On Saturday night, after the third game of the Boston Red Sox’s critical five-game series with the New York Yankees, the Red Sox brass went cruising on Boston Harbor to celebrate the engagement of the team’s 32-year-old general manager, Theo Epstein. If life imitated Bay State literary (“Moby-Dick”) or even cinematic (“Jaws”) metaphor, we would still be fishing bodies out of that murky sea. Instead, the worst Theo and company had to endure was a return to Fenway Park where they watched the Yankees win two more ballgames and complete the sweep of the home team.
It’s a good thing that Theo has a wedding on the horizon because his long honeymoon with Red Sox fans—“Local Wunderkind Makes Good in Dream Job”—may just have just come to an abrupt end. When Epstein snuck out of Fenway last fall in a gorilla suit, after having quit his job in a power dispute with team president Larry Lucchino, Red Sox nation was almost completely in his corner. We are an odd breed here in New England and will always side with the quirky and quixotic over the nakedly powerful and ambitious. And when Theo returned to his job several months later, it was clearly in triumph. The Red Sox would build its team the old-fashioned way and stop trying to be a slightly poorer, but equally splash version of the Steinbrenner empire to the south. The Boston team would emulate the frugal principles of “Moneyball”—use statistical measures to seek out undervalued players, don’t overpay for past performance—except with the advantage of having a lot more money than the Oakland and Minnesota teams that pioneered this baseball concept.
That translates into, among other things, saying goodbye to some prized free agents, who had priced themselves out of the Boston market. (To a certain extent, the Red Sox are cloning the philosophy of the neighboring football Patriots who have had success despite letting such stars as Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Adam Vinatieri and Willie McGinnest walk away for top dollar elsewhere.) It will also result in Boston being more of a marginal player in the free-agent market, resisting the headlines that came with the signings of such luminaries as Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Keith Foulke and Edgar Renteria. Instead they will hoard draft choices that, if the Red Sox are astute, will soon turn into low-salaried roster players. That, in turn, will enable the Red Sox to afford the salary castoffs, like Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett, from poorer franchises.
Trading deadline will always loom as a great temptation. And since all baseball in Boston is viewed through the prism of what the Yankees are doing, the Red Sox will inevitably be accused of standing pat, unwilling to compete. But they are intent on holding onto the kids at all costs, resisting the lure of quick fixes in the hopes that the young players will form a nucleus that can sustain the Red Sox at or near the top for years to come. It is worth noting that those quick fixes don’t always fix anything, and that the castaway kid may becomes a superstar elsewhere. Exhibit A: in 1988, the Red Sox obtained relief pitcher Larry Andersen from Houston to shore up the bullpen for the stretch run and all they gave up for the privilege was Jeff Bagwell. Oh yeah, and his 449 career home runs, all with the Astros. If that history is too ancient, how about this: just several seasons ago Theo, desperate to bolster pitching for the post-season push, traded a minor-league infielder named Freddy Sanchez to Pittsburgh for two veteran hurlers; both were busts—neither even made it onto the Red Sox post-season roster—and Sanchez is now leading the National League in hitting at .349.
The Red Sox vision is fundamentally sound—just check out the A’s and the Twins, especially their young pitching—and it is too early to pronounce judgment on Epstein’s Red Sox rendition. But it is not too early to recognize a host of Theo’s misjudgments, or at best apparent misjudgments, of pitching talent (Josh Beckett, Matt Clement, Julian Tavarez, Rudy Seanez) or everyday players that appear ill-suited for the life-and-death atmosphere that surrounds every game with this ballclub (Edgar Renteria, Coco Crisp). Those failures have forced Boston to rely on its kiddie brigade long before they were ready for the rigors of a long season and a pennant race, which, in turn, begat the slaughter at the hands of the Yankees.
Still, there was no rush on the sale of tar and feathers, no mob chasing the Red Sox as they made their way out of town. The more astute Sox fans may have never imagined quite such a debacle, but they had already recognized, in a sweep by the lowly Kansas City Royals just a week before, that this was definitely not going to be their year.
So while the Red Sox and Yankees both left town Monday headed for games on the West Coast, they were going in very different directions. For 2006, the Yankees are on cruise control to the playoffs and the Red Sox are in “wait til next year” rebuilding mode. As for the future, I am not enough of a sage to foretell. (Those who send gloating notes, aware of my Red Sox roots, after this series, please note that, in my pre-season predictions , I picked the Yankees to win the A.L. East and the Red Sox to fail to make the playoffs).
Let’s also not forget that this is a remarkable Yankee season, and that there are a host of factors that contributed to the team’s success. Among them:
The Damon factor: Johnny Damon, with hair or without, is a force of nature—on the field and in the locker room. Nobody doubted he would be a huge addition to the Yankee lineup, the natural leadoff man they lacked. But the impact of his subtraction from the Boston lineup wasn’t as clear until Coco Crisp busted his finger and then his audition. It also as clear that Damon’s somewhat manic idiocy would be the perfect antidote to the tensions (the Jeter-Rodriguez divide) in the Yankee locker room. The ultimate judgment on Sox sagacity in letting Damon walk won’t be made until the third and fourth year of his $52 million deal. But right now it stands as a TKO for New York. In a similar, though far less spectacular vein, the Yankees also speared lefty relief specialist Mike Myers away from Boston. Myers handled David Ortiz this past weekend, just like he did Jason Giambi last year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have gone without a lefty all season, even when they had one in the bullpen.
That which does not kill you: It is not a novel concept that in sports, as in life, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. I’m not suggesting that manager Joe Torre wasn’t reeling a bit when his two slugging outfielders, Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, went down with major injuries. But soon you could see a certain glee in Torre, a National Leaguer at heart, as he rejiggered the Yankee attack with steals, hit-and-run plays and other old reliables of offenses that don’t revolve entirely around the home run. The aggressive approach on the bases seems to have yielded a more aggressive mindset generally. I have long been an admirer of Torre and, while Detroit’s Jimmy Leyland, seems to have sewn up the manager of the year award, Torre would be equally worthy. This season may be his finest hour.
The bankrupt Minor League system: It has been an article of faith that the Yankees have bankrupted their minor league, always playing for the moment at hand. But somehow over the past two seasons, the Yankees have brought up several players from AAA Columbus, none of them that highly touted—Robinson Cano at second base, Melky Cabrera in the outfield, Scott Proctor, the workhorse in the bullpen—that have proved to be solid contributors and possibly even better than that. And at this year’s trading deadline, the Yankees made all their moves—very good ones—without trading away either of their best prospects. Given how young pitchers like Francisco Liriano, Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander and Jonathan Pappelbon have thrived in the big leagues this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see New York’s number one minor leaguer, 20-year-old pitcher Philip Hughes, providing the Yankees with a mid-season boost in 2007.
The Jeter factor: From almost the day he arrived in the majors in 1995, Derek Jeter has always been the Yankee, even if that became a little harder to discern with the arrival of Alex Rodriguez. Now that their fortunes are diverging every bit as clearly as New York’s and Boston’s, it is crystal clear. He is the heart and soul of the team and, along with Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams, provides the critical emotional link to the team’s championship legacy. He doesn’t need an MVP award this year (and may ultimately lose it to Big Papi David Ortiz) to be MVP.
The Steinbrenner Way: $194 million buys a lot of ballplayer and perhaps shouldn’t require any replenishing. But George Steinbrenner is in the December of his days and, if $194 million isn’t enough, he isn’t going to be deterred by more payroll or luxury taxes. General manager Brian Cashman has proved particularly astute at figuring out when to hold and when to deal—and, especially, whom to deal for. Last year Shawn Chacon proved a godsend. This year Bobby Abreu is making everybody forget Gary Sheffield (and the Yankees almost certainly forget his $16 million option for next year). And given all the journeyman pitchers that were available, Corey Lidle has quickly demonstrated that he can handle the heat from the Bronx to Boston.
The Yankees did everything against Boston except convince me of inevitability of their championship prospects. The Red Sox were so futile throughout the five games that those questions that remain about the Yankees were obscured. New York’s lineup may be second to none, but the team’s pitching, at least through the first eight innings is a little old, a little infirm and decidedly suspect. And its infield defense is woeful. The post-season tends to turn those particular weaknesses into giant stumbling blocks. The Angels slugged and ran their way to a championship a few seasons back so it isn’t impossible. But back in March, I picked Oakland to win it all this year. Nothing I’ve seen since, not even this Yankee blockbuster in Boston, has changed my mind.