To me, baseball is a kind of literature. Perhaps just because of my own affinity for story, this beautiful game is, in my eyes, an endless serial narrative with a richly drawn set of ever-evolving, ever-shifting characters. Sometimes I jokingly refer to the Red Sox as my favorite soap opera. In its addictiveness and neverending intrigue, it certainly is.
Meanwhile, the facts on the field--the pitches, the hits, the fielding plays, the runs scored, the games won or lost, the statistics and trivia available after the fact--add up to a text, and the beauty of it is that, as with any literature taken seriously, this text is both accessible and open to interpretation.
But, I'm beginning to realize, there's a key difference between literature as studied in English courses and read in libraries and the kind of literature that baseball is: in this story, the observer is also a character. Not just as the reader who necessarily bends the text into his or her particular perspective, but as involved spectators who can, in small ways, change the story itself as it happens.
In the particular story that is the Boston Red Sox, unfortunately, I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that the observers often do more damage than good.
The observers in this case who deserve the most criticism, in my opinion, are the sportswriters charged with covering the news out of the team's clubhouse. I had begun to form this point of view long before this season, when I stopped listening to WEEI (which before had been the equivalent of a pack-a-day habit) and gradually stopped reading the major mainstream sports commentary. Eventually, I even stopped watching the sports debate and most of the clip shows on television, choosing instead to adopt a kind of baseball asceticism: nothing but the game. For commentary, I looked to the writings of my fellow fans on the internet, and there, too, I have been selective.
But my concern about the role of the observers in the baseball story has only grown this year, and fuel to the fire has been Feeding the Monster by Seth Mnookin.
I understand that there have been many criticisms of this important book, and many of them have been solidly argued. But no single event has changed the way I see the Red Sox, and my fandom, as profoundly as reading this book this season.
The one criticism I want to address before continuing is the feeling among some Red Sox fans that Mnookin, in both his book and his blog, is condescending toward fans. I realize that for Mnookin, and now for me, as I open this can of worms, the risk of seeming to look down on other fans is a very real one. To that I can just say that I don't count myself lily-white in this, either. I'm working hard, myself, just like everyone else, to decide the appropriate reaction to a text that, this season, has been extremely complicated and murky. If the conclusions I'm coming to in an attempt to sort this all out seem like I'm making a judgment about how you choose to be a fan, I want to make clear that nothing could be further from my true motivations--which is why I've waited and thought about this for so long before sitting down to write this particular post.
Anyway, if the book changed my opinion more than any other single Red-Sox-related entity, written or otherwise, the single turning-point passage was the story about Byung-Hyun Kim.
In a chapter entitled "Gump: A Cautionary Tale", Mnookin goes into excruciating detail about Grady Little's mismanagement of Kim (as well as detail about the Diamondbacks' mismanagement of Kim, which set him up for the "psychologically damaged" reputation he was to acquire):
In the final half of the  season, Little used Kim a total of 42 times; extrapolated out over an entire season, that would be 84 appearances. In 14 out of the last 18 years, no American League reliever has appeared in 84 or more games. Nine of Kim's 42 appearances were for more than one inning, and five were for two or more. In 2005, when the Red Sox's Mike Timlin led the league with 81 appearances, only 14 of his stints were for more than an inning, and only four were for two. From July 6 through the end of the season, Kim pitched in six out of seven games three times. From August 26 to September 3, he pitched in seven out of eight games, including one appearance of two innings.
Not only does it show the workload Kim was under, but it also shows just how much credit he deserves for having stabilized the bullpen that summer.
But then, of course, enter Game 1 of the 2003 ALDS. I warn Sox fans that the following is painful to read:
With one out [in the ninth inning], Kim walked Billy McMillon and hit Chris Singleton with a pitch, putting runners on first and second. He then struck out Mark Ellis, leaving the Sox one out away from a win. The next batter was the A's left-handed designated hitter, Erubiel Durazo.
Before Durazo could dig in to the batter's box, Grady Little bounded out of the Sox dugout and headed for the mound. He held out his left arm and pointed toward the bullpen: He wanted lefty Alan Embree to come face Durazo. It was, casual fans everywhere knew, a high percentage move. Left-handed batters generally have a much more difficult time facing left-handed pitchers, and Kim fared much better against right-handers.
Except Erubiel Durazo was not your typical left-handed batter. He actually had what's referred to as a reverse split. He hit better--much better, in fact--against lefties than he did against righties. In 2003, Durazo's batting average was 36 points higher when facing lefties, and his slugging percentage was 39 points higher. What's more, in 2003, Embree exhibited a reverse split, too, with lefties hitting 42 points better than righties against him. Finally, Little had just shown up his closer by telling Kim he didn't have confidence in him to record the game's final out.
In lieu of this, however, the following was even more painful for me to read:
The inning hadn't even ended before Kim was, once again, labeled the goat...It was, as no one hesitated to point out, the third time Kim had blown a postseason game in which his team had had the lead heading into the ninth inning...[when it came time for the ALCS] Byung-Hyun Kim was left off the team entirely.
It's true. No one in this town hesitated for a second to heckle and pile invective on the head of BK, who was probably the player most singlehandedly responsible for the Sox's berth in the postseason. I include myself in this. Until I read this account of what happened in Game 1, I had nothing to challenge my impression that Kim was simply a useless head case, a sidearming novelty pitcher with a strange personality and of forgettable import to the team. As I recall, Theo Epstein has also been most roundly criticized so far for signing Kim to a long-term deal the next year (although the Matt Clement signing is earning him more criticism of late).
But when I read this, I realized that if I had been a more informed fan, I might have realized the full story behind Kim in the ALDS. I might have refrained from joining the piling on that culminated in his booing at Fenway Park (the famous Flip of the Bird incident). When I read this, I realized I just didn't want to "be that guy".
I also realized more than ever before the extent of the beat writers' betrayal of their audience's trust in them to adhere to even the barest standards of journalistic decency in reporting on the team that is the center of attention in our local culture. They have abused their power to an appalling degree, especially given the intensity of this culture, enormous power to manipulate the reactions of the fan base, and therefore make the lives of the players that much more miserable (see also: Renteria, Edgar).
Nowhere else have I seen laid out so starkly just how ridiculously inflammatory and pathalogically negative our beat writers can be. Take Dan Shaughnessy (an easy example, admittedly) following the sale of the Red Sox:
Bud Selig, according to Shaughnessy, wanted a Red Sox team with an anemic payroll and little chance of being competitive. 'Selig can be forgiven,' Shaughnessy wrote sarcastically. 'It's OK with him if we become the Kansas City Royals of the East'."
These examples (there are many, many others in the book, a book I think every fan should read this season, if only to hold up their end of the continued conversation around it) highlighted for me in unsparing detail the truly poisonous nature of the Boston pen, and have made more recent examples of what Mnookin terms "calcified misunderstandings" hit home that much harder. Take, for example, this obscenity from Shaughnessy from this past Sunday's Globe. I don't have the stomach to excerpt it, but suffice to say Shaughnessy lays the blame for this season's failings squarely at the feet of Theo--and does so with glee. Lest we forget, Shaughnessy was a key player in Theogate over this past offseason--and so the poison sinks deeper. The misunderstanding grows into itself.
Another example of this from very recent times is an article from Sean McAdam--who, of all the talking heads in Boston, is one I've often considered among the fairest--excoriating Manny, of all people, as a result of the latest series.
And it's not just the pros who have been pushing one agenda or another, for whatever reason, to stump for their particular candidate in the Who's to Blame Race of Aught Six. Fans have been jumping at the chance to lambaste one figure or another as the root cause of the debacle. Some have picked Francona. Some have picked Theo. Some have picked Josh Beckett. Either way, the compulsion in Red Sox Nation--as always--is to find a bad guy, and then burn him in effigy.
The problem, as the Kim example shows--and Bill Buckner before him--is that we have an unfortunate tendency to pick the wrong guy.
Oh well, has been the argument when I've raised this point. This is how Boston is, some guys aren't cut out to play here. See also, Renteria, Edgar.
And it's true, this town is not going to change its spots entirely. We're not going to become apathetic, we're not going to lose our intensity, or our intense desire to win. But I'm beginning to think there is a point at which it goes too far, and it's just not something I enjoy about being a fan. Sorry--I just don't want to be that guy.
The story of Kim is just one example, in my opinion, of how a knee-jerk fan and media reaction can truly make things worse.
But there are others. Think about it--why was Tim Wakefield so sure he was going to "become the next Buckner"? Why, only because Buckner himself, like Wakefield, would have been the MVP of the series in which he made his single memorable mistake. Why do you think Theo specifically begged us not to mistreat Wily Mo when he first got here? That, to me, makes a statement that our reactions can be a factor with certain players. It doesn't make a player put a bat on a ball more effectively--true--but if players are already struggling mentally, our blame and vocal reactions to them have made things worse in the past.
You don't think it's getting to them? How about the example of Mike Timlin coming to the defense of Julian Tavarez in the bullpen a few weeks ago as fans began (and not, I'm sure, for the first time) to heckle him?
Take, also, the guy who has been heckling Keith Foulke at the ballpark. Yeah, Foulke has been doing poorly and has not covered himself in glory in the media. Yeah, that fan has a right to be frustrated. but how is it productive for him to lay into Foulke? How does it help stop what Foulke's doing to piss him off? Foulke might not be the type of player to really let that affect him, but what, I ask at long last, is the ever-loving point of badgering him? It might not necessarily hurt, but it sure isn't going to help, either.
And, as I decided, I do not want to be that guy.
And the fact of the matter is, these things can change. You'll notice that, where Buckner was victimized, Wakefield, 17 years later, was spared. To go back even further, a town that once catcalled Jackie Robinson off the field now embraces this man as its hero.
"This is the way we are" or "this is the way it's always been" just aren't cutting it for me anymore. Why is it we could refrain from picking the easiest target--Wakefield--in the Game 7 debacle, but piled on BK Kim? Why can't we take that step further?
With these latest losing streaks, what I'm asking is, how is it productive for people to start calling for shakeups and trashing this guy or that guy because they want to blame someone?** Especially since the trade deadline has passed, there's not much on the waiver wire, and regardless of his long-term future with the team, firing the manager at this point wouldn't make a difference. Why is it so important to find someone to blame?
A consensus and righteous pick for Goat only comes around once in a great long while--Grady Little is the only example I can think of in which his blundering was absolute, undeniable and of epic proportions. Meanwhile, the misdirected frustration in that majority of remaining cases, including the example of the current season in all its complexity and paradox, tends to do more harm than good.
Look at Jonathan Papelbon's quotes after some of his recent losses--he said he was pressing, trying too hard, trying to "aim" the ball. The issue right now is psychological, in my opinion, and yes, the vast majority of it is self-inflicted. But how does it make anything better--or even different--to compound the psychological issues that may be a factor in our team's poor performance this season, and then run around wringing our hands over why this team isn't playing up to their full potential? Bemoaning the lack of chemistry and chutzpah and heart?
Take this latest Yankees series. In my opinion, when you lose by an average of 10 runs for three straight games, it's beyond being caused by managerial moves. It's also beyond being caused by the GM not making an eyewash trade at the deadline. Which is not to say that the manager / GM haven't been a factor--but this past weekend, it's safe to say that the players themselves are simply falling down on the job. And it's not just one or two of them--it's practically ALL of them, but especially the bullpen. You could make a case for Theo having put this team together, and therefore being to blame, but did ANYBODY think Beckett was going to stink up the joint this bad? Did ANYBODY think Tavarez would be quite so bad? Both he and Seanez were coming off decent seasons.
But that's not enough--now there are those who are second-guessing if the Sox should've resigned the veterans, like Pedro and Derek Lowe. Admittedly Derek is having a nice year, and Pedro has continued to show flashes of brilliance. But both are doing this in the National League. I personally think Pedro is pretty well washed up...and he's only going to get worse. As for Derek...well...let's just say I don't miss the D.Lowe Face, and if you don't think you would have been seeing it this weekend, you're kidding yourself.
Bronson Arroyo is what he is. It would be nice given the injuries to our starting rotation to have him in there, but unless you can show me that on the day of the trade you anticipated what would happen to our rotation, nobody's psychic. Wily Mo is getting better--and we will be glad to have him once Manny's contract is up and someone has to hit for power behind Big Papi.
Ultimately, the biggest difference here, to me, is the loss of Jason Varitek. That's the single factor you can point to that's different between when this team was playing decent baseball and their current pathetic state of affairs. With the way the bullpen has been absolutely falling all over itself, I think it's clear he was more of a factor, especially with the young pitchers, than we ever even dreamed he was.
So, if you want to figure out who's to blame for the cartilage in his knee blowing out, you know, go ahead.
Or you could just accept that through a combination of many, many factors, few of which are under anyone's control in any way whatsoever, this season has not turned out the way we wanted it to so far.
Enough, is what I'm saying, with the hindsight. Enough with the finger-pointing. Enough with the easy-target Manny bashing. Enough with the straight-faced suggestions that we replace Francona and Epstein with, say, Lou Piniella or J.P. Ricciardi, or that we should've replaced Jon Lester with Andruw Jones...for what, exactly?
Like I said. If you consider this kind of hysteria over a season that was never advertised as a no-doubt contending year part your identity as a fan, fine. Call me condescending. Call me apathetic. But I don't want to be that guy. That's the stand I'm taking. That's the line I'm drawing. That's the decision I'm making when it comes to what to do with myself in the wake of all this.
It's cheesy, but my mantra at this point in the season, as an observer aware of the power we have over the story, has been a combination of the Hippocratic Oath--First do no harm--in other words, don't be the heckler, the second-guesser, the hindsight-touter, the grass-is-always-greener doubter. Because these things may not actually hurt, but they do not help.
And also--apologies for more cheese, but this is an emotional thing we're talking about--how I feel about this season can be pretty well encapsulated by WH Auden, whose poem has been running through my head as I considered all this:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
If this season is an empty sky...I'm trying to feel its total dark sublime.
*Title a quote from commenter Jack Marshall over at Joy of Sox.
**Portions of this post have been cut-and-pasted from comments I made on other sites recently. Please don't be the blowhard that points this out; those comments all went into the thought process for this post.
P.S. Some posts I have agreed with and been glad for of late, considering all of the above:
Perspective, Everyone from Yanksfan vs. Soxfan
That Which Doesn't Kill You Will Make you Stronger by Seth Mnookin
Warning: These Truths May Hurt by Bob Ryan