5 April 2010

Should the Sox Throw the World Series?

In honor of opening day, Chad Harbach’s piece about the 2004 World Series.

The best thing about forcing yourself to watch the endless fourth and fifth games of the Red Sox-Yankees series—eleven hours, twenty-six innings, and 887 pitches worth of baseball within a day’s time—was the way that fatigue so visibly reduced great athletes to human beings. To see Jason Varitek, after squatting in the dirt to catch 448 of those pitches, be baffled and handcuffed time and again by Tim Wakefield’s latebreaking knucklers, scrambling after passed balls like a fifth grader, was to see a guy literally delirious with exhaustion. To see Wakefield repeatedly and generously reassuring Varitek—pitchers, like other artists, are famously intolerant when people screw with their work—was downright touching. (To see Terry Francona decline to insert the fresh-legged, power-hitting, knuckleball-blocking Doug Mirabelli into the game was, on the other hand, a little eerie.)

So these guys were not assembled in factories. Curtis Leskanic wasn’t marked from birth by the specialized faculties of a middle reliever, Tom Gordon of an eighth-inning setup man, or Alan Embree of a man who pitches to lefties in the eighth when the Sox are up by less than three. A pitch count is not a destiny, unless you’re Pedro. At some point in their pre-televised pasts, whether in the minors or college or high school, they were all just pitchers who pitched until they couldn’t pitch anymore. Timlin, Gordon, Foulke, Sturtze, Rivera, Heredia, Arroyo, Myers, Embree, Wakefield, Quantrill, Leskanic, Lowe, Loiaza—each had less than his second-best stuff, each volunteered to take his weary turn, and each performed admirably. Instead of scientifically slotted matchups, complaints of tired arms, we were treated to an Emersonian ideal of baseball: Man Pitching. This is how they did it in the nineteenth century. Hurlers, raise your hands. If your elbow goes above your shoulder, you’re available tonight.


Boston-New York is the best rivalry going because Boston’s quest to win a championship is the best story in professional sports. The Cubs and White Sox have nothing on this because they lack the villains, the fall from grace (Boston won the first World Series in 1903 and three more before 1918), the string of catastrophes, the Curse of the Bambino itself. Boston’s long quest for a title is as close as sports can come to a story with epic sweep.

If the Sox go all the way, a new story begins as soon as the looting ends. But that one will be a story like everyone else’s, a very American story, the stuff of sequels, about handling and perpetuating success. When the Yanks’ Game 3 battering of Boston pitching grew tedious, I flipped through the channels and happened to catch, for the first time, what turned out to be the beginning of Rocky II—Sly Stallone in a fancy full-length coat, buying Rolexes for all his friends. That kind of thing. The Red Sox would instantly become the A’s or the Twins or the Angels, recent champions and good teams all, except with a boatload more money. No Sox fan wants that, not deep down. It’s not a love of heartbreak, or self-flagellation, as many have suggested. It’s a love of the story, and a paralyzing fear that the story will end.


Luckily there are options available, quite sensible deux ex machina, and they come from the Central Time Zone. The Cardinals and Astros, during the past week’s afternoon hours, have asserted the superiority of the National League, and they’ve done so rather convincingly. Both squads look absurdly powerful at the plate, imposing in the bullpen, and—as may certainly not be said for the Yankees or Sox—often stellar on defense. There are no Carlos Beltrans or Brad Lidges in the ALCS. Thus the Red Sox, with infinite cunning, may have found a way to let their fans eat narrative cake and choke on it, too. By beating the Yanks, they can accomplish the rarest and most dramatic feat in sports, something no baseball team has done in the century-long history of playoff games. They can avenge themselves on their blood rival. Best of all, they can do it without danger of dispelling the Curse. Because they will likely go on to face, yet again, the Babe reincarnate—a fleshy, feisty, bullheaded, larger-than-life ballplayer, the best ever at his position, discarded by Boston in his prime. Lay the Bambino to rest; the Curse of the Rocket continues. Game Seven to the Red Sox, Game One to the Astros.

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