Friday, May 18, 2007

Two great seasons

So tell me, which empire is more anxious right now: that decrepit, ancient dynasty crumbling in the Bronx, or Jordan's Furniture and its marketing wizards who, at least according to the accounts here, might be wondering if they made a multimillion-dollar miscalculation by pandering to Sox fans?

The Yankees' problems are well-documented, particularly if you are one of those Boston fans who engages in a little bit of schaedenfreude and checks out the New York tabloids each morning. (Some variation on "JOE MUST GO!!" seems to be a rather popular headline theme these days.) And we admit we chuckle at the thought of Jordan's shrewd "We're betting on the Red Sox!" promotion backfiring to the point that a second world championship in four years would force them to fork over enough free loveseats and sectionals to furnish every spare room in New England. Talk about a win-win situation.

Now, it's not like we're not setting aside a portion of our paycheck to save for World Series tickets just yet . . . but man, what's happening at Fenway Park right now is pretty amazing, isn't it? The Sox, 28-12 and 10 (ten!) games ahead of the Yankees at this writing, are just plain feelin' it, as evidenced by Thursday's doubleheader sweep of the AL champion Tigers. In the first game, the hero was the fifth starter, Julian Tavarez. In the second win, the hero was the fifth outfielder, Eric Hinske. When the roster's afterthoughts are sharing turns in the spotlight, you know times are good.

So can they keep it up? Can they run away with this thing and take all suspense out of the summer? Let's put it this way: If you can promise that they will stay reasonably healthy, I'll guarantee that they'll win their first AL East title since the managerial days of that mustache-farming, Canseco-coddling egomaniac, Kevin Kennedy. The offense is leading the AL in runs despite limited contributions from Manny and J.D. Drew, and even if the likes of Mike Lowell and the criminally underappreciated Kevin Youkilis cool off, they should put plenty of crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Plus, their elite starting pitching will prevent long losing streaks, and while their lengthy lead gives them the luxury to let ace Josh Beckett's "avulsion" heal, this time around there is no shortage of depth in the organization. Kason Gabbard (a Francona favorite) and TATB binky Devern Hansack should at least be replacement level fill-ins, and they might prove better than that. There will be no gruesome Kevin Jarvis cameos this year.

If you have any complaints about this team, then I guess Rick Pitino was right - we really are the fellowship of the miserable. While it might be tough to shake the old habit of grumbling about Wily Mo Pena's whiffs or Coco Crisp's ongoing struggles or whatever it is you rail against, we need only to cast an eye to toward the Bronx to see what legitimate woes look like. And you know what? While it's against my upbringing in the Nation to write off a franchise with the resources of the Yankees - you know they'll pick up another Bobby Abreu, someone else's salary dump, at the deadline if they are anywhere near the playoff hunt - they look like a dead team walking to me, and I don't think they have the necessary resolve, camaraderie, and pitching depth to pull themselves out of this hole. If they lose two of three to the Mets this weekend and two of three to the Sox in the next series - and please, baseball gods, let this happen; let the Sox leave cleat marks on their throats - someone will jostle Georgie Porgie awake long enough for him to finally fire Joe Torre. And while Yankees fans are desperately clinging to the irrelevant past, citing 1978 as an example of Yankee ingenuity, deep down they must know that Bob Lemon isn't walking through that door (and if he did, he'd be old, grey, and, um, dead.)

It's not like Don Zimmer is conveniently clutching his throat in the opposing dugout, either, which brings us to another crucial element of the Sox team: it's outstanding manager. Terry Francona long ago established himself as the finest Sox manager of my lifetime - outwitting Mike Scioscia, Torre, and tony La Russa consecutively in the postseason, as he did to a surprisingly little amount fanfare in '04, tends to go a long way toward enhancing a manager's reputation. But this season, everything he has touched as turned to gold, from his deft handling of the Dustin Pedroia/Alex Cora situation at second base to his willingness to give Hideki Okajima a prominent role when most of us assumed he was just here to caddy for Dice-K, to dealing with all the ancillary stuff that comes with managing in Boston. One of these days, Tito will get his due as one of the best in the game.

From the manager, to the lineup, to the pitching staff, it's all good, and provided the disabled list doesn't beckon too often, I just don't see anything but sunny days ahead. What is it that the Pink Hats - oh, and all right, a few of us secret sentimentalists, too - like to sing in the seventh inning? Good times never seemed so good. Yeah, that sounds about right. Mr. Diamond's sequined sentiments couldn't be more appropriate - and here's guessing they'll last all summer long. Who knows, maybe even right up until the joyous moment you realize the couch you're planted on to watch the Sox win the World Series just became a freebie.

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All right, now for the important stuff: Thursday's season finale of "The Office." Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I probably anticipated this week's episode with more eagerness than I will any Sox game this season before October. And I have to say, it was at least as satisfying as, oh, an early-season sweep of the Yankees - you know, back when they were good.

Now, if you're among the clueless masses who prefer mind-numbing dreck like "Grey's Anatomy,"" well, just surf on over to Cats That Look Like Hitler or wherever you usually roll after stopping in here, because today we simply must discuss this heartwarming, ribald, subtle, downright hilarious television masterpiece. I don't care if you don't care, because I do, and you should.

So many snippets from last night's show are replaying on the DVR in my mind: Jan's upgraded "chariots" . . . Michael selling his condo on eBay . . . Creed's blog . . . Schrutebucks and Stanley Nickles . . . "I'm not gay" . . . that slippery weasel Ryan's classic kicker ("You and I are done") which was foreshadowed by his refusal to get Michael coffee ("I don't do that anymore") . . . and of course, Jim's interview, when he discovers Pam's sweet callback to the Office Olympics episode and has his moment of clarity about following his heart back to Scranton.

It seems ridiculous now, given the ultimately well-executed story arcs that began back long before we'd ever become familiar with the pig-latin version of Rainbow Connection, Scrantonicity, or Prison Mike, but there was much talk early in this season that it wasn't living up to the standard set by Season 2. But in the end - make that at the end - it might have surpassed it. Casino Night, last season's flawless Steve Carell-penned finale, remains the most perfect single episode of any television show I have ever seen. Yet the last two installments this season were nearly its equal, meshing writing that makes a hack like me wonder why I ever bothered learning how to type with the perfectly cast actors (right down to the most minor supporting player) who give life to their words.

Which brings us to Ms. Fancy-New-You-Know-Who. You dopes give me a hard time (that's what she . . . ) about my fanboy odes to Jenna Fischer, and when I say cheeseball things like she's the most appealing woman I've ever seen among all the ones I'm not married to, well, I probably deserve it. But I challenge you to watch as her face transforms from shock to radiant, affirming joy in that wonderful closing scene above without crushing on both the character and the actress. That culminating moment alone should earn her an Emmy nomination. (And of course, as several emails noted - some laced with more snark than others - it's our duty to wish the Official Muse of TATB, Non-Wife Division a speedy recovery after she broke her back in four places after falling down a marble staircase in New York earlier this week. She's fortunate she wasn't hurt worse, and it sounds like she should be okay by the time the show begins filming again. Just a guess, but the sight of Jim pushing her around in a wheelchair in next season's premiere would have been a twist even the Office's ace staff of writers would have trouble working into the script.)

Anyway, at the typically pitch-perfect understated end, it all came full-circle, didn't it? Last year, Pam gave Jim a reason to leave Scranton. This year, she gave him a reason to come back. And so we come to a necessary question now that "it's a date" and they are apparently together at last. Where do they go from here? Requieted love has sent more popular shows into a death spiral (David and Maddy, anyone?), but I have complete faith that that will not happen here. The writers are too adept to fall into the Rachel/Ross melodrama, and besides, there is as much potential with Pam and Jim together as there is with them apart. And it's not like there aren't other open-ended plot points worth looking forward to - or did you forget that Ryan is now poor, shellshocked Michael's boss and whacked-out Jan is his roommate? To pilfer a line from a previous Thursday night NBC show of note: It's gold, Jerry. Gold. Season 4 can't arrive soon enough.

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Couple of quick links in case you've wondering where a wise all week. Here's the weekly FOX column, beginning with an ode to Rockies slugger Matt Holliday, and here's a short piece we wrote for Red Sox GameDay about the Sox's worst position-by-position defensive players of all-time. As always, thanks for reading, and I really should be around here more often now that the relationship with is official. Honest.

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