Page 2 columnist
Since it's late-September, you know what that means ... that's right, it's time for my annual Red Sox eulogy! As a die-hard Sox fan, sitting down to write this piece always feels like stretching out on Dr. Melfi's sofa. It's almost a cathartic experience, a chance to gather all the accumulated pain and agony from the six-month season, then inflict it on you, the unsuspecting reader. Isn't that why they created sports columns in the first place?
Looking back, Boston's 2002 baseball season was weirder than most, a year when the Sox trotted out seven All-Stars, including two 20-game winners, a potential batting champion and a shortstop on pace for 200 hits and 120 RBI ... and yet they weren't even one of the best five teams in their own league. How does that make sense? Usually, when a baseball team falls short, you can always latch onto something -- shaky managing, injuries, shaky chemistry or whatever else. Not this year.
As usual, my dad summed it up best. About six weeks ago, we were talking on the phone for the first time in days, gabbing away about anything and everything. As the phone call wound down, I wondered, "Hey, we aren't even gonna talk about the Red Sox?"
Dead silence on the other end.
Finally: "Nahhhh. They don't have it this year."
Best piece of analysis I heard all season. Seriously. They don't have it this year. Perfect. That's how everyone felt. I could throw 600 different stats and anecdotes at you that, collectively, would piece together a complicated "What's wrong this team?" puzzle. But only one observation truly matters, an intuitive thing, not a contrived statistic: If the 2002 Red Sox were trailing by one or more runs in the final three innings of any game, they were done. Stick a fork in 'em. And you knew it.
I could easily back this up with evidence -- stuff like "They went more than three months without rallying from behind to win a game after the sixth inning," or "They were 12-22 in one-run games" -- but that would be obscuring the point. Watching this team day in and day out, watching the body language, watching the way parts assembled into a whole, watching the inability of Player A to pick up Players B through H with a big hit (with Player A changing every game), watching the way opponents slammed the door time and time again in close games ... after awhile, you just knew:
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They don't have it this year.
When a baseball team has "it," they start winning in the weirdest possible ways, usually with some sort of mindless gimmick or quirky stretch that unfolds during the season. Like the 2002 Angels (all those goofy wins, the Rally Monkey, how they snuck up on everyone after a slow start) or the 2002 A's (the May housecleaning, the incredible pitching taking over, the jaw-dropping 20-win streak, Miguel Tejada emerging as a Level One superstar) -- in both cases, there were things happening. Good things.
Not with the Sox. During that aforementioned three-month stretch, there wasn't a single memorable game -- they were either winning 12-2 or losing 4-3, with no middle ground, and quality teams such as Arizona, Seattle and Atlanta were having them for lunch. Watching this day after day was excruciating; one time, I actually cued up the ending of "The Natural," just to remember what it looked like when someone slammed a game-winning hit and his teammates joyously leapt out of the dugout.
A little misfortune didn't help. Manny Ramirez broke a finger and missed seven weeks (it took him nearly three months in all to regain his hitting stroke). Johnny Damon wrenched a knee before the All-Star break, free-falling faster than Tony Montana in the last hour of "Scarface." They brought in two big pieces just before the trading deadline -- slugger Cliff Floyd and set-up man Alan Embree -- and both of them suffered injuries within two weeks (Floyd was hampered by a hip flexor and never really recovered). Even during their last gasp run in early-September, Pedro Martinez's body broke down (first time all year!) just long enough for him to miss a crucial start at Yankee Stadium. It was that kind of year.
Throw in two horrible offseason moves -- millions given away to washed-up veterans John Burkett (coming off a contract year in Atlanta) and Tony Clark (waived by the Tigers, which should have told everyone something) -- as well as the inexplicable demise of reliable set-up man Rich Garces, a crummy season from closer Ugueth Urbina (six losses, five blown saves), injuries to Rolando Arrojo and Dustin Hermanson, way too many innings from John Wasdin Memorial Scholarship winner Frank Castillo, and maddeningly streaky hitting from one-third of the lineup (Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and Brian Daubach, who always seemed to be streaking down at the wrong times) ... I mean, was it surprising that this team didn't have "it"?
They just weren't that good. And after everything I just wrote, you probably think they're on pace for 80 wins this season.
Wrong. Try 95.
Would some good luck and a few timely hits have changed that "95" to a "103"? Yeah, probably. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't ... and this Red Sox team never had "it." Maybe next year.
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You would think this knowledge was enough to satiate Boston fans. Of course not. Here in Boston, we're like Lt. Kaffee interrogating Col. Jessep -- we want answers, we want the truth, and dammit, we aren't going to be denied (even if it's risking a potential court martial). A trite explanation like "They don't have it this year" simply doesn't fly. Not only has this team gone 84 years without winning a World Series, New Englanders are dying every day without having seen the Red Sox win a championship in their lifetimes. We're watching it happen, knowing fully that it could be us some day, a collective urgency that becomes more poignant every year.
|in Boston, we want answers, we want the truth, and dammit, we aren't going to be denied. A trite explanation like "They don't have it this year" simply doesn't fly. Not only has this team gone 84 years without winning a World Series, New Englanders are dying every day without having seen the Red Sox win a championship in their lifetimes. We're watching it happen, knowing fully that it could be us some day, a collective urgency that becomes more poignant every year.|
Throw in an especially muggy summer, dizzyingly high expectations, a ravenous media (more on them in a second) and a particularly perplexing team and, by August, we were completely insane. Once upon a time, I actually believed that the good Patriots karma (from their improbable Super Bowl season) would transfer to the Red Sox, their fans and even the local media this summer. Boy, was I wrong. If anything, the Patriots hangover made people even less patient with the Sox.
In June, we blamed Ramirez for being dumb enough to slide headfirst into the catcher (breaking his finger and eventually derailing the offense). That shifted to the typical "What's wrong with these guys?" stuff when they struggled in interleague play. By the All-Star break, we were panicking ("Seven All-Stars and we still can't beat the Yanks?") and debating issues like "Why is No-mah swinging at the first pitch so much?" As July chugged along, reporters kept unearthing evil stats that sent us into a frenzy (29-30 since May 17, 6-14 in one-run games, etc.). And all hell broke loose in August, after those deadline deals couldn't halt a collective swoon.
It's Grady Little's fault. No, it's Manny's fault. No, it's Nomar's fault. Actually, it's the bullpen's fault. Don't forget about the starting pitching. This team has no heart. This team needs a leader. These guys look too complacent. There's no urgency here. They're just unlucky. They're choke artists.
It was an endless barrage, fueled by an irrational media looking for ways to fill four-hour radio shows, sell newspapers and maintain TV ratings. The Red Sox fall short every year, but something felt different this time. There was a meanspiritedness, a nasty edge cultivated by intense competition in the local media more than anything else. With Boston already a crowded landscape for sports talk, the addition of a second all-sports radio station (the Zone) and two daily TV shows (on FSN and NESN) pushed things over the top -- you couldn't turn on a radio or TV without eventually hearing someone pick apart the Red Sox.
For me, that's been the most intriguing subplot of the season. Two unique dynamics are working here, both of which warrant exploring (even if you aren't from Boston, the same thing is probably happening in your city):
1. The burgeoning number of radio/TV gigs have evolved into a cottage industry for writers and local personalities (captured perfectly by suburban columnist Lenny Megliola in a MetroWest Daily News feature last week). Radio co-hosts pocket $300 for four hours of work; 10-minute TV appearances can yield another $250 (sometimes more, depending on the person).
Of course, some local guys have shamelessly exploited these opportunities, juggling as many as six radio/TV gigs during a single week, making the same points every time and laughing all the way to the bank. Desperate for programming and unable to find new blood, the local stations keep putting the same guys on again and again, similar to the way that the same six guys appear in all 10,000 porn movies produced every year.
Full disclosure: As I've mentioned before in this space, I appear on Sean McDonough's radio show (on The Zone) three to four times a month, but that's it. I don't like repeating myself four times a week, and I certainly don't need the extra money that badly. Call me crazy. I actually sat down this summer, mapped out all the extra cash I could be earning on the side, deducted the IRS's take, came up with a ballpark figure, then debated, "Is this extra money worth A) turning myself into a self-parody, B) getting recognized every time I'm out in public, C) overexposing myself, and D) inevitably affecting my productivity for ESPN.com?" No way.
Other people feel differently, and since many of them have families and mortgages, they have every right to earn as much extra cash as they can. But with all these available gigs, it's become a free-for-all for $$$$$$$$ and air time, and the best way to stand out is by saying and writing increasingly outlandish things.
That leads to ...
2. With everyone competing for air time and attention, there's an inherent pressure to "up the ante," to come up with "something good," to produce an "angle" that nobody thought of before (yes, I'm doing my Chris Farley routine).
For instance, the way Ramirez was treated this season has been almost criminal. Maybe he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, and maybe he's a little infuriating at times, and maybe he shouldn't have chosen "I Got High" as his entrance music for an at-bat (now that was comedy), and maybe he should have run out that ground ball a few weeks ago ... but jeez, the local press made him out to be a cross between the Rain Man, Method Man, Harpo Marx and Satan. Everyone divided into Pro-Manny and Anti-Manny camps, like they were choosing sides in kickball, and the ensuing chaos dominated the airwaves for most of September. I wish I could just swallow a pill and block the whole saga from my mind.
When they signed Manny two winters ago, we knew he was a head case, we knew the Sox overpaid for him -- because then-GM Dan Duquette was desperate to justify ticket hikes and cover up the fact he blew the Mike Mussina Sweepstakes -- and yet 99.9999 percent of the fans were practically doing backflips when Manny signed here. It was like they were acquiring Babe Ruth in his prime (OK, bad analogy). So Manny arrives in Beantown, posts his typically gaudy numbers (.324 BA, 74 HR, 229 RBI, 1.050 OPS, and he missed seven weeks this season), suffers a couple of Manny-esque mini-meltdowns (he turned out to be as quirky as advertised) ... and now some media members were arguing that he was an untradeable cancer? Please.
And then there was Nomar Garciaparra. Say what you want about him, but he always plays hard and seems like he cares -- I mean, really cares, like in a "He heads home after a loss and broods about it for 45 minutes" kinda way. And maybe he hasn't improved much as an all-around player since his rookie season, and maybe he carried a Joe Pesci-like edginess with the media this season, and maybe he even emerges as a potential Ewing Theory candidate if they trade him some day. But that doesn't mean you go after him. Not Nomar. He's practically a Boston institution at this point. People love him here.
That didn't stop the Boston Herald's Steve Buckley. Spurred on by some harmless, sarcastic comments made by Nomar about playing in Boston, Buckley waited four days, then skewered Boston's star shortstop in a back page column for Wednesday's paper.
It wasn't the idea that bothered me -- columnists rile up fans from time to time, everyone has different methods for doing that, and everyone is entitled to his (or her) opinion. Comes with the territory. Personally, I always thought the ideal sports columnist should make you laugh, make you think, make the games a little more fun to watch, and make the reader appreciate the craft of writing in general. If they fail to accomplish all four of these things, they should be considered failures at their job. End of story.
(For example, three days before Buckley's column appeared in the Herald, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune's John Tomase wondered in a similar column if Nomar and the Red Sox should part ways. Thoughtful piece. A little strong, but at least he backed it up with evidence, and at least everything was presented in a coherent way. Tomase's piece made me think. I didn't agree with him, but at least he made me mull it over. You can't ask for much more than that.)
As for Buckley's column, his cartoonish, "You don't deserve to play in this great city, Nomar!" slant came off stronger than he probably intended -- he ended up backtracking and claiming that people read the column wrong (because it's clearly the readers' fault when a column is written so poorly that they can't understand the point). He didn't make me laugh, he didn't make me think, and he certainly didn't make it more fun to follow the Red Sox. No matter. Buckley's Nomar-bashing column was shamelessly strewn across the Herald's back page, "coincidentally" running on the same day that Buckley was co-host for WEEI's drive-time show, no less (excellent timing!).
Well, guess who the media star was last week? That's right ... Mr. Steve Buckley!
On the very same day, the back page of a newspaper and a drive-time radio show revolved around him. Other writers and radio hosts nitpicked at some of Buckley's facts and comments (including his erroneous statement that Nomar called the press box this summer to complain about an error), keeping him in the limelight. Poor Nomar met with everybody in the local media save for the Globe's second-floor janitor, just to quell any rumors that he despises it here (keeping the story alive for the rest of the week). And on Sunday night, Buckley triumphantly appeared on Bob Lobel's "Sports Final" TV show, featured in a segment geared entirely around the fallout from his 4-day-old column.
In other words, Buckley ended up getting exactly what he wanted.
But that's how it works here in Boston now. If you're lucky enough to break into the inner circle in Boston -- whether as a TV reporter, radio host or writer -- there's money to be made, as long as you make enough of a commotion. Just remember to wash the blood off your hands at the end of the day.
So how does this media stuff affect the 2002 Red Sox? Because it made a disappointing season practically unbearable, it was like HBO following an "Arli$$" marathon with 12 hours of "The Mind of the Married Man." Could it get any more frustrating than an enigmatic, charisma-less, $110 million team that underachieved for much of the season, coupled with a rabid, opportunistic media picking them apart at every turn? I think not.
All I know is that the park hasn't changed, the fans haven't changed, the media actually seems to be getting worse ... and for the 84th straight season, the Boston Red Sox have fallen short. Just another fitting epitaph for the annual Red Sox eulogy. The only thing that keeps me sane is that, maybe next year, I won't have to write one.
(Repeat after me: There's always next year ... there's always next year ... there's always next year ... there's always next year ...)Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.