back. There's no question. He would have promised him 350-400 at-bats, known there was no way Trot Nixon and Manny and Johnny Damon were staying healthy for an entire season, and figured out a way to work him into three or four games a week, with Roberts looming as a base-stealing threat for the other games. I would wager my life on this.
5. Belichick would have done the David Wells signing but avoided Matt Clement.
6. This season, Belichick never would have stuck with Bellhorn, Millar, Foulke and Embree for that long out of "loyalty" -- they weren't doing the job, it was obvious, and he would have found someone else as soon as possible. And while we're here, if a potential asset like Jay Payton were on a Belichick team, he would have understood that Payton needed at-bats to be happy -- he never would have jerked him around like that, because the repercussions were obvious to anyone who knew anything about Payton's career.
7. You know how the Yanks ended up getting lucky with Small and Chacon? Well, I'm guessing the baseball version of Belichick would have gotten lucky with someone. Theo landed Olerud and Tony Graffanino but failed to help the pitching staff in any way, shape or form. That's on him, isn't it?
8. I hate saying this, but Manny would be long gone. Belichick wouldn't have put up with that crap. By the way, I don't necessarily agree with this -- baseball is a much different sport than football; you can win with a loose cannon like Manny. I'm just telling you what he would have done -- he's the same guy who dumped Terry Glenn five years ago when the coach had only two other decent receivers.
Here's the point: Belichick has a plan. He sticks to it. He knows what he's doing. He doesn't waste money, doesn't waste time, doesn't waste chances to win a title, doesn't let anyone get in the way. This year's Red Sox team has been a mess from the beginning -- if it wasn't for Big Papi's endless bag of heroic moments, they probably would have finished .500 for the season -- and the future seems even more nebulous because they have to overhaul more than half the roster, only they have nearly $100 million in potential commitments to 10 players next season (Manny, Renteria, Ortiz, Foulke, Schilling, Clement, Nixon, Varitek, Wakefield and Wells) ... and Damon isn't even signed yet.
So why haven't the manager and the front office taken just as much heat as the players this season? You got me.
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On the bright side, we still have the magical David Ortiz.
It's impossible to describe what has unfolded with him over these past 12 months, as he evolved from "Popular Slugger" to "Clutch Hitter Extraordinaire" to "Local Legend" to "Resident Boston Pantheon Member." I watched Larry Bird carrying an impossibly banged-up Celtics team to within two victories of the 1987 title, basically willing them to keep winning, never imagining anything like that could happen in Boston again.
Well, it's happening again.
In fact, I get the chills just writing about the guy. He keeps you watching a 9-4 loss-in-the-making in the ninth inning, just because four guys might get on and there's a chance he's coming up. He keeps you shaking your head every time someone's dumb enough to pitch to him in a big spot. He makes you call your friends just to ask, "Can you believe this?" -- and only because you're not even sure you're watching it yourself. Back in May, I remember his slamming a B.J. Ryan pitch into Fenway's center-field bleachers to win a game -- an afternoon game, against a lefty, no less -- and thinking to myself, "This is the greatest clutch hitter I have ever watched." And that was about 20-25 clutch hits ago.
Here's the best way I can describe Ortiz: He's like watching those freakish kids in Little League, the ones who are 4-5 inches and 40 pounds heavier than everyone else, the ones who make you think, "Wait a second, how old is that kid, 16?" You know how those kids slam a game-winning homer, then get mobbed at the plate by teammates who are much smaller and much less cool, and they have that "come on, what did you expect, I'm much better than anyone else" look on their faces? That's Big Papi. He's a man among boys. Appearing four or five times per game -- and that's it -- he still manages to have a bigger impact, day in and day out, than any Red Sox player I have ever watched.
During Thursday night's game, I was driving home from Worcester, Mass., with my father after yet another signing (this time, at Holy Cross). With the Sox trailing, 4-3, heading in the bottom of the eighth, we were talking about the signing during a commercial, forgetting to listen for the game coming back on. So one of us was in mid-sentence when we heard one of the announcers screaming...
"THERE IT GOES, WAY BACK, HEADED INTO THE MONSTER SEATS...
"AND IT'S GONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Big Papi. Again.
You can't turn your back on him, not even for a second.
In the ninth inning, Ortiz came up with runners on first and second and one out. Stupidly, the Blue Jays decided to pitch to him. Apparently they don't have scouts. One RBI single later, the Red Sox were celebrating again, the season was still alive and Yankees were coming to town.
As my father and I exchanged awkward high fives, we were pulling into the city on the Mass Pike. In the distance, you could see the lights from Fenway shining brightly, one of those goofy, movie-like moments you don't forget. Big Papi hadn't just saved the season, he reinvigorated it.
Now it's coming down to one weekend -- the Yankees invading Fenway Park -- the latest chapter in a rivalry that grows more unbelievable by the year. If the Yankees ultimately prevail, their fans have a winter of "you guys got lucky, normalcy has returned" barbs ready to go. If the Red Sox ultimately prevail, we have a winter of "how are you guys enjoying the new status quo?" comments ready to go. Either way, I guess I'm never dying in peace, because this feud with the Yankees is much deeper and more personal than I ever imagined. I want to beat them. I always want to beat them. I will never stop wanting to beat them. And everyone else feels the same way.
Hey, maybe they have a better team ... but we have Big Papi, Wakefield and a weekend's worth of "MVP!" chants up our sleeves. After 11 months of celebrating the first Red Sox championship in 86 years, it's time to finally defend it.
See you at Fenway.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" hits bookstores on Oct. 1 and is available right now on Amazon.com.