Happy non-Opening Day

SPRING DIDN’T COME THIS YEAR, so I loaded up my copy of No. 1 on this list to ease the ache of baseball’s absence. Random thoughts while rewatching Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS:

  • Fox had a baseball version of Microsoft Clippy splainin’ baseball stuff… because Joe Buck and Tim McCarver could not?
  • Forgot how Terry Francona would rock back and forth on the bench with nervous energy, looking like I felt inside.
  • All the Yankees hitters are goddamn scary.
  • Also forgot how Tito stuck with Foghorn Bellhorn and Caveman Damon through this whole thing. Nothing really doin’ for either of them in this game, but Tito’s faith would be rewarded later in the series. (Also, reminds me of how Tito stuck with Pedroia when he was first called up and stunk.)
  • Millar-The Steal-Mueller is still just an incredible sequence of events.
  • Now I kinda wanna rewatch the July 24th A-Rod-Varitek face-mask game — the one where Mueller showed us Rivera was human, after all.
  • Pokey Reese!
  • Manny’s helmet and Nixon’s cap — just filthy.
  • At various points, but mostly in the later innings, a lot of the fans look like how I feel now — tooting from the epicenter of a worldwide pandemic.
  • Why did we think it was possible to win this game?
  • Big Papi.
  • Without commercials, this game is four hours long. With commercials, over five hours. How did we ever survive this series?
  • Sixteen years ago — holy schnikes!

AARON BOONE’S HOME RUN was the end of everything. His offseason injury was part of the beginning.*

Edgar Renteria has made the last out of a Red Sox season twice in a row: first, on one side of the diamond, then on the other side.

One season ended with 69 wins. The very next ended with all of them.

It’s spring (apparently); it’s Opening Day; and, like every season before, anything can happen, again.

*Imagine the 2004 season with Boone — and without this or this.

BIG PAPI FINISHED HIS SEASON with a curtain call — following a bunt single. In a (mostly) meaningless final game, it was something to cheer for. Jon Lester finished his season one win shy of 20. The Red Sox finished one win under 90. And, in what was possibly his final at-bat in a Red Sox uniform (the only major league uniform he’s ever worn), Jason Varitek drove a ball that was destined for the bullpen, but caught on the warning track. This season, a lot of things came up just a little bit short.

Today, the standings show the Red Sox seven games out of first place in the American League East and six games out of the wild card, with zero games left to play. But back when there were still 130 games left to play, CHB was already on the ledge, just short of declaring the end of everything in early May. “I don’t want to panic or overreact,” he wrote, “but is it possible the Red Sox season is already over?” This was the outlook even before Beckett, Matsuzaka, Buchholz, Martinez, Varitek, Pedroia, and Youklis all went down with one kind of injury or another, two of them the season-ending kind.

And, of course, Papi was done for, we all knew that. (Never mind that he was done for last season, as well.) This time it really was the end — it certainly sounded like it: “I miss the old days, too,” he said. Yikes. No matter what time of year it is or where the team is in the standings, it’s hard not to take a gloomy view of the season when your affable, heroic, universally beloved DH starts talking like this:

“Do you understand that this is killing me?” [Ortiz said]. “Do you know when I’m going good I cannot sleep because I’m trying to remember everything that I did right so I can repeat it the next day and the next? And that’s when I’m going good. When I’m going bad, it’s even worse because everybody looks to me to be the guy who comes through for this ballclub. It’s like I never sleep anymore.”

So, the 2010 Red Sox season was ending before the spring would. Not just ending, but scuffling, crashing, breaking its ribs (twice), breaking its foot (also twice), catching mono, and developing mystery infections. And then getting up off the dirt to play again. Because despite the mess, somehow there was still plenty of baseball worth watching, right through the summer and even into the first weeks of fall when playoff chances looked more like lottery odds. As the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn said, “Can’t think of a Sox team that missed the postseason that I’ll remember as well as this one. Call it the D-Mac Effect.”

Last year, there was the improbable rise of Nick Green. This year, half the line-up was filled with D-Macs. After being hastily added to the 40-man roster and following a memorable pinch-hitting debut, Darnell McDonald kept showing up to the park and playing major league baseball all season long, even after nearly being designated for assignment halfway through. Daniel Nava, a 27-year-old rookie, played 60 games for the team, hitting exactly one home run. And Bill Hall, a utility player who turned into a 96-game starter, seemed to be everywhere, including the pitching mound, playing every position except catcher and first base.

Hall was also part of one of the most exciting half-innings of the season, in which the Red Sox stole four bases off Mariano Rivera, and rallied to take the lead from the Yankees in the bottom of the 8th. Of course, the Sox went on to lose that pivotal game in the 10th, following their own blown save, because that’s just the kind of season it was. Their record was 6-12 in extra innings, and they had 13 walk-off losses on the road — two statistics that add up to a lot of heartbreak and sleepy-eyed muttering. After 149 games, the team had used 133 different batting orders and 43 different starting outfield combinations – often filled with no-name journeymen, rookies, minor league call-ups, and banged up regulars.

In short, a great many things happened in this shortened season, and, as expected, none of it could be expected. That’s why they call it baseball. Fifty years ago, Ted Williams hit the very last major league pitch he ever saw for a home run. Fifty years later, Daniel Nava hit the very first major league pitch he ever saw for a grand slam. The very last major league pitch to Mike Lowell was dinged high off the top of the Green Monster, just another long Fenway single. Varitek’s last swing was just a loud out. And, Ortiz, he finished his season with a bunt.

But the once beleaguered big guy also ended up with 32 home runs and 102 RBI this season — and he’s just three short of the all-time RBI record for a DH (currently held by Edgar Martinez). The informed baseball watcher will tell you that RBI is a meaningless statistic. That may be true, but so was the last game of the season: a surprise bunt single, a frivolous curtain call; a well-struck ball by the team’s captain that might have made it out of the park, but didn’t; and one more win. None of it really adds up to anything. But just like the statistically meaningless RBI, at least it was still fun to watch.

We’ll get ’em next year.

ADDENDUM: Somehow I wrote an entire recap of the 2010 Red Sox season without mentioning how much fun Adrian Beltre was to have on the team.

First, a chart detailing the “Causes of Red Sox Injuries”.

Second, one of my favorite Jerry Remy/Don Orsillo on-air exchanges, during a dustup with the Indians:

Orsillo: I tell you, one of the last people I’d throw at is Adrian Beltre.
Remy: The human destroyer.

WHAT’S THIS NOW, it’s spring again? Whatever happened to the winter? Not to mention the fall? Let’s forget about all that nonsense, and think back on happier times while we wait for a new season to begin.

The good eggs at YFSF.org have set their happy thoughts on October in March — a compilation of the most significant postseason plays ranked by their WPA, or the potential effect the play had on the outcome of the game. The result is a strange combination of analytical and emotional gooeyness that at once fills you with an appreciation for the role of stats in modern day baseball-ing and pure, old-fashioned reverie.

Ranked this way, Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS versus the Indians bubbles up as one of the top three most dramatic games in Red Sox postseason history. Watching the game on iTunes 10 years later, the lineup looks familiar, but any postseason game before 2004 still seems a parallel universe away. Certain scenes stick out as particularly odd/amusing: Pedro throwing to Tek, but with Manny at the plate. Manny sharing the outfield with Dave Roberts, who catches a towering fly off the bat of Trot Nixon. Plus, appearances by good ol’ Lou Merloni, Nomar in his prime (intentionally walked twice), and the Derek Lowe Face. The game itself is dramatic and fun; the intervening events since 1999 and the overlapping, wacky “what we know now” quality make it even more enjoyable to watch today.

Regarding events closer to the present, Sox first base coach Ron Johnson got to experience his own personal happy moment during spring training, in the form of an on-field reunion with his son. From the Sox-Astros game update on Boston.com:

Pre-game: The exchange of lineup cards had an interesting twist with Sox first base coach Ron Johnson (coaching third in today’s split-squad game) exchanging lineups with son Chris, who will play third base for the Astros today. Umpires seemed to get a big kick out of it.

Seems like simple, father-son baseball fun. But the next day’s follow-up by Nick Carfado hints at something a little deeper:

Johnson has been a baseball lifer, which means being away from your family. He probably missed most of Chris’s Little League and high school games. But yesterday he watched him as a major leaguer.

“I’ve been around the game for a long time,” said Johnson, “and I’ve seen everything and been around a lot of players, but I almost can’t explain it. It was a strange feeling.

“There were just a lot of things that kept sinking in during the course of the game. I know he’s been doing well, but I’m a developer and an evaluator for the last 20 years, and all of a sudden now I see my son on the major league field.

“I know he came up last year in September, but to see him with my own eyes . . . and I’m in the third base coach’s box . . . and there’s Terry Francona and Brad Mills and Roy Oswalt, Jason Varitek, and Jon Lester is on the mound . . .

“Obviously you’re looking at a guy on the other team who you have emotional ties to, and you realize that he moves around and he looks like he can play here. It was exciting. It was really very exciting.”

Baseball’s timelessness can also turn into a form of time travel: today’s games mingling with the memories of games past. There are always the same nine positions on the field – but it’s a little bit strange when you look back and one of them is played by a shortstop whose greatness you’d forgotten or when you look up and third base is occupied by your very own son. It’s baseball’s ability to keep telling stories across years and generations that lets us appreciate and experience the past and the present in new ways.

But enough of yesterday’s happy thoughts. As Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau once said, “On Opening Day, the world is all future and no past.” Right now, every team’s got a .500 record, and it’s anybody’s guess what happens next.

Happy Opening Day.

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 somedaymaybe – 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.