Thursday, November 25, 2004

Aim blame at Little, not players

In time, perhaps we'll remember it as a wonderful season. But we can't. Not yet. Not today, and not for quite a few tomorrows.

Three days after the Boston Red Sox's excruciating, extra-inning 6-5 loss to the hated New York Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, our emotions remain raw.

So we ache, and we curse, and we mourn and we fume. And although we know there is no crying in baseball, that doesn't mean we aren't also tempted to shed a tear or two. Silly, but sometimes it hurts to be a sports fan.

The numbness and the haze that engulfed the Red Sox fandom the moment Aaron Boone's game-winning homer sailed deep into the New York night have only now begun to fade. But the suspicion that the better team lost while the better manager won will linger for years to come.

For all of you young Sox fans who never quite understood what all the angst was about - well, now you know, don't ya, kiddies? This is how it happens. This is how you turn into one of those bitter, cynical Sox lifers. This is how you become your dad.

Now that you've been through it, don't let any of your elders tell you otherwise: This was the worst loss in Red Sox history.
In 1978, the Sox and Yankees were playing for the American League East crown, not a trip to the World Series. In Game 6 in '86, at least we had tomorrow.

This? This was a chance to send Roger Clemens into retirement with one heaping helping of regret. A chance to celebrate on the Yankee Stadium lawn. A chance, with one beautiful, epic victory, to silence Fox hot-air balloon Tim McCarver, the Curse rhetoric and every Yankees fan who has ever polluted your life.

The worst loss? You'd better believe this was the worst loss.

And now we are left to make sense of the autopsy report. The only solace is that we know who committed the crime.

The Red Sox were hindered by Grady Little's passive-bordering-on-comatose managing all summer. The worst of his habits? He had a ridiculously slow hook with pitchers, often leaving them in until a lead had evaporated or the game was out of reach.

And wouldn't you know it. With his Sox just five outs from baseball heaven, his reactive approach to his job at last became too much for his players to overcome.

In Game 7, Pedro Martinez entered the eighth inning having thrown 99 pitches and holding a 5-2 lead. Pedro departed after 123 pitches, having allowed four consecutive two-out hits and three history-changing runs.

If you didn't hear this statistic from an angry and shaken Jerry Remy in the NESN post-game show, you've surely heard it by now. The batting average against Pedro this season between pitches 105 and 120 was .370. Three-seventy!

Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein, with all of his Moneyball sensibility, surely was aware of Pedro's penchant for tiring at the exact same point in every game. There is no doubt that the information was passed along to the manager by one source or another.

So why did Little ignore data that practically screamed, "PEDRO MARTINEZ RUNS OUT OF GAS AFTER APPROXIMATELY 100 PITCHES, YOU DROOLING DOPE!"

Simple. Pedro said he felt fine.

Well, geez, of course he did. Pedro is as proud a man as any of us will ever encounter. He would never give up the baseball without it being pried from his hand - which is precisely why it's the manager's duty to make that decision for him.

Pedro said before Game 7 that "I'll leave my arm at home plate." I doubt he expected his manager to take him literally.
Little, who's now a national laughingstock instead of merely a regional one, should have been handed his pink slip before Boone touched home plate. But at least his day of reckoning is inevitable. Should he ever manage at the major-league level again, we can only hope the Sox have the good fortune of facing his team with something valuable at stake.

You know what's the worst part of all this? Little's incompetence deprived us of at least four more opportunities to watch his team play baseball.

How we miss them already. In terms of performance and personality, this was far and away the most likeable Sox team of a generation, and perhaps of any generation.

On the field, they were relentless and resilient, even when the scoreboard suggested their chances were slim.

Off the field, they were as fun-loving and freewheeling as those aging frat brothers in Old School.

They seemed like the kind of guys you'd love to have a beer with. During the rowdy celebration on the evening when they clinched the wild-card, heck, maybe you did have a beer with them.

The hideous ending shouldn't prevent us from cherishing the postcards and snapshots we collected over the season-long journey. Such as the comeback from a 0-2 deficit against the A's, punctuated by Derek Lowe's two consecutive called strikeouts to end the series. Or everything about David Ortiz, who channeled Hendu on a nightly basis through the sweet September.

The horrible haircuts. The awkward man-hugs.

My favorite scene of the season took place away from the cameras. Three hours before Game 3 of the ALDS against Oakland, Kevin Millar, the ringleader of the clubhouse circus, stood in the concourse in the bowels of Fenway Park and animatedly explained to a sausage vendor how he had just fallen off the podium during a pre-game press conference.

"Dude, I am an idiot," Millar concluded.

"You know it," the sausage guy shot back.

A man of the people, that Millar.

We'd like to believe that the same humble crew of "idiots" will return to take care of their unfinished business next season. We are not so naïve as to expect as much.

There will be changes, some subtle, some perhaps stunning. John Burkett might retire. Todd Walker and Mike Timlin are free agents, and you can bet the Evil Empire will try to sell both of them on the mystique and aura of the dark side.

Bill Mueller, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and Ortiz all enjoyed what must for now be considered career years. Pedro and Nomar are delicate. Manny may return to his home planet.

While the hot-stove gossip will help keep us warm, there's one thought that will torment us through the long winter:
If this Sox team couldn't do it . . . well, maybe no Sox team ever will.

All the comebacks and camaraderie - it just felt so right this time around. This was the team. This was the year.
All we ever wanted was there for the taking.

If only Grady Little had taken the ball.

If only. Dammit.

One of the few things that has made me smile in recent days is the recollection of another lovable ballclub that couldn't quite get that final victory at the end.

In the final scene of the Bad News Bears, the classic 1976 comedy about a misfit team of Little Leaguers, the protagonists have just lost the championship to - who else? - the Yankees.

While the mini-Yankees preen and prance like Derek Jeter near a TV camera, the Bears watch their rival's celebration with equal parts sadness and envy.

Until a Bear named Tanner Boyle speaks up:

"Hey, Yankees!" hollers Tanner. "You can take your trophy and shove it straight up your . . ."

(The word we are looking for here is synonymous with "Steinbrenner.")

"And one more thing," chimes in teammate Timmy Lupus. "Wait 'til next year!"

And then the crazy kids celebrated like champions.

Someday, maybe our Bad News Red Sox will too.

But today, and for many tomorrows to follow, it's going to be a struggle to shake that nagging feeling.

Next year? It should have been this year.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor. You know when.)