IT’S BEEN A YEAR-LONG PARADE of underdogs, resurrections, and redemptions, with many a misguided notion reconsidered, revised, and upended in its wake. We accepted Bay would never be Manny (but we didn’t know what a blessing that would be). The “faithful” were certain Varitek was done, or at least believed the Sox should be done with him. Nick Green was in AAA hoping to get signed in Japan someday – maybe – if he worked at it hard enough. Wakefield was 41 years old and All-Star-less for every one of them. Brad Penny and John Smoltz weren’t even on the radar. And Big Papi was laid to rest. A lot’s changed since the previous All-Star Break, and more will change by the next one, making now a good time to savor the standings – which show the Boston Red Sox with the best record in the American League, leading their division by three games over the New York Yankees.
WELL, WHEN YOU PUT IT LIKE THAT, it doesn’t sound good at all. Adam Kilgore gives us the rundown on the Nats’ season so far:
Plenty of teams lose bundles of games. Only the 2009 Washington Nationals saw their bombastic general manager resign during spring training, played part of one game not televised locally, and sent their franchise player on to the field wearing a uniform with the team name misspelled.
This one is definitely worth reading all the way through, at least for little gems like this:
The twin culprits of Washington’s season have been rotten defense (a league-high 64 errors) and the gas-can bullpen (a league-high 16 blown saves). “We’ve seen a lot of things you’ve never seen in baseball,’’ Acta said.
THE IMPROBABLE RISE OF NICK GREEN is the news of the day. Spring training began with franchise future Jed Lowrie and big contract veteran Julio Lugo battling it out for the starting shortstop position — both eventually ending up on the disabled list. So, in movie plot fashion*, the unknown utility man steps out of the shadows and onto center stage . . . and things go just okay:
“I can’t tell you that on the first day of spring training I envisioned him playing shortstop for us,” said Terry Francona. “That’s not the case.”
Nor would it be the case early in the season, when Green was leading the majors in shortstop errors, including one throw in Seattle that the skipper recalled “went halfway up the bleachers.”
All season long, fans have been lamenting the black hole in the 6 position. (Actually, it’s been like that ever since the team let Orlando Cabrera go after the 2004 championship season.) But Greenie keeps plugging away, and then, in an instant, something crazy happens – a walk-off home run in the most unlikely circumstances – and an underrated player’s value to the team takes sudden, perfect form:
As Nick Green pulled around second base, the baseball having tucked itself into the right-field corner behind the Pesky Pole, he noticed a commotion at the plate. Amid the mist and fog and wind that turned a Sunday in June into a day ripped from March, the player doing his best to excise the interim tag from his position had lofted the first pitch he saw from Jeff Bennett into the elements.
He didn’t know that it had the means to get out, at least not off the bat. But the wind was drawing it deeper, the fly ball yielding to Fenway Park’s quirky dimensions and lifting the crowd of 37,243 in celebration.
The home run catches everyone by surprise, including Green:
“To be honest with you, I didn’t realize what was going on,” Green said. “I didn’t even comprehend the fact that I had swung at the first pitch and it was a walkoff. I just knew that we still had to hit. When I hit second base, everybody’s standing at home plate, then I realized what was going on . . . .”
The stat-minded fellas at YFSF.org point out that Green didn’t even play in the majors last season — he was languishing in the Yankees’ AAA affiliate in Scranton all last year. Then they look at his numbers as a member of this year’s Red Sox starting nine, and uncover his remarkable contribution:
More than just the surprising turnaround is the timing of his hits.
Entering today’s game, Green was hitting .409/.500/.545 with runners in scoring position, .364/.434/.530 with men on, .373/.418/.549 with two outs, .500/.560/.636 with runners in scoring position and two outs, .308/.379/.500 with the game tied and .330/.390/.479 when the game is within two runs.
Following a player’s ups and downs over the course of a season is part of what makes watching a baseball team rewarding and fun. On the night of Fenway Park’s 500th consecutive sellout, Brad Penny’s 100th career win, and the anniversary of Ted Williams’ 500th home run, John Henry offered his own appreciation of what makes baseball a uniquely quotidian pursuit:
“It’s remarkable,” owner John Henry wrote in an e-mail. “There is a love associated with this franchise that transcends sports. The great thing about following a baseball team very closely is that it’s an everyday pursuit. We follow all of our own personal stories day to day – our kids, our spouses, this baseball team – there is a continuity of hopes, surprises, joy – all the daily ups and downs of the Red Sox provide a backdrop that is often a respite or enhancement for everything in the foreground . . . .”
So Green’s dinger isn’t just a turning point in an isolated game, it’s another twist and turn in a longer story that started in Spring and will hopefully continue into the Fall. But right now, it’s just nice to know RemDawg approves.
*For fun, first read Bob Ryan’s take on the Nick Green story, and see how many “Blockbuster, I’m tellin’ ya’s” you can get through without imagining an old-timey huckster chomping on a cigar and twitching his big bushy eyebrows. Then erase that from your mind and go read Amalie Benjamin’s game wrap for real baseball poetry.
UPDATE 08/27/09: Nick Green’s pitching line: no hits, no runs, three walks, 35 pitches, 13 strikes, one slider, 0.00 ERA.
HOW DOES THE GREEN MONSTER COMPARE in height with the Statue of Liberty? How long did it take for each Major League Baseball team to break the color line? What percentage of the Cleveland population do the Indians really represent? What happens when you mash up seldom considered (and sometimes whimsical) baseball stats with the magic of infographics? You get Flip Flop Fly Ball. From the people (okay, guy) who brought you the wonder of Minipops, now you can really see how much seats at the new Yankee Stadium cost compared to the rest of the league – via the elegance and beauty of bar graphs.
The best way I can describe Fenway during any Papi at-bat is this: It’s filled with 35,000 parents of the same worst kid in Little League who dread every pitch thrown in the kid’s direction. There is constant fear and sadness and helplessness. Nobody knows what to do.
Fans may not know what to do, but they know what not to do:
It’s been a sports experience unlike anything I can remember. Red Sox fans refuse to turn against Ortiz. They just can’t. They owe him too much for 2004 and 2007. It’s like turning on Santa Claus or happy hour. Every Ortiz appearance is greeted with supportive cheers, every Ortiz failure is greeted with awkward silence. The fans are suffering just like he is.
Ortiz’s futility has been a terrible thing to watch in the middle of what has been an otherwise promising season. But as gruesome as it’s been, it’s also somewhat heartening to see the fans stick by him. Luckily, we don’t have to make out the lineup card every day. It’s probably much more difficult for the Red Sox skipper to stick by him – but stick by him he does:
Francona also took some time yesterday with David Ortiz, who has been a shell of the hitter he has been in the past. Ortiz went into the game with a .208 average, .600 OPS, and zero home runs. So Francona gave him a pep talk of the kind he rarely has had to give in their tenure together.
“I’ve been standing there for five years patting him on the fanny as he runs by driving in all those runs and winning games for us,” Francona said. “Now, when he needs a little help, I don’t want to be the one to abandon him.”
Sure, we love Papi for all the big hits he made in the past, though it has more to do with the feelings we experienced in those moments rather than the exact number of runs driven in. (Let’s also not forget that by all accounts he’s a genuinely nice and fun-loving person.) Anyway, you certainly can’t boo the man responsible for this kind of joy.
UPDATE: After a month of encouraging swings, YFSF.org takes a look at evidence that suggests previous reports of the death of Big Papi’s bat may have been greatly exaggerated.
IT WAS A GOOD NIGHT IN THE FENS, with a Major League record-tying 12 putouts by the center fielder, two home runs by the captain, and four home runs in an inning — including one by the designated hitter:
Before David Ortiz finally ended the longest homerless streak of his career, he got some words of encouragement from his dad.
Enrique Ortiz had flown into town on Tuesday and “told me, `Hey, son, it’s not going to get worse than this so go out there, have fun and forget about what happened,” Ortiz recalled.
It may be tough to hear your father say you’ve hit bottom, but Ortiz said he kept that in mind Wednesday night when he hit his first homer in 150 at-bats in the Boston Red Sox’s 8-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I tried it all. I was about to hit right-handed,” the lefty slugger said.
THE AMAZIN’ METS seem to be foregoing their traditional season-end implosion by peaking early and putting the suck on well ahead of the All-Star break – all in spectacular fashion, of course. And although I don’t usually go for the “bummed out beat reporter’s bitter tirade” schtick, Ben Shpigel of the New York Times is penning gloriously dry and downtrodden accounts of the team’s most recent woes with fun quips, like: “Making the simple difficult since 1962 — that could be the Mets’ motto.” Here’s some more from Shpigel’s story on a 5-error, 11-inning debacle, which included a runner missing third base on his way home:
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Carlos Beltran said.
And neither had anyone else. To be fair, [Jerry] Manuel said he had seen his former charges, the Chicago White Sox, commit five errors, not that he was boasting of that achievement or anything. But no, he had never seen a player completely miss tagging third base on his way home as [Ryan] Church did in the top of the 11th. That gaffe canceled what would have been the go-ahead run, ended the inning and breathed life into the Dodgers. Not that, on this night, they needed any extra help. The five errors were the Mets’ most since they committed six on Sept. 16, 2007, against Philadelphia.
“The guy missed third base, that’s unbelievable,” Manuel said. “I can’t explain why or how or anything, but he actually missed the base. To me, it’s just hard to miss third base . . . .”
That exceptional display of baseball prowess was immediately followed by another very bad outing the very next day. Shpigel leads the recap with this:
The Mets showed up for work at Dodger Stadium early Tuesday afternoon, eager to give this baseball thing another try. They hit. They caught. They fielded. And they threw a little, too. It all may have helped, as they committed one error instead of five, and managed to touch third base every time on their journeys home.
What they could not do Tuesday night was pitch . . . .
And clearly, the previous day’s incredulous loss still stings, as Shpigel throws another jab or two where he can:
Before the game, the Mets refrained from holding tutorials on touching third base, perhaps because the clip of Church stepping over it in the 11th inning Monday night was broadcast roughly 412 times.
The Mets are in no way done for the season — they’re just one game out of first in their division, after all. But it’s been fun following their hijinks in the paper, even if it’s probably painful to witness in person. And, hey, at least they’re not the Nats.
ROGER EBERT BLOGS ANTICHRIST, another fun-filled romp by Lars von Trier, aka crazy man. (I believe von Trier and Werner Herzog compete for that title year to year.) I only read the beginnings of these Ebert posts, but will return to them if I ever actually get around to seeing the movie, which I’ve naturally become a teensy bit wary of, considering it’s being described as a mildly traumatic life experience. Here’s Ebert after the premiere at Cannes:
There’s electricity in the air. Every seat is filled, even the little fold-down seats at the end of every row. It is the first screening of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” and we are ready for anything. We’d better be. Von Trier’s film goes beyond malevolence into the monstrous. Never before have a man and woman inflicted more pain upon each other in a movie. We looked in disbelief. There were piteous groans. Sometimes a voice would cry out, “No!” At certain moments there was nervous laughter. When it was all over, we staggered up the aisles. Manohla Dargis, the merry film critic of The New York Times, confided that she left softly singing “That’s Entertainment!”
If, as they say, you are not prepared for “disturbing images,” I advise you to just just stop reading now….
And then his follow-up two days later:
Lars von Trier’s new film will not leave me alone. A day after many members of the audience recoiled at its first Cannes showing, “Antichrist” is brewing a scandal here; I am reminded of the tumult following the 1976 premiere of Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” and its castration scene. I said I was looking forward to von Trier’s overnight reviews, and I haven’t been disappointed. Those who thought it was good thought it was very very good (“Something completely bizarre, massively uncommercial and strangely perfect”— Damon Wise, Empire) and those who thought it was bad found it horrid (“Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with ‘Antichrist'” — Todd McCarthy, Variety).
Enough time has passed since I saw the film for me to process my visceral reaction, and take a few steps back….
All this before an actual review.
IN THE WAKE OF THE EPIC MANNY BUMMER, let us focus only on the good things. Like, when Ellsbury, in a fit of daring, all of a sudden decided to steal home against the Yankees:
The plate beckoned. Jacoby Ellsbury, creeping farther off third base as Andy Pettitte delivered his second pitch to J.D. Drew, saw the situation clearly. The pitcher was throwing from the windup, the lefthander’s back to third base, the third baseman playing off the bag, the bases loaded.
So on the next pitch, Ellsbury was three-quarters of the way down the line before Pettitte noticed him, the pitch coming as fast as he could throw it to catcher Jorge Posada. Ellsbury was coming, too, then sliding, head-first after a brief stumble, as Drew stood watching. Posada’s tag was futile.
Ellsbury had stolen home in the fifth inning, the highlight of the Red Sox’ 4-1 win last night and a series sweep of the Yankees.
The roar was deafening, even though the crowd of 38,154 at Fenway Park seemingly was having trouble realizing what it had just seen. This was better even than his tear for home from second base on a wild pitch in his rookie season, the one that made them think he was a god on the base paths. It was simply brilliant.
And Pettitte had never even looked over.
Let’s just make sure not to dwell too long on the likelihood that steals are becoming a bigger part of the game because teams are compensating for the significant drop in dingers that go along with stringent drug testing. Let’s instead look towards the Bronx and the fancy new stadium with its ludicrously overpriced seats, “mallpark” atmosphere, and other fan-unfriendly features, like employees who literally leave paying fans out in the rain. A little schadenfreude goes a long way. But the troubles in the Yankee empire don’t just warm the cockles of the heart for their own sake. They also remind us to appreciate an ownership and a franchise that fans can happily get behind — if for no other reason than the invaluable gift of a new old Fenway:
“There are those who want to build the Eighth Wonder of the World,” Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox’ president and chief executive, told me Friday. “We just wanted to preserve a nice little old ballpark.”
So even though the ghosts of ownerships past continue to haunt Yawkey Way, and more upsetting disclosures may be just around the corner, we still get to watch the game at the same address as always. The seats are still cramped (along with necks), pillars still obstruct, and the dented wall standing in left field is still the same shade of green. These things at least are mostly unchanged — ready for a new generation of players to step in and pull off memorable, daring feats, all on their own.
SO, BASICALLY, IN ONE WORD…UGH. You could also read Bill Simmons’ 2,000-word imaginary conversation with his son regarding the epic Manny bummer, and pretty much arrive at the same conclusion:
We settle into our seats. I point toward the championship banners over the first-base side. They go in order: 1903, 1904, 1912, 1915, 1916, 1918, 2004, 2007. Ever since Boston won the World Series 10 years ago, I always imagined pointing to that 2004 banner and telling my little boy, “That’s the team that changed everything.”
So that’s what I do. I point at the banner and tell him, “That’s the team that changed everything.”
“Isn’t that the team that cheated?” he asks.
Like I said…Ugh.