The Regular Season, cont'd
The rebirth of Manny Ramirez; The specter of Game 7; .500 ball; The Nomar Trade
I can't find the article, but I remember it mentioned they were eating chicken and pasta...
...Together in the clubhouse, Manny Ramirez and Kevin Millar were sharing a meal when the media descended on them, flies to the picnic, if you will.
Here I descend into rank speculation: I picture Millar turning with his mirrored sunglasses, chewing, an impish smile breaking out as the cameras and microphones approach. I picture Manny's velvety, bottomless black eyes beginning to dart nervously. I picture them both continuing to shovel forkfuls of pasta and chicken into their mouths, swallowing meditatively, watching reporters approaching.
Or did it start with one reporter, one beat writer they know well, and gradually morph, amoeba-like, into a full-fledged spectacle?
Either way, before television cameras and as captured in articles no longer in print, reporters began firing a volley of questions at Manny, which Millar intercepted. Though the questions were asked and answered in perfectly intelligible English, Millar, grabbing a microphone, insisted on "translating." By the time the clip made it to the airwaves, the reporters must have known that the joke was on them, that the only appropriate response to such benevolent but pointed ribbing was to smile back, to lighten up, to get the joke and laugh at themselves along with the wild-haired duo addressing them with a wink and a snicker.
The entire thing snowballed from there, of course, until Manny was doing press conferences and exclusive interviews and giving quotes post-game in front of his locker. Until Manny was running out onto the field clutching a tiny, flapping American flag, having just been inducted as a United States citizen. Until suddenly we were shaking our heads not at Manny himself, but at our own sour disposition towards him in previous seasons.
Another part of this metamorphosis was a renewal of our awareness of Manny's gifts; without pharyngeal drama on which to speculate, Manny forced attention back to his swing, his stance, his approach, and with them his batting average, his power from foul pole to foul pole, his improved fielding techniques, his more spirited baserunning. In other words, by stepping out into the public eye off the field, the real Manny--the prodigy on the field--made himself newly visible.
And here was Millar again, first leading and then happy to follow the Manny Parade, pointing out in another Spring Training special how short Manny's step is, just a tiny, measured lift and replacement of the foot as the pitch comes in, conserving and redirecting the energy of his swing up the column of his body, adding the pop that sends baseballs hurtling over the Monster while Manny stands back, untwisting slowly, left hand flung out to one side, right hand only just disengaging from the bat, watching the ball fly with those inscrutable eyes behind lengthy, little-boy eyelashes.
Manny's transformation wasn't about letting us see a new side of Manny. Manny's transformation was about making us focus on what had been there all along.
Now, there is a phrase used in science, and hopefully my knowledgeable readers will excuse its no doubt perverse use here. The phrase is ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,
a now discredited hypothesis in biology first espoused in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel. Ontogeny is the development of the embryos of a given species; phylogeny is the origin and evolution of a set of organisms, usually of a species. The theory claims that the development of the embryo of every species repeats the evolutionary development of that species.
I first learned about this theory in my seventh-grade science class. I considered it a wondrous and poetic idea, and now that it has been discredited as scientific theory it is fair game for those of us in the humanities to apply at will--it rings metaphorically if not technically accurate. Manny is just one example, of how a loosened public image--between the hair and the goofs and the gaffes and the turning of the journalistic eye upon itself--in turn led to a greater focus and rededication to the root of the game itself, the curious synchronicity of dreadlocks and cornrows and stubbly faces turning into postseason records and a trophy.
It began with Manny, although it had generous help from Johnny Damon, as well. As went Manny, so went the Sox. Manny and the Sox were shaggy. Manny and the Sox did homage to their game by departing from the standard rules of discipline and public image. Manny and the Sox broke the mold--a mold which included that perennial October heartbreak.
And yet in a way that heartbreak was the inspiration in the first place. The general consensus, even among those not a fan of or member in either of the titanic organizations that clashed throughout an epic 2003 season, was that the game of baseball had passed from one realm of significance to some heretofore unexplored higher order throughout that yearlong confrontation, finally breaking on through to that other side the night of October 16, 2003.
The game, Game 7, one of many of its kind but at least in this region needing no introduction, became something of a talisman for both teams and their legions of bitterly squabbling fans.
For Yankees fans, it was the emblem of their continued dominance over the American League. The footage of Aaron Boone's home run joined the Buckner Reel as revictimization material for Red Sox fans. Portraits of Grady Little's smirking face replaced "K" signs at Yankee Stadium for the better part of the early season (until they in turn were replaced by "Who's Your Daddy?" signs and chants--but both continued in the same vein, of using the Red Sox' own blunders, rather than the Yankees' success, as put-down material). And the night's ultimate hero, Aaron Boone (although you could also make the case for Mike Mussina and others, but as with Buckner, Boone was made the face of the events that unfolded that night, for better or for worse), was a role-player, a bench guy, Brett Boone's brother, the "other" one. Just like Bucky Dent-- and an answer to all those crass assertions that the Yankees' championships and place in baseball history was due to filthy lucre over an honest day's work.
For Red Sox fans, meanwhile, Game 7 symbolized the long march of their history, a season of exuberance and a gritty, resilient ballclub cut down on the doorstep of their greatest accomplishment. It was a martyr's memento, all that Red Sox fans had to say for themselves summed up in a single series of five crushing outs.
At the same time, Game 7 held all the addictive powers of a sudden "Game Over" at the video arcade that leaves the player fishing frantically for more quarters; just one more chance, just one more chance, just one more chance...
As usual when it pertains to the Red Sox, Ed Cossette put it best:
[...]what if [Game 7] was a test? A test to see if we really did drop our eternal cynicism and nihilistic belief that something bad always has to happen?...perhaps last year was a gut check. A test to see if our belief was false, if after the disaster would we revert to our old cynical ways or would we continue to believe with body and soul?
From the first preposterously hyped Spring Training game, these teams were on a collision course. By the time they were set for yet another confrontation in the post-season, ESPN Magazine put it: "A loss in this series will hit the losing team like a natural disaster."
As much as the memory of Game 7 still stings, objectively speaking it still stands as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, baseball games ever played. And its monolithic stature after a hot-stove winter that included the controversial Alex Rodriguez Affair cast a lengthy shadow over this past year. Simply the fact of its proximity as the Sox mounted an historic effort to reach the post-season in back-to-back years for only the third time in its history created circumstances around the game of uncharted but inestimable importance.
Chief among them was the influx of talent to both teams. When players stuck in outposts of the baseball world, such as A-Rod in Texas and Curt Schilling in Arizona, witnessed the earth-shaking intensity of Game 7, they were drawn inexorably toward the gladiatorial arena that is baseball between Long Island Sound and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Between A-Rod, Schilling, Javier Vasquez, Kevin Brown, Keith Foulke and even the unsuccessful mid-season wrangling to acquire Randy Johnson, reinforcements, mercenaries and the simply curious were drawn east as never before. All hands were on deck, all other skirmishes muted in the face of another potential Hardball Apocalypse. East Coast Baseball had collapsed under its own gravity and began sucking in talent like a black hole. Without Game 7, that most certainly would not have been the case.
Game 7 colored everything. Wary Francona-watchers hunted and sniffed through every move he made the whole year long for signs of "pulling a Grady." The two standout instances in which Francona succumbed to Little's ghost, a grand slam given up by a flagging Curt Schilling against the Toronto Blue Jays and a go-ahead homer given up by Pedro to the New York Yankees during back-to-back late-season weekend bouts raised endless screams of agony throughout New England. Obviously, Grady Little was not the first, last or only manager to leave a pitcher in too long. But you wouldn't know it in Boston. It seemed as if God had only kicked Adam out of the Garden on October 17, 2003; it seemed as if all earthly time had begun on that date. Game 7 began, and then changed, absolutely everything.
But in the midst of all this, the Red Sox began a curious stretch of play that, maddening though it was, turned out to have been equally indispensible to the team's championship run.
What I'm referring to, of course, is that tedious span now referred to as ".500 Ball." The team played well enough to keep its postseason aspirations afloat, but poorly enough to furrow eyebrows from the front office to the bleachers. They led the league in unearned runs allowed, that was the thing. And there appeared to be some nebulous pall, a kind of low-grade malaise, hanging over the clubhouse, the ballpark and the team.
In many ways it was more frustrating than a simple crash-and-burn. Had it been a wholesale disaster, the reaction might have been easy: back to the drawing board. Wait till next year. But in this span the Red Sox still showed occasional flashes of brilliance--for example, a drubbing of the Phillies in a three-game weekend set mid-June--even as they committed inexplicable gaffes (how about Derek Lowe's six-unearned-run inning? That's got to be some kind of record!). It was puzzling, it was a conundrum, and the team didn't warrant scrapping but fine-tuning.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see how the .500 stretch turned out to work in the Sox' favor. It was an uncritical, but pronounced illness; symptoms not life-threatening, but unignorable. Even as it made the team's deep-seated problems clear, it kept them survivable. The best period of time for a baseball team's issues to emerge, of course, is the middle of the season, before the trade deadline, and after large enough sample sizes have been accrued to make judgements about each player and the combination of players as a whole.
Here, in this bleak stretch, the problem turned out to have a name: Nomar.
Nomar, erstwhile darling of the Boston sports scene, had officially worn out his welcome with a nagging Achilles injury that never seemed entirely aboveboard, as well as an enigmatic demeanor that began to irritate rather than mystify.
But, of course, it wasn't as simple as all that. No one could fathom not seeing a number 5 hung up above the right-field grandstand one day; no one was prepared to scratch off the date in their 2010 calendar for attending Nomar's retirement ceremony at Fenway; Nomar was on bumper stickers, jerseys, hats, t-shirts, collector's prints, paintings. The enduring image of the franchise was Nomar. The player running, fists in the air, mouth open, yelling in jubilation to cap the Sox' improbable comeback in the ALDS against Oakland? Nomar. The player with tension and apprehension written all over his face as he fielded the final non-problematic out of the fateful Game 7? Nomar. Nomar was to the Sox what Jeter was to the Yankees. Except for one thing: Jeter had not become a liability.
Nothing made this clearer than the epic July 1 extra-inning game in which Nomar sulked on the bench while Jeter flung himself into the seats along the third-base line for a foul ball, breaking his face in the process.
It was clear, though, and yet it was more complex than all that. At the time, torn between a Sox fan's innate loyalty to the past and the tantalizing prospects of the future--hanging in a stalemate, stymied at sea level, balanced at .500--it was two roads diverging in a yellow wood.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, it's a no-brainer. Though Nomar's attitude was excused as bitterness over almost having been shipped out like so much overstock during the Rodriguez Affair, a connection very few observers drew at the time told the tale as plainly as any: the sharply contrasting outlook on Manny Ramirez, himself poised to be the greater victim of the A-Rod deal, the "clubhouse cancer" that had inspired the whole torrid foray into the free-agent market in the first place. Manny, younger than Nomar and still healthy as an ox, was and still is the best right-handed hitter in the game. After being unable to give him away, the Sox used him as trade bait. He had perhaps more reasons than Nomar--the fragile Nomar, the not-quite-the-same Nomar following his 2001 wrist injury, the Nomar of a fruitless 2003 postseason--to be bitter. And yet he remained a cheerful--downright sunny--presence, as mentioned above.
Nomar, meanwhile, represented all which the Sox were casting out, exorcising; Nomar, the bitter fairy not invited to the christening, embodied all that still shadowed and plagued the Sox coming into the season, from its dour history to its foolhardy attachment to all-too-fallible idols. The echoes of Dan Duquette's "twilight of his career" remark concerning the ageless Roger Clemens still rang in Boston's collective ears. It was time to get something in return for this petulant superstar. It was time to defy tradition. And it was time to get some gloves in the infield.
That Theo Epstein, along with his overseers Henry, Werner and Lucchino, not only executed but enthusiastically pursued this trade, in the face of all it could mean to the viability of their ownership, was, in my opinion, the single most important factor in the outcome of this season. Where before Boston had a nasty habit of either sticking with relics, giving in to sentimentality, or letting big names walk without securing remuneration, here Nomar was not only the sacrificial lamb of tradition toward a new order but a fine bargaining chip. Epstein, displaying a Scott Pioli-like eye for valuable discards, brought Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Orlando Cabrera of the Montreal Expos and Doug Mientkiewicz of the Minnesota Twins into the Boston fold.
Their addition, and Nomar's subtraction, let the clubhouse breathe a sigh of relief. The relaxed, happy atmosphere took hold in earnest. And with a cluster of Gold Gloves around the infield, .500 ball began to disappear. With these new additions (and one very important subtraction), the Red Sox began a run that would lead to an historic postseason--one in which Cabrera, Mientkiewicz and especially Roberts would make outstanding contributions.
For once, in Boston, there was no "what if." No "if only." Only "right now." Theo Epstein deserves endless credit for engineering what turned out to be among the seminal moves in Boston sports history, and among the bravest to boot. With a culture of levity beginning to flow past him like a river around a rock, Nomar was lost and against the current. Nomar was an important cog in an almost completely dysfunctional infield defense. Nomar was the type of player Boston often chose over the real chance at a championship. This time, Theo Epstein, following his players' lead, took the road less travelled by--and that made all the difference.