Friday, September 18, 2009

The inevitable, rambling, overlong baseball post

Certainly most people who know baseball know John Lester's story. How he was a promising young pitcher who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was 22. How he spent a year in chemotherapy and then came back and at 25 is probably the most dominant left handed pitcher in the game of baseball right now. He's just recently broken Bruce Hurst's record for most strikeouts in a single season by a Sox lefty and was totally on point last Sunday evening out at Fenway Park, allowing three hits and no runs over eight innings.

I saw it live and in person from the State Street pavilion half way up the third base line, which it was my first time to sit up there, and I do have to say that it was really just totally pretty awesome. You're looking down on the field from way up high and but you feel so close like being right on top of the field, and you get a really clear view of how well Lester commands both sides of the plate, how much movement his fastball has, how devastating his cut fastball really is. It just bends right at the plate, virtually unhittable when he's got it working. It was a joy to see it.

I went on Tuesday as well and got to see Daisuke take the mound for the first time since June, and he was solid, went right after hitters, and got the K's when he needed them. And at every big strike out the crowd was right behind him. Getting to their feet, yelling, clapping, shouting their support (or disdain for like Figgins or whoever [which really how can you not like Chone Figgins?]). The nation was roaring for the K, for the kill. And while I think it's great that he got such support and a standing O when he left the mound for the dugout with one on and no outs in the seventh with a pat on the back from Tito and a tip of his cap to the hollering crowd, I still think it's just really shitty that Sox fans are so quick to boo their own team's players when those players are struggling.

Matsuzaka was booed off the mound back in June after being 33-15 in his first two years here after making the switch from the Japanese puro yakyuu (only three other pitchers had better records over that span, and one of them got a Cy and an eight year, 230ish million dollar contract with the Yankees for his troubles [And I know Matsuzaka's outings were consistently flukish and mostly short over that period; still they were consistently wins]). They booed Takashi Saito (who has an ERA in the 3.40 range as of this writing and was down in the twos maybe when it happened) as he was about to (I repeat about to) give up the losing run in what had been a tie game since the sixth on one of Penny's better starts just before the break. I don't understand why you would boo your own pitcher right as he's trying to send the game into extra innings, even if he did just walk the bases full. Course they booed Lugo a lot before he was put on waivers. And then there's the fact that Red Sox fans will forever have the distinction of being the only fans in baseball probably ever to have booed John Smoltz. That's really, really classy folks.

In retrospect, the idea that John Smoltz and/or Brad Penny could each/either both come back from serious injuries and make the switch to the American League was some serious wishful thinking. I admit, I thought it could work, but now that I think back, it doesn't seem like it really ever could've. Penny has no reliable secondary pitch. He's a fastball pitcher all the way. Even with perfect location, there's no way you can make that work in the long run against AL lineups. And the Smoltz project was even more pie in the sky, I now also see. Here's a guy that basically had to reinvent himself then now that his fastball is in the high eighties/ low nineties, down from the high nineties even just a few years ago basically because he went to the bullpen for so many years and pitched the middle of his career out of the pen amassing no less than 254 saves. I think. Still, now that he's older, there's just no more blowing guys away with the heat.

Pinpoint accuracy, finesse, a little deception, and at least one out pitch are the barest of necessaries in order to find success in the AL East. Smoltz's slider was real when he could get it to fall, but he was having trouble throwing it for strikes all the way from his starts with the triple-A PawSox onward, and his then now slow fastball (by Major League standards at least) becomes a meatball if it catches any of the middle of the plate and the hitter's looking for it. Trying to figure out how to deal with all of that and a DH and coming off major shoulder surgery was a lot to ask. I mean, coming back and starting at 42 and trying to figure all that out in what is unquestionably the toughest division in all of baseball was never going to be easy. Add to that the pressure of playing for the BoSox. Only a very slight chance that whole project ever had. And I still wonder what would've happened if they'd offered or he'd accepted a set-up role in the Boston pen (Saito was able to make the transition even returning from injury), and for example Buchholz had come on as the fifth. Would we be looking down at the Yankees and not up? Who can say if that wouldn't've been too soon to bring the kid up. If he'd've had his confidence all the way back by then (which he sure does now, and even though Lester was great, I was a little sorry that I didn't get to see Clay as planned before the rain out Friday pushed Sunday's schedule forward).

I did say before the season last year that it would be too much pressure getting regular turns in the rotation for either Lester or Clay. Actually I said it was gonna be too much pressure for both of them, and that it was too soon, but I was only right about Buchholz. Lester was the rock last year. Number two from May on and the number one starter for most of the season and into the post season right up to that top shelf game seven performance when he got only just barely out pitched by Garza in the ALCS, throwing a No against Kansas City at some point along the way to there (a defeat to the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship series, sending them onto the World Series and the Sox into the off season).

Still, two rookie starting pitchers on one of the most high pressure teams in all of major league sports, especially with the expectations for Clay after having already thrown a no hitter in the second start of his career back at the end of '07 (a thing that even some of the greatest pitchers retire without having ever done), there was very little chance that that wouldn't be too much. Course Lester probably has a little more perspective on the whole thing than Clay (who just recently got engaged to a suitcase model from that Howie Mandel show with the suitcases for whatever that's worth) what with the hair loss and the facing of death that is the battle with cancer. Even still I say that the 45 million dollar contract coming almost right before the season opened spun Lester's head a bit and had him a little distracted and contributed to his early struggles this year. I would suggest to Theo that it's surely a good idea to get those things done earlier in the off season and certainly before spring training if at all possible.

See, the pressure in Boston baseball is not just the bright media spotlight (and top quality sports writing from both the Globe and the Herald [and also some pretty rudely jerk-off column writing from both as well]), it's not just the park (which can be pretty hitter friendly at times [although can also be a huge home field advantage with its' strange dimensions, passionate fans, and of course the green monster]), it's also the rivalry. Having to try and keep pace with the New York Yankees (especially this particular year's second half, holy mother what?!) and their unmatched revenue streams as their main rival has been difficult for the home team here in Beantown, especially when the division they are already both in boasts a third team that beat out both of these teams and went all the way to the Series before being beaten by Philly last year even if they have now faded back to 500 after being swept by the Sox this past weekend (of which Lester was the final game going against James Shields) and are now fully out of the hunt. As well as Roy Halladay coming around for Toronto (who pulled the reverse of their usual and started strong before fading just before the break) and the still potentially damaging Baltimore line up (even if they are 2-15 against the Sox this year [the most totally lopsided it's been in a while]).

But because there is no profit sharing amongst the teams in baseball each team essentially controls the rights for its own markets and just gets paid per by ESPN or Fox or whatnot for the weekly Saturday and Sunday baseball on what must just be a season to season basis for whichever few good match ups get picked up. Substantial monies go to the players and MLB of the post-season receipts from whoever makes it to where ever, so the real source of money for a team is in stadium receipts and cable television revenues from the regular season. And in this regard New York just cleans everybody's clock. There is no more lucrative sports market in all of the world than NYC.

Which is why New York has two of every major sport. A good one and a shitty one often, although still even more often lately two shitty ones. And less occasionally these days two good ones. They haven't really had the kind of sports luck (or perhaps acumen is the right word here [heh, heh]) that Boston has had this new millenium in general sports success. Still, the Yankees do and always will have more money than every other team in baseball without, dare I say this, regulation. The New York Yankees payroll, relatively speaking, claims the largest differential between its main rival, the Boston Red Sox, of any rivalry payroll differential of any and all professional sports rivalries. In '08 it was 135 to 240 something. A difference of over 100 million dollars. That's still a lot of bread. I don't care how much money the Fed just printed or the banks and the markets've lost.

And for a lot of reasons that team has been less and less successful for the past 10 or so years (to the great enjoyment of Bostonians and Red Sox Nation generally). And even after going out and spending 400 million (over a period of years) for three big time free agent signings over the off season [and overpaid by half for at least two of them, but we'll just have to wait and see about that]), they still struggled early as Alex Rodriguez was swamped with the steroid allegation and then went down with an injury, and Sabathia, Texiera, and Burnett all started slow. Finally though we saw what that team could do as they just destroyed the Sox in the middle serieses (Can you pluralize series? I guess the second plural is just sort of assumed to be understandable from the context) of the season, winning 4 or 5 games straight and starting with the broom in the Bronx over three back in August.

The bombers didn't get here on pace to easily win 100 without the Sox taking several of the early series (es) themselves though. I believe it was three. Three beautiful sweeps that is (even if one was only a two gamer and doesn't really count as a series). Still, this tells you how well the Yanks have been playing since the break that the Sox are five games back even with eight straight early season wins against 'em. Those were good times, I do gotta say. I will always always for the rest of my life always and forever enjoy watching or listening to the Sox beat the Yanks or reading it in the paper the next day or even just going to and checking the box scores and quick run down, which is mostly all I get to do these days. Always will get up for that.

Yes, the Sox are trailing right now as we're coming down to the wire but only by five games and only by four losses. Which means the AL East pennant is still on the table, if within a fairly close reach for the bombers. This road trip the Sox are currently on is the key as it ends in NYC for 3. (Just quick, yo, the key is NYC for three. And also just quick, what up with the new Yankee stadium. It's a damn launching pad. I swear they did that on purpose somehow.) The hometown heroes here in Boston've just about clinched a wild card spot at the very least as Texas is on the fade as we head down the stretch, and surprisingly it's not their pitching that's the problem. It's been their hitting here recently, which is pretty odd as the Rangers have been one of the best hitting teams in the game for quite sometime and still sport a dangerous if hard slumping line up. It's really just been this year that their young crop of pitchers had finally been successful. And then they get shut out for like two and a half games, maybe longer. And now they're all but done for the year.

As for Boston's staff, way back in spring training, a lot of people were saying that the BoSox's starting rotation might be the strongest in baseball, and for most of the season those people were mostly wrong. All of a sudden, right when things are getting serious, it just looks like they might end up where we all thought they were gonna be way back when. That rules the schoolyard.

Also, Vlad Guerrero looks like he's getting ready to join Mel Gibson's Braveheart crew and bash some skulls when he's warming up on deck swinging that bat around behind his head all crazy, and Gary Mathews Jr. has about the widest, most bent legged batting stance I've ever seen. Also again, Billy Wagner has a pretty funky delivery his own bad self. The guy looks like he's throwing a knuckleball, but then the ball kinda zooms out of his hand to the plate. It's really weird looking and really effective. He'll get his four hundredth save next year for somebody fer sure. And Shields's set move when he's about to throw is this quick sweeping sideward motion to the set. Also weird, although not ultimately very effective this season.

I have to say, Sox fans are like lost puppy dogs. They seem to wander around aimlessly, making it virtually impossible to move in the walkways underneath the stands. They stand around in the middle of these walkways. Bunching up especially at the various entrances out to the stands; at the very focal point of all traffic is where people always stop. Obnoxious does not even begin. Riding the T with everyone is pretty crappy too because there's never enough cars for at least an hour before and an hour after every game, so it's like sardines that T riding is. And I cannot say enough about how much I dislike Sweet Caroline as Red Sox nation's theme song. I don't mean to be mean, but, seriously, like seriously seriously, we need a new theme already. Not only does the song suck, but it's also all the way tired now after how many years of being played at virtually every home game? They've played it once a game at every one I've been to over the past three years almost without fail. I do love the music Alex Gonzalez and Victor Martinez stand in to though. Some kind of double time Caribbean stuff. Really pretty rad. And lastly I wonder if Pedey picked Dr. Dre for himself or if that's meant as some kind of joke (I would guess not as it's been his music since at least last season [It still does seem funny to me though that Dustin Pedroia stands in to Dre]).

Okay then, I'd say that's enough baseball talk (as if that's even possible, hah!).

No comments: