Expect The Unreal

This morning, while walking my children into their school, a friend of my 6 year-old’s told me, “My dad was at the Red Sox game last night, but he left after the top of the seventh inning.”

Then, at the coffee shop, the guy at the cash register (observing the B on my sweatshirt) said to me, “I assume you stayed up to watch that game. I turned it off after they went down, 5 to nothing. But what a comeback. That was unreal.” Then another woman in line said, “What, they WON? I was there but I left after the fifth inning. They WON?”

Yes, I was at the game last night, and I could write pages and pages about what I saw and what I felt. But the morning after the greatest comeback in League Championship Series history, I’ve gotta write about Yogi’s profound quotation, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

The whole reason to attend a baseball game is to see the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. If you are leaving a game before it’s over, or turning off your TV before the game ends, you haven’t yet evolved to the point of understanding what baseball IS ALL ABOUT. (Or, you fell asleep on your couch after a long day at work…. regrettable, but understandable.)

I know that there are many reasons to attend a baseball game besides seeing great comebacks. The festive atmosphere, majestic home runs, phenomenal defensive plays, spending quality time with a child or sibling… but the core point of baseball is to remind us all that, in life, anything CAN happen, and anything WILL happen. And the decision to stop watching a game before it’s completely over nullifies a fan’s potential to personally experience this amazing truth in all its glory.

Now, I must say that only about 10% of Fenway’s seats were empty when J.D. Drew smoked that game-winning line drive over Gabe Gross’s head in the wee hours of the morning. It turns out that most of the fans who ventured out to the game last night were the kind who always stay ’til the end, and based on the LOUD noise they made when Pedroia drove in the first run of the comeback (to make it 7-1 Rays, still a bleak situation), they were a fervent band of believers. They “get it” about baseball.

To suck all the juice out of being a baseball fan, you must become A BELIEVER. You must resist the tug of logic that lectures to you, “This game is over, there’s no way they can come back and win.” You must ignore the mature voices in your head that advise, “If you leave now, you can beat the crowd and be asleep in your bed by midnight. After all, big day at work tomorrow.” To be rewarded with all that baseball has to offer, you must bet the house every game. Truly expect something spectacular to happen, and sacrifice convenient home-bound transportation, sleep, and even your reputation as a grounded human being to the Diamond Gods. Have faith in the unreal.

People who leave games early have their feet planted firmly in “reality,” and in “rationality,” and in “the odds are…”, and in “being smart,” and in avoiding life’s (and baseball’s) sublime exquisiteness! People who leave Red Sox elimination playoff games early …. well, they just haven’t learned yet that you don’t do that, despite the lesson of Dave Henderson in 1986, and the lesson of Dave Roberts in 2004, and the many other startling lessons from recent Sox history (some happy memories, some not).

“The Rays haven’t lost a game all season when leading by 4 or more runs”…. “no team since 1929 has overcome a 7-run deficit in an elimination playoff game”…. “the Red Sox are slumping and the Rays are at the peak of their game”…. all of these “facts” scream at us to “face reality,” give up, and go home. But reality doesn’t exist until it unfolds before us, and over and over again Red Sox fans have learned that in postseason play, the reality that unfolds is usually shocking!

A friend came into my office this morning and said, “Watching those hits by Coco, Papi, and Drew — it was like a DREAM.” Not only was it LIKE a dream, it WAS a dream. Reality and rationality and the odds and being smart go right out the window when the Sox have their backs against the wall. Red Sox playoff games – indeed, ALL baseball games are dreams that we get to participate in with eyes wide open. And you don’t leave dreams early.

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The 2008 Season Starts Today

It’s fascinating to see how many people have given up hope for the 2008 Red Sox. Hello, don’t you realize that the season doesn’t even BEGIN for the Red Sox until they have their backs against the wall? And have you forgotten that the Red Sox have won 7 straight elimination games in the ALCS? To win those games, they had to defeat guys like Mariano Rivera, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, C.C. Sabathia, and Fausto Carmona. Is it really that unthinkable to add Scott Kazmir and James Shields to this list?

And it’s fascinating to me to hear people say, “Yeah, but this time, IT’S DIFFERENT.” Really? So, when the Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS (after getting pounded in game 3), you had more faith in their potential to come back? And when they were down 3-1 to the Indians in the 2007 ALCS (after getting pounded in game 4), you had more faith in their potential to come back?

Look, when the Sox are down in the ALCS, their mojo turns around. Mark Bellhorn was 1 for 12 in the first three games of the 2004 ALCS, then he went 4-14 with 2 huge home runs in games 4,5,6, and 7. Johnny Damon was 1 for 18 in the first four games, then he went 5 for 17 in the next three games, with 2 huge home runs in game 7 in Yankee Stadium. I know, these guys aren’t even HERE this time around… but it’s the same uniform, and mojo carries over from year to year.

More evidence that the Rays are about to implode came over the newswire when we learned that Joe Maddon has decided to over-manage by switching up his rotation to pitch Scott Kazmir in game 5. MISTAKE. He has just messed with his team’s mojo and he’s about to learn a valuable lesson — don’t mess with your team’s mojo.  With Kazmir pitching batting practice at Fenway tonight, we’ll win game 5 and head to the Trop with momentum. The fear we saw in the Rays’ eyes in game 1 will be back for games 6 and 7, and Beckett and Lester don’t lose big games. Good luck next year, Tampa Bay.

Am I the only one who is predicting the Red Sox will win their next three games? Are people so worried about their reputations, so obsessed with statistical probabilities (the chances of winning three in a row against an equal opponent is one in eight), so ignorant of what REALLY matters (mojo) that they have truly jumped ship?

Red Sox Nation, history has shown that Boston baseball memories don’t begin to be manufactured until TODAY, when the Red Sox MUST win. Buckle your seatbelt. If you can get a ticket, get your butt to Fenway. The 2008 Red Sox season is about to begin.

Sox in 7, then it’s bring on the Phillies. Ah, the poor Phillies.

And then there were four….

Here are my thoughts as we gear up for the ALCS:

1) The day that the Mets lost and the Brewers won, on the last day of the season (breaking their first place tie), was one of the most exciting baseball-viewing experiences I’ve had in the last few years. My son and I were watching the Mets game on the TV and the Brewers game on MLBtv (Internet), and even though I’m not a Brewers fan, I could feel their hunger to make it to the postseason (for the first time in 26 years). Sabathia pitched like a God. And the pain that Mets fans feel, having lost the division on the last day of the season TWO YEARS IN A ROW, might be their payback for games 6 and 7 of the 1986 World Series. What comes around goes around…

2) The Cubs’ problems were clearly mental. You don’t finish the season with the best record in MLB and then drop three in a row in the Division Series unless you’re psyched out. And you don’t make three errors in one inning with your ace on the mound unless you’re psyched out. What did the Red Sox do after game 3 of the 2004 ALCS (down, three games to none) to gain the momentum they’ve had ever since? They didn’t suddenly get BETTER. Something clicked in their heads. Oh, what would the Cubs give for the formula for that “click?”

3) I enjoy watching the NLCS games almost as much as I will enjoy watching the ALCS games. It’s baseball. Playoff baseball. Every at bat, every pitch is one of the most important in each player’s career. This is what these players dreamed about, playing wiffle ball in their driveways growing up. The thousands of hours of practice, the hundreds and thousands of games they have played in their lives, have all led to playing in baseball’s “final four.” Every starter, every bench player, every relief pitcher, even the managers and third base coaches could be part of a moment that will define their careers — and it could happen at any time. Plus, these are great players, many of them future hall of famers — Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamels, Lidge, Ramirez, Furcal, Maddux, Lowe, and of course, Joe Torre.

4) I sent out a new poll to the Red Sox Nation governors this evening. Here are my answers to my own questions:

a) I expect the Red Sox to win the ALCS in four games. That’s right, a sweep of the mighty, precocious Rays. Yes, it’s hard to really imagine sweeping, but I have difficulty imagining a Red Sox loss — in fact, I refuse to imagine that. So, I predict a sweep.

b) The National League team that I would prefer to face in the World Series is the Dodgers. Why? Boston-L.A. is a raucous rivalry, and it would be a blast to “beat L.A.” twice in one year. It would be a classic battle of coasts, a battle of cultures, a battle of climates, a battle of styles. It’s two teams with incredibly rich baseball traditions.  It would be a reunion of the 2004 Red Sox, with almost as many members of that Red Sox team on the current Dodgers squad (Manny, Lowe, and Nomar, though Nomar was only on the Sox for the first half of 2004). You know they’d show lots of highlights of the ’04 Series if the Dodgers were our opponent — and that would be fine with me. Even the Manny highlights. I still love the guy and what he brought our team.

c) When I can’t be at Fenway, my preferred mode of watching the Red Sox in a playoff game is to watch in my living room, sitting half the time and pacing the other half of the time, drinking a Polar Orange Dry soft drink, either alone or with my nine year-old son. (I’m not the best company during a Red Sox playoff game…. “anti-social” would describe me well during these three hours….)

5) I love that Francona is showing such faith in his pitching staff by keeping them in order… Daisuke, then Beckett, then Lester, with Tim Wakefield thrown in for good measure.

Trop time!

The Sleepless Veep

I wish I had the energy to write everything I’m thinking about the last two games of the Sox-Angels series, but like most of Red Sox Nation, I am operating today on about 5 hours sleep (and that’s the TOTAL amount of sleep I’ve gotten over the last TWO nights), and like most of Red Sox Nation, I have a full-time job that continues to demand my time and brain power regardless of how late I’m staying up, and I have a slew of young children who claim every other waking minute, around the clock. Suffice it to say, WHAT A BALL GAME LAST NIGHT. And what a gutsy call by Angels manager Mike Scoscia is for trying the suicide squeeze with one out in the ninth in a crucial playoff game that’s tied. And will the Red Sox please re-train Jon Lester to think like a nine-inning pitcher? Or at least an eight-inning pitcher? He CAN’T come out of that game. GO SOX!!

Gotta go.

11 Straight Wins, and 4 Straight Change-Ups

More evidence that the Red Sox “own” the Angels mentally: K-Rod throwing four consecutive change-ups to J.D. Drew when: a) K-Rod’s fastball is devastating, and b) J.D. Drew has played irregularly over the last month, has a stiff back, and should, theoretically, not have his timing at 100%. When K-Rod is AFRAID to throw his fastball to J.D. Drew with the go-ahead run on second base, a Red Sox win is a foregone conclusion. It’s like hoisting a white flag.

Now, I wouldn’t be saying this if K-Rod had an off-speed pitch as baffling as, say, Trevor Hoffman’s change up. But his change up is simply above-average, and he pinned his team’s hopes on that pitch.

I find this as incomprehensible as Mike Scoscia not pinch hitting for Howie Kendrick in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. The guy is clearly psyched-out at the plate and has no chance of getting a big hit in this series. You can see it in his eyes. He doesn’t think he belongs here. He has watched several fastballs buzz down the center of the strike zone without swinging, and has waved his bat at pitches that aren’t close. Advantage: Boston.

Red Sox fans’ reaction to the fly ball hit by J.D. Drew that turned out to be a two-run homer on Friday night was the SAME as the crowd’s reaction to the fly ball hit by J.D. Drew that turned out to be a grand slam in last year’s postseason. Off the bat, it looked like a routine fly ball, and even as the outfielder went back, back, back, we still expected it to be caught. Then, suddenly, it was in the seats, and it took literally a full second to believe our eyes – on BOTH home runs. J.D. Drew is truly the king of the “shocker home run” — shocking because of their timing, and shocking because of the rocket launchers that seem to kick in when the baseballs reach the apex of their flight. They just keep going, going, going…. gone!

How valuable is Kevin Youkilis? He moved over to third base to take the spot vacated by the injured Mike Lowell and proceeded to make TWO stellar plays at third base — a barehanded, running, Mike Schmidt-type stab of a grounder followed by a rocket throw to first base, and a long-armed, reach-over-the-railing catch of a pop-up that was ticketed for the camera dugout to make the peunultimate out of the game.

It’s difficult to imagine how diehard Cubs fans feel today….. because it brings back a memory that I really don’t like to relive….

Ten Straight

I know Jon Lester is a lefty, but tonight he reminded me of Roger Clemens during his Red Sox days. From his poise on the mound to his velocity (regularly hitting 96mph) to his mastery of the hitters, I felt like I was looking at the Sox’s next dominator.

I love Jason Bay (how can you not love him?) and his homer tonight was a shocker because Lackey was methodically ripping through the Sox lineup. I’m glad everyone’s happier with the team’s chemistry and that Tito’s blood pressure has been eased by the trade. But tonight, Manny’s absence in the lineup was extremely noticable. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Jason Bay. I want both of them.

Ellsbury’s speed was huge tonight: two stolen bases, an infield hit, taking third on the ground out to the pitcher, the great catch in the 8th. This is the guy who will haunt Mike Scoscia’s nightmares over the next several days. He’s got game-changing speed.

This makes TEN consecutive postseason victories for the Red Sox over the Angels. The chances of this kind of a streak, given that the teams are basically equal, is one in 1,024. (That’s the probability of flipping a coin ten times and getting “tails” every time.) So I guess our teams aren’t equal. And it’s the intangibles that make us better. We own them mentally.

The Angels now have to win three out of four to take this series. The likelihood of THAT is remote. The Angels will have to get through Matsuzaka, Beckett, and Lester (again), as well as TWO games at Fenway (and that’s only if they’re lucky enough to win game two or three). Not going to happen.

I thought about Dave Henderson about ten times tonight.

YES!!

Who’s Got Mojo?

If you’re known to many as a serious Red Sox fan, you’ve probably heard the following questions several times the last few days: “How do you think the Sox will do in the postseason?” and “Do you think the Sox can win it all even if Lowell and Drew are hurt?”

I would be a terrible sportscaster for a national network, because my heart and my brain always tell me that the Red Sox are going to go all the way. This was true even before 2004. And the heart overwhelms the brain when it comes to predicting the future. I can find plenty of rational reasons to pick the Red Sox to win the 2008 World Series (the best top-three starters in Beckett, Lester, and Matsuzaka and their incredible home field advantage top the list), but my feeling of expectation is purely a gut feeling, purely my genetic programming, purely a belief that the Red Sox uniform possesses more magic than any other uniform.

And I don’t put much stock in all of the analysis of different teams when trying to predict a World Series champion. Who has the best bullpen, which team is battling the most injuries, whose offense is most powerful….  Sure, it’s fun to read all of the comparative information and it makes watching the games more enjoyable to know each team’s strengths and vulnerabilities, but when it comes to the postseason, only two things really matter. If you’re thinking, “pitching, and pitching,” you’re right, but perhaps even more important are mojo, and getting hot at the right time.

Whichever team wins the 2008 World Series, it won’t be because of things you can analyze ahead of time. This is why the postseason is such a remarkable ride. We really, really, really don’t know what’s going to happen — but we DO know that several players will step up like they never have before, and several will step up like they always do. (And, unfortunately, goats will emerge, as well.) And watching human beings perform like gods on the diamond in front of a national audience of millions of people in the biggest games of their lives provides a feeling of admiration, awe, and excitement that’s unmatched.

If the Red Sox win the World Series, it will be because of a clutch grand slam by Jason Varitek… it will be because of a stunning barehanded play by Jed Lowrie with two outs in the ninth… it will be because of four innings of scoreless relief by Paul Byrd in the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th innings… it will be because of a perfectly executed hit and run by Alex Cora… it will be because Jason Bay bats .500. None of these things is what’s being written about by those who are picking the Sox to take home the trophy, but deep down we all know that it’s mojo — both team mojo and individual mojo — that will separate the winners from the losers this postseason.

I’d prefer to have Lowell and Drew in the starting lineups, but if they’re not there, it simply means an opportunity for two other guys to rise to the challenge and define their careers by their performance in 11 victorious contests.

Analysis schmanalysis. Let the drama begin!