October 29, 2007

The Curse is Broken (again)

Photos courtesy of Boston.com
After 86 years of suffering (25 endured first-hand by yours truly) and 3 years of tepid arrogance and band-wagon, cross-country worship during which we've irreversibly waived our proud underdog heritage, Red Sox fans have another reason to march drunk and rowdy through Kenmore Square, raging against the unspecified protocol for celebratory behavior. The culmination of a season's worth of expectations met and goals reached is an unfamiliar circumstance indeed. (I do realize I'm not actually ON the team but for the purposes of this post, let's assume fans actually do have something to do with the victory.) I have to say I'm impressed with this team. Having so much talent in one dugout can actually be tough to manage. But the combination of youthful enthusiasm, veteran leadership, and pure silliness is the perfect recipe. Then there's the on-field arsenal of well-rounded hitting, solid defense aided by speed and consistency, and top-notch pitching: LETHAL. This team had everything going for it this year and come post-season was firing on all cylinders. You can thank management and coaching for recognizing where guys needed rest and when they needed to be pushed. Fox Sports asked fans last night which team was better: 2007 or 2004. The answer is without a doubt this 2007 team. 2004 was entirely different but utterly spectacular. We were still the underdogs. We weren't supposed to win. And in the words of Mr.s Cowboy-Up Kevin Millar, "We shocked the world." But despite the lack of any bloody socks in 2007, I do think that the stories from this year will live in Red Sox lore for generations to come.

There's no denying that we witnessed the birth of a hall-of-fame career in Josh Beckett this year. He was already considered one of the best young talents in baseball, having the one ring to his credit in Florida. But despite his dominance in 2003, it almost doesn't count until you prove it. Last year, was a good year for Beckett but it was obvious he was still getting adjusted to life in Boston. But as the only 20-game winner this year and being absolutely lights (4-0) out in the post-season this year, and being the ace on the best pitching staff in baseball Beckett has come into his own as the premiere starter in the game. What's more is the Zen approach to pitching he's developed. His android face and casual confidence has to be maddening in the other dugout.

The bullpen was on drugs this year. You gotta love Okajima being picked up from Japan while shopping for Dice-K like an impulse buy that was near the register. This scrawny man made fools of the AL all year long. Timlin, is a horse. Coming in late in game 4 with not a fear in this world, my favorite red-neck shut it down hard. West Roxbury native, Manny Delcarmen was impressive all year long. Not over-powering but he did his job well. I also like the look of Kyle Snyder and occasionally Javier Lopez. The one low-light of the season was the unnecessary trade of the promising young pitcher Kason Gabbord (and more) to Texas for the Canadian waste of space Eric Gagne, who immediately proceeded to blow almost EVERY lead with which he was entrusted and almost single-handedly cost the Red Sox their season several times. I don't want to dwell on this topic, other than to say that Harpo Marx looking goober is the worst thing to come out of Canada since Celine Dion and I've often said he should be set adrift in the Atlantic on raft made of sugar cubes, eh?

We also witnessed the continued domination by one of the most entertaining Red Sox pitchers in a while, Jonathan Papelbon. His mound presence is unbelievable. That stare to the plate (as my friend Keith putt's it) is that of a high-school kid who just got pushed into one too many lockers and is ready to start fighting back. But we also saw the other side of Papelbon. A side we all really got to like. No one can walk around all the time with the intense bravado that Papelbon carries on the mound. As it turns out, he's quite the party animal. And what's more amazing is that he's that way all the time, except from about the 7th inning, to the last pitch. This kind of colorful dichotomy is one of the quickest ways into a Boston sports fan's heart.

And what about the other career years that were had? Kevin Youkilis? Or as the rest of the league was calling him before this year, Kevin Whokilis. The guy had an absolutely monster first half. He cooled off a tad in the second half, but was absolutely murderous in the post season. He has willed his way into household name status with his consistent hitting and fielding. Setting a major league record for error-free games at first base (*a record that is still on-going in the regular season) and just killing the ball to all fields while wearing down pitchers by making the 10-pitch at-bat an art form, this guy's the most beautifully disgusting dipping mass of sweat I've ever seen.

And how'bout that Mikey Lowell? Theo Epstein took a chance on the aging third-baseman, figuring he'd bring some veteran leadership, post-season experience, maturity and class to the organization. Tough shoes to fill at the hot corner too, after the departure of Billy Mueller. But boy did that work out. Not only did Lowell set an all-time Red Sox season record for RBI by a third-baseman, but he was money in the bank in the post season. With a solid 21 regular season homers to his credit, he also provided some protection in the lineup for Manny Ramirez. With his much-deserved World Series MVP in hand, his free-agent leverage is securely in hand. I just hope the Sox can resist the urge to entertain the idea of allowing him to slip away while wooing the ever-nauseating and morale-killing A-Rod. It would be damn near impossible to ever cheer for that cry-baby pretty-boy. And I'll go on record that A-Rod does NOT deserve to wear a Red Sox uniform.

Jason Varitek. That's a complete sentence where I come from. The strategic, emotional, spiritual leader. He had a very Tek-like year. Solid enough at the plate, godly behind it. When Dice-K was brought over last spring, Josh Beckett's only advice for him was "Trust Varitek". And he's right. The guy is the most prepared, diligent and focused professional athlete you'll ever see. He's passionate, but classy. He gets beat up night after night but never complains. He has the respect of the entire league. And he handles pitchers better than anyone I've ever seen. But seriously, you CAN'T get enough of this picture. My favorite part about this scuffle from '04 was the jab Varitek muttered to instigate the incident. To refresh your memory, the Sox and Yankees were involved in an intense mid-season series. It was A-Rod's first season in New York and (surprise) he wasn't living up to expectations. A-Rod took exception to being hit by a pitch. Varitek, escorting him toward first base tells him "Relax, we don't throw at .260 hitters." CLASSIC!! Game on.

Then there's the rookies. Dustin Pedroia should be the rookie of the year. Period. 5'9"/180 hitting .317 with a strut to boot? Perfect. Jacoby Ellsbury came up for a taste mid-season and he brought some life. But coming back in the late season to give guys like Manny and Coco a break was awe-inspiring. The confidence of those two guys could spark any lineup. And with less than 100 at-bats in '07 Jacoby's still technically a rookie next year! Are you KIDDING ME?! Clay Bucholz came up like a restless child coming downstairs to crash a grown-up party. He turned heads in his first start, but dropped jaws with an unbelievable no-hitter in his second start. The Red Sox smartly protected his young arm after that by giving him limited work the rest of the season.

Then there's Jon Lester. The young left-handed World-Series clincher with big league stuff has an even bigger sense of confidence and perspective. So much is made of his battle with Lymphoma and it seems at times that discussing it with media was even tougher. But his maturity and poise in both cases is amazing. What struck me most, and what Fox failed to pick up on is the heart-wrenching passion of his parents in the stands. In June, he made his first start this year after a remarkably quick recovery from chemotherapy treatments. He proceeded to dominate the game, but a camera was fixed on his parents sitting on the first base line. His father welled up with quiet pride and admiration. His mother, paralyzed with fierce desire, clenched her fists in a kind of joyous anguish. With every pitch her tears seemed to project power into the ball. At one point, Jon struck out the side, and his parents leaped to their feet as if the power of the crowed lifted them out of their seats, out of their own bodies. I'm emotional just writing about it as they seemed so much like my own parents, rooting for each of us. Never with pressure, just furious love.

There's also these other guys, Manny, Papi, Dice-K, Shilling. Yeah they're ok too. It was a great season. I've thanked Sarah repeatedly for buying me the Extra Innings Package so I could see all the games. I'll miss watching the games, but I'm glad I can stop hearing Tim McCarver for a while. Looking forward to spring training, but it's time now to focus on Skiing. Check in soon for powder shots!

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