Scutaro Error Proves Costly as Red Sox Fall to Orioles

Marco Scutaro’s throw sailed into right field. Boston’s playoff hopes may have sailed away with it. Scutaro’s two-base error on a throw to second base in the third inning allowed the winning run to come home in the Baltimore Orioles’ 5-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox. Tuesday night at Camden Yards, the Orioles struck first. In the first inning, Nick Markakis hit a one-out double off Red Sox starter Josh Beckett, who came into the game 4-3 with a 6.50 ERA. In his previous start, Beckett pitched 6.1 innings against the Seattle Mariners, allowing three earned runs while striking out seven in a 5-3 win. Two batters after Markakis’s double, Luke Scott singled to right, driving him home. Beckett escaped further damage in the first inning and then enjoyed a 1-2-3 second.

Beckett’s (and later Scutaro’s) troubles began again in the third. Brian Roberts began the inning with a ten-pitch at-bat that ended in a single. He then took second on a wild pitch and went to third on a ground out. After Beckett walked Scott with two outs, Adam Jones hit a grounder to Scutaro. Scutaro fielded it cleanly, but then double-clutched before throwing to second for the force out. The throw sailed into right field and, by the time it was collected and thrown home, Scott came around to score from second base. The Orioles’ lead now sat at 3-0.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, could do nothing with lefty starter Brian Matusz. Matusz, who came into the game 6-12 with a 4.79 ERA, had won his previous start, giving up just one earned run to the Chicago White Sox in seven innings. The Red Sox , having managed just two hits off Matusz through the first four innings of Tuesday’s game, began to climb back in the fifth inning. Mike Lowell led off with a single. Two batters later, Jed Lowrie took a 3-1 offering to left field. It sailed into the bleachers, and the Red Sox were back to within one run. Unfortunately, that’s as close as they would get. Despite putting lead runners on in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, the Red Sox would not score again. Their best opportunity came in the seventh, when the had men on first and second base with no one out. Those runners were stranded after advancing exactly one base each.

The Orioles built some breathing room for themselves in the eighth innings. Scott and Felix Pie each homered to right off Felix Doubront, pushing the lead back up to three. It would not prove necessary. Koji Uehara, despite having been used four times since August 21, set down the final five Red Sox batters in order for his fifth save of the season. It was his fifth in ten days, and he needed just 21 pitches (17 of which were strikes) to record the 5-out save. Matusz, who went six innings, allowed two earned runs, and struck out six, picked up his seventh win of the season. Beckett suffered his fourth loss and fell back to .500, despite lowering his ERA to 6.21.

Red Sox at the Plate

The strongest offensive performance of the night came from Jed Lowrie. He went 2-3 for the night with his two-run home run. Lowrie continues to show flashes of brilliance, but what’s holding him back is his inability to stay healthy. He might someday be the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, but he has to stay healthy long enough to prove he deserves the role. Victor Martinez also went 2-4 for the night. Nights like this make us think back to two months ago, and how much offense his injury might have cost us since then. No other player had a particularly strong night, a scattering of 0-4’s, 1-4’s, and 1-3’s. David Ortiz deserves special mention, but not for good reasons. Tuesday night Ortiz went 0-4 with three strikeouts. In his last two games he is 0-8 with 5 strikeouts. He may be feeling like he has to carry the Red Sox offense, and this is causing him to press harder and not see the ball as clearly. Whatever the cause, the Red Sox can ill afford a slump from one of their best hitters.

Red Sox on the Mound

If the team wasn’t struggling so much offensively, Beckett’s performance Tuesday night would’ve been adequate. Seven innings of two earned-run ball is usually enough to cement a win for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, the Red Sox aren’t scoring right now. So Beckett’s performance, while good, just wasn’t good enough. To be a staff ace, you have to be able to pitch beyond your team’s need. Beckett can’t do that this year. He may still be a good pitcher, and he might be better in future seasons (statistically, odd-numbered years are better for Beckett then even-numbered years since joining the Red Sox), but he’s definitely not an ace. Matched up against a third or fourth starter, Beckett can probably be effective enough to earn wins. But against an ace or second starter, given Boston’s current offensive problems, Beckett may not have the stuff this year to win with consistency. Some juggling of the rotation may be necessary. Felix Doubront, meanwhile, has been off-and-on, just as he’s moved up from AAA Pawtucket and back down again. These were actually hist first earned runs allowed in over two weeks. He was on a solid pitching streak that included two saves and a one-point drop in his ERA. With this mis-step, his streak ends. Given a full year in the majors, Doubront will likely prove to be an adequate reliever. Maybe never an elite pitcher, but certainly a solid, contributing member of a winning team’s relief corps. Whether or not that team is the Boston Red Sox remains to be seen.

Mounting Frustrations

You can see the looks on the players’ faces and in their reactions. Beckett allowed a two-out single and stormed into the dugout. Lowell struck out with two men on and threw his bat in disgust. Ortiz struck out- again- and walked away shame-faced and angry. The Red Sox are starting to feel that no matter what they do they can’t seem to win. Being professionals, this causes them to try harder, to press themselves, only to walk away with the same lack of success. This is resulting in losses now, but it may add up to wins later. When teams play poorly for a long time, they tend to eventually take their frustrations out on another team. Usually this manifests as a lopsided victory, often times by as many as ten or more runs. With the hitters this team has, that is not beyond the realm of possibility. This frustration can also manifest in a brawl, starting with a lonesome beaning that causes a retaliation. This is soon followed by the team pouring out of the dugout and rushing the mound and/or opposing teammates. With nine games left against the Rays and Yankees, this is also a strong possibility. One way or another, Boston fans should get some fun games sometime soon. They may not add up to a playoff berth, but at least everyone will feel a little better. If only for a bit.

Crawford Crushes Red Sox; Boston Now 6 1/2 Back in Both Races

It’s been almost five years since any Boston Red Sox catcher threw out Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Carl Crawford. He has stolen 35 consecutive bases. Sunday night, when the Red Sox and Rays played the rubber match of their three-game series at Tropicana Field, he stole no bases. Instead, he did his damage with his bat. Crawford’s two-run home run tied what was a 3-1 deficit in the sixth and catalyzed a Tampa Bay offense that up until that point had managed just one run on four hits (three of which were singles). After that the floodgates opened, as the Rays scored three runs in the sixth and another in the seventh as part of a 5-run, 11-hit attack. The end result: a 5-3 Rays victory over the Red Sox.

The game featured a battle of 12-win pitchers, with John Lackey facing off against James Shields. The similarities between the two pitchers did not stop at the number of victories. In each pitcher’s previous start (Lackey versus Seattle, Shields versus Los Angeles) he went eight innings, striking out ten while allowing two earned runs. Both games resulted in decisive victories for their clubs. And during the first two innings of Sunday’s game, both pitchers allowed just a lone two-out single to the opposing hitters. Unfortunately, after that the two pitchers started to separate. Engaged in a tremendous pitcher’s duel through three innings, it was Lackey who faltered first. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth, Carlos Pena crushed a 1-0 pitch deep into the right-field bleachers. Thankfully, Shields faltered just an inning later, giving up a lead-off double to Mike Lowell. He would come around to tie the game one out later, when Yamaico Navarro would drive in the first run of his major-league career. Darnell McDonald, having walked and gone to second on Navarro’s hit, would soon be driven home as well, this time by Marco Scutaro. The Red Sox would put up a third run in the top of sixth on a Daniel Nava RBI single, but after that everything went south in a hurry.

With one on and one down in the bottom of the sixth, Carl Crawford came to the plate. Two pitches later, the game was tied. That home run seemed to cause Lackey to become unglued, as he then proceeded to give up a ground-rule double to Evan Longoria, then walk the next two batters (one was intentional). With the bases thus loaded and only one out, Dan Johnson laced a 1-1 pitch back up the middle and into center field. It drove in Longoria, but McDonald fielded the ball quickly and threw a bullet to home, throwing out Carlos Pena, who was attempting to score from second base. Lackey would escape the inning without further damage, but the Rays had taken a 4-3 lead and never relinquished it.

Lackey pitched into the seventh, but he exited with two men on and just one man out. On came Hideki Okajima, who struck out Crawford but then gave up an RBI single to Longoria. Okajima would not allow any other runners to score, but the Red Sox could do nothing offensively. Boston managed zero hits following Nava’s sixth inning single and could not even get on base until they were down to their final out of the game, when  they drew a two-out walk against American League saves leader Rafael Soriano. Unfazed by the walk, Soriano struck out Boston’s last hitter and picked up his 39th save of the season. Shields picked up his 13th win, and Lackey picked up his 8th loss.

Red Sox at the Plate

Kudos to Yamaico Navarro for his second career hit and first RBI. With Boston’s luck regarding the health of its infielders, Navarro may see a fair amount of playing time before the season ends. If he can establish himself as a capable major-league hitter, he may be usable as trade bait in the off-season. It seems unlikely he will get much playing time at the major-league level if he stays with Boston through to next spring. Meanwhile, Mike Lowell was the only player to have a multi-hit game, going 2-4 with a double and a run scored. No one else on the team had a particularly strong night, with nearly everyone going either 0-4 or 1-4. Shields, not usually a strong pitcher against the Red Sox, had good stuff tonight. His change-up was especially deceptive, causing numerous swings-and-misses by even Boston’s most experienced hitters. Boston struck out ten times against Tampa Bay’s pitchers. The only positive a strikeout occasionally allows for is a runner on first trying to steal, but the Red Sox don’t have the speed to steal with any regularity. So, essentially, the strike out is the worst way to make an out. And Sunday night Boston struck out ten times. When you’re relying on smallball tactics to score runs, that many strikeouts makes winning impossible.

Red Sox on the Mound

The problem with John Lackey’s pitches is that they lack movement. He has decent control, so when he’s hitting his spots he’s very difficult on opposing batters. But when his pitches flatten out they REALLY flatten out, and that’s what happened tonight more times than not. Compare his pitches with James Shields’ and you can see how much more Shields makes the ball dance. His change-up is especially devastating, because it looks flat until the bottom falls out from under it and you’re swinging at something in the dirt. Lackey needs to pitch with crispness in order to be effective, and Sunday night he wasn’t able to do so in the later innings. Perhaps that’s a stamina issue, perhaps he just lost the feel for his pitches. Either way his pitches looked more and more hittable as the game went on, and by the end Rays hitters were teeing off him with ease. The Red Sox bullpen allowed an inherited runner to score, but for once this loss doesn’t really belong to them. Had the Red Sox managed more of an offensive attack, perhaps we could say the bullpen let the game get out of hand. But when your hitters manage just a walk after the sixth inning, it doesn’t matter how well you pitch: you’re still going to lose.

This is the End, Beautiful Friend

This was a pivotal series for the Red Sox. They came into it 5 1/2 games back in both races. Had they swept the Rays, they would’ve been at least within striking distance of the wild card, with six games left against the Yankees and three against the Rays. Even if they had just won the series there would’ve been cause to at least keep hoping. But they lost the series and are now 6 1/2 games back in both the divisonal and wild card races. Worse, they are now 10-5 against the Rays, meaning they are guaranteed to lose the season series. Which means that, even if they catch the Rays, they would have to surpass them if it comes down to those two teams for the division. They have six games left to catch the Yankees, but the Yankees are a more powerful team by far than the Rays. It will be difficult to limit their scoring enough to overcome Boston’s offensive deficiencies. The Red Sox needed this series to get back into the races, and they couldn’t do it. Though a glimmer of hope will remain until the 162nd game is played, it seems increasingly likely that Boston fans will have nothing but the Patriots and the changing leaves to entertain them come October.

Brown Kicks Game-Winning Field Goal as Rams win in Foxboro

The old guard (though not as old as, say, that fellow over in Minnesota) took on the new guard Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. For the 2-0 New England Patriots: Tom Brady, entering his eleventh season, holder of records, winner of MVPs and Super Bowls alike. For the 1-1 St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford, the #1 draft pick from 2010, primed to start his rookie season. Traditionally, the third preseason game of the NFL is the game that best depicts how a team will play in the regular season. If that’s the case, then many of the questions fans had coming into the game remained unanswered at its conclusion.

First Quarter

The game could not have began better for the Patriots. The Rams kicked off to the New England 3-yard line, where it was caught by wide receiver Brandon Tate. Some good blocking up front, and Tate was off to the races. Tate would wind up going 97 yards to the opposing end-zone, easily beating the kicker. A successful point-after-touchdown, and the Patriots were up 7-0 just 12 seconds into the game. Unfortunately, the Patriots’ defense did not respond. They gave up two first downs on the run, then a 32-yard Bradford pass to the New England 18. After short runs and passes moved the ball to the Patriots’ 7-yard line, Bradford completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Michael Hoomanawanui. The point-after was good, and the game was tied. The defense looked out-of-sync against both the run and the pass.

Tate tried to energize the offense again, returning the kickoff to the 41-yard line, but the Patriots went three-and-out, choosing to punt on 4th-and-inches from midfield. The Rams began their drive on the 4-yard line and, despite gaining a couple of first downs, were eventually forced to punt, as the Patriots began to get pressure on Bradford. New England would wind up punting right back to St. Louis after Brady took a 13-yard sack. The final two plays of the quarter featured Bradford beating the blitz on 3rd-and-8, gaining a key first down, then completing 23-yard pass to Hoomanawanui at the New England 10.

Second Quarter

After a short gain on first-down, Ron Brace sacked Bradford for -7 yards to the New Englad 15, forcing a 3rd-and-goal from 15 yards out. The Rams would wind up settling for a 25 yard field-goal. A New England touchback led to a three-and-out, and St. Louis returned the punt to the New England 38. Despite some penalties, the Rams would wind up taking advantage of the good starting position. Bradford completed a 12-yd touchdown pass to Hoomanawanui, and the point-after was good. The Patriots defense was starting to have success stopping the run, but they had no luck stopping the pass, as Bradford threw for 189 yards in the first half.

The Patriots finished their next drive punting without gaining a first down, but a stout run defense and a near interception caused the Rams to punt it right back, and the ball was fair-caught at the New England 20. During the ensuing drive, Brady completed a 39-yard catch to wide-receiver Wes Welker, moving the ball to the Rams’ 42-yard line. Then, after falling down in anticipation of a blitz and getting up untouched, Brady threw the ball to tight end Alge Crumpler, who caught it while falling out of bounds at the Rams’ 18-yard line. Though first ruled incomplete, a successful coach’s challenge changed the call to a 24-yard completion. Two plays later, Brady completed a pass to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who fought tooth-and-nail against his tackler to dive for the end zone. Initially called down inside the 1-yard line, the referees reversed the call and gave Gronkowski the 14-yard touchdown catch. After a successful point-after, the Patriots found themselves down just 3 with 1:55 left in the half. The Patriots looked like they were going to stop the Rams and get the ball back, but a Tully Banta-Cain roughing-the-passer penalty cost the Patriots 15 yards and extended the Rams drive. The Rams finished the half with a 45-yard field goal, leaving the score 20-14 at halftime. The Rams had out-gained the Patriots 241 to 106 in total yards.

Third Quarter

The Rams had seen more than enough of Sam Bradford in the first half (15/22, 189 yards, 2 touchdowns), so they began the second half with backup quarterback Thaddeus Lewis. Good open-field tackling looked like it would force St. Louis to punt after a a few meaningless first downs, but illegal contact gave the Rams a fresh set of downs. Lewis would later evade a sack and throw for nine yards and a first down to the the Patriots’ 23-yard line. Lewis would then hit Brandon Gibson for a 20-yard touchdown pass. The drive took 15 plays and ate up 9:19 of clock-time. The New England defense looked completely exhausted, but Tom Brady would not let them rest. Two plays into the Patriots’ next offensive drive, Brady connected on a 65-yard play-action pass to Randy Moss for the touchdown. What had taken the Rams over nine minutes to do, the Patriots had done in 40 seconds, and now they were once again down just six after the successful PAT.

Despite some penalties, including another roughing-the-passer, the New England defense forced a St. Louis punt at midfield, which the Rams’ kicking team downed at the New England 2-yard line. Unfortunately for the Rams, Brady had finally settled into a passing groove and the coaches left him in. After several short-yardage passes got the Patriots out of danger, Brady completed 32-yard strike to Gronkowski up the middle to the Rams’ 42-yard line.

Fourth Quarter

The Patriots started the final quarter down six on the Rams’ 37-yard line, facing 3rd-and-5. Brady completed a first down pass, then threw 20 yards to Gronkowski for the touchdown. A successful PAT gave the Patriots a one-point lead with just under 14 minutes in the game. It was their first lead since the opening kickoff return, and they would add to it soon after. After the Rams returned the kickoff to their 32-yard line, safety Brandon McGowan intercepted Lewis at the St. Louis 48-yard line, returning it 38 yards to the 10. Brian Hoyer then completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Sam Aiken, and the PAT was successful. The Patriots now enjoyed an eight-point lead.

The key play of the next St. Louis drive was a draw play that gave the Rams a first down at the Patriots’ 43-yard line. Lewis then completed a 33 yard pass that was called out at the New England 2-yard line. The Rams would then scored on a Keith Toston 2-yard touchdown run. A false start on the ensuing two-point conversion moved the football back to New England’s 7-yard line, and the ensuing pass fell incomplete. The Patriots got the ball back leading 35-33 and with 4:33 left in the game, but they would punt their possession away, giving the Rams the ball back at the St. Louis 40-yard line with 2:44 to go and two time outs. A holding penalty would back the Rams up to the 20-yard line, but it wouldn’t matter. The overused defense couldn’t stop the Rams’ balanced attack, and their third helmet-to-helmet penalty gave the Rams a free 15 yards that the Patriots defense could ill-afford. The Rams ran the clock down to three seconds and called timeout, then Josh Brown kicked his third field goal of the game, this time from 37 yards as time expired. The game ended St. Louis 36, New England 35.

So, What Did We Learn?

First the good news: we can be very excited about this offense. On top of longstanding Patriots such as Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker, we now have some newcomers to watch with glee. Brandon Tate returned three kicks for 164 yards (181 total). If he can contribute like that with consistency, the Patriots special-teams will be a force to be reckoned with. We also may finally have a reliable tight end in Rob Gronkowski. He averaged 22 yards per catch and caught 2 more touchdowns Thursday night. After years of injured or underachieving tight ends, we now have one who can really complement the Patriots’ dangerous wide receiver corps. Good tight ends can open up both the passing and running games, and I predict great things from Gronkowski this year. The fact that he’s just a rookie, and thus will get better, just excites me more. This offense can score quick and they can eat up clock time when necessary. Scoring points will not be a problem for this Patriots team.

PREVENTING points, however, will be. The defense looked awful Thursday night. It couldn’t stop either the pass (326 yards) or the run (136). Giving up 462 yards will lose you the game, no matter who you’re playing. They also couldn’t hold on third down: the Rams went 11-17 on third down as part of their 30 first-down attack. And McGowan’s interception aside, they couldn’t get much pressure on any of St. Louis’s quarterbacks, sacking just twice. New England’s offense didn’t help out, losing the possession battle 43:46 to 16:14 (almost a 3:1 ratio), but if the defense had managed a few more stops then the offense would’ve had a few more opportunities for long drives. St. Louis ran over twice as many plays as New England (84-38), and frankly the Patriots were fortunate to lose by just one point.

Thanks to an off-season marked by inaction, no one is quite sure what to expect from the Patriots this season. After this game, it seems clear that fans should not expect much. New England’s passing attack will be as strong as ever, but its running game (28 rushing yards against the Rams) looks anemic. And the defense looks incredibly weak against the pass and only slightly less-so against the rush. I predict many high-scoring shootouts in which the offense scores a lot of points, only to see the defense too tired to hold the lead, causing the fans to watch a number of excruciating come-from-behind victories by opposing teams. Perhaps then the Patriots’ front office will see that it’s time to make changes to the defense.

Book Review: “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis – aka ‘Winning Cheap’

As titles go, Moneyball is a bit of a misnomer. When one thinks of the term “moneyball,” one might be inclined to think of playing baseball by spending lots of money. But the reality is that Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller, is about a general manager’s (Billy Beane if the Oakland Athletics) quest to put a winning team together by spending AS LITTLE money as possible (required because the Athletics ownership is portrayed as incredibly tightfisted). This is not in itself noteworthy, as there are plenty of sports franchises with low payrolls. What makes Beane so interesting is that he actually managed to DO it, winning more games than any team but the Atlanta Braves across the several seasons leading up the book’s publication and went to the playoffs every year from 2000 to 2003, all while dealing with one of the lowest payrolls in the MLB. All of it culminates in the 2003 season, wherein the Athletics break the AL record for most consecutive wins. The book splits its time between Lewis’s time with the Athletics management team (specifically GM Beane and his assistant Paul DePodesta) during the 2003 season and his research into the history sabermetric analysis, which is the method by which Beane goes about trying to determine what players could be drafted, signed, or acquired via trade that would both help the team and not break the bank (or even shake it a bit).

Sabermetrics in Summary

The basic argument of sabermetrics, a statistical evaluation system more or less founded by Bill James and named after the Society of American Baseball Research, is that the offense’s job is not to hit but rather to not make an out (scoring runs is its secondary objective). Therefore, anything that increases the likelihood of making an out, such as bunting, sacrificing, and stealing bases, works against a player. Anything that gets a player on base, such as hits or walks (not considered statistically important until the emergence of sabermentrics), is valued. Older statistics such as batting average, total hits and total RBIs, are considered to be old-fashioned, giving way to more statistically indicative stats, especially on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Statisticians such as Bill argue believe that these newer methods of evaluation, even when applied backwards to past teams, reveal far more accurately whether a player has contributed or will contribute to a team’s offensive success.

Criticism of Sabermetrics

Moneyball portrays other teams as either ignorant of, or at least not particularly interested in, sabermetric performance evaluation, and thus Beane seems to have an advantage over other teams, even those with much higher payrolls, such as the New York Yankees. The book is the story of one general manager using sabermetrics to try and find those players that other teams forgot about or passed over that he can get cheap. For Beane, himself a “victim” of older methods of evaluation (he was a high school phenom who was convinced not to go to college by the Mets and never learned how to deal with failure), trying to do this often causes him to take flack from those around him, both within the organization (in the form of the scouting department, longstanding proponents of the older, “five tool” style of evaluation) and without (from other managers, who consider him ruthless and conniving, and from the press, who think his strategies can’t translate to playoff success). Lewis describes the MLB front offices and scouting departments collectively forming a Club, and the press as its Women’s Auxiliary. They see sabermetrics as attacking their way of doing things, and so they lash out against it. Other general managers don’t like working with Beane, and the press constantly disparages him. Their biggest argument is always that, if sabermetrics is such a successful means of evaluation, then why haven’t the Athletics won the World Series since 1989?

To the press’s credit, Billy Beane never comes up with a satisfactory answer to that. All he can say is that with so few games, luck becomes such a larger factor than the regular season that anything is really possible. That may be true, but if sabermetrics is designed to minimize luck (as Beane says), it is reasonable to argue that it is a system that can’t bring home championships. And while from a business perspective winning regular season games might lead to economic success, repeatedly falling short of a championship will inevitably hurt ticket sales in future seasons (assuming you don’t own a franchise like the Boston Red Sox, which sells out every home game regardless of the product put on the field). Most sports franchises can be depicted as sine-waves: high periods and low periods. Teams only have so many good years before they naturally begin to decline, and it’s championships during the good years that maintain ticket sales through the bad times. Sabermetrics, if the only example is the early 21st Century Oakland Athletics, might not be such a terrific system after all.

Billy Beane: Revolutionary

Sports go through revolutions, same as political systems or religions. The first major revolution was racial integration, allowing a previously excluded group to play in the major leagues. The next was gender integration, as symbolized by IX, and the realization and acceptance that the drive for athletic success lies as much in the female psyche as it does in the male psyche. Right now, we are still dealing with the chemical revolution: the integration of chemical additives into athletic training, and the determination of what is a fair and healthy additive and what is not, and how best to police its use. For Billy Beane, Moneyball is the story of his experience with the final sports revolution: the integration of technology into athletics. Lewis finishes his book with a description of athletic organizations rejecting sabermetrics in part because they think of sabermetricians as skinny, hunched-over intellectuals typing into computer screens all day. He describes it as a classic case of jock versus nerd, and there is some truth to that. Any time a revolution happens, turmoil and upheaval follow in its wake. The same is true of Moneyball. Beane suffered incredible backlash due to its publication, but that’s because it was a new idea being introduced with force into the populace. Whenever this happens, those in power- other general managers and the press- seek to squash it before it takes permanent hold and forces them to change or die (not literally).

Beane’s personality also does not help his case. As smart as he comes off at times, he also comes off as maniacal. He tries incessantly to insert himself into the middle of an Expos-Red Sox Cliff Floyd trade so that he can force the Red Sox to give him Kevin Youkilis, whom he has coveted since Youkilis was draft-eligible. The Expos manager seems to sniff out Beane’s plan and does not push the three-way deal, and the Floyd trade goes off cleanly. More importantly, he seems to talk himself out of signing a $12.5 million, five-year deal with the Red Sox, for reasons that still make no sense, even after reading through the entire book and getting a crash course in Beane’s psychology. He had the opportunity to be paid more than any GM in history, work for an ownership that would both spend big money to sign players AND believed in the value of sabermetrics (John Henry had long been a Bill James fan and was a frequent fantasy baseball championship), and get to deal with a press “so reliably venomous that it was impossible to distinguish the poison directed at the new regime from the poison they’d aimed at every other person who had the temerity to pass through Fenway Park” (294-295), meaning that the fans would be unlikely to turn on him if his strategy did not immediately work out. This sounds like an ideal environment for a general manager, and yet Billy Beane declined it without ever giving a satisfactory answer. His character is somewhat maddening.

Boston: The Revolution at Work

Despite the success of the Athletics, much of it might be because they were using sabermetrics before anyone else did. Now other teams are using it, AND they have better payrolls, meaning it is that much harder to find bargain players. The Red Sox are one such team that has both learned from Billy Beane’s example (they hired Theo Epstein, another statistics-savvy Ivy Leaguer like Paul DePodesta) and put the money into realizing the idea. To this end, they began employing Bill James as a consultant as of 2003. The combination of sabermetric evaluation and paying top-dollar for players has led to two world championships and a rebuilt farm system that has produced aces, All-Stars, rookies of the year, and MVPs. Boston might be the best example of sabermetrics being used effectively. While most fans will probably never see the stats that guide Theo Epstein’s moves, it is quite likely that the 2003 Nomar Garciaparra trade was based in a sabermetric analysis of what Nomar was bringing to the team offensively and whether that could be replaced with lesser players who could also improve our defense. The move paid dividends in the postseason, and the rest is history.

This is not to say that sabermetrics is the be-all and end-all method of evaluation. There are still players out there who scouts drool over, who they see as potential superstars at a young age, and then go on to great success. Hanley Ramirez was always lauded for his “five tools” (hit for average, hit for power, field, run, throw), and he has gone on to a batting title, three All-Star selections, and a Rookie of the Year award. This is a player for whom the old methods of evaluation have proven correct. And not every draft choice of Billy Beane has been a goldmine. While Youkilis has won a Gold Glove and been named to two All-Star Games, and Nick Swisher (his first pick in the 2002 draft) has won a World Series with the Yankees and made the All-Star game, Jeremy Brown, another first-round draft pick in 2002, never had more than a cup of coffee in the majors. Like “five tool” evaluation, sabermetric evaluation is not the same as fortune-telling. Nothing will ever prove definitively whether or not a prospect will work out or a free agent will help or hurt a team. That’s the problem with analyzing humans: as much as we tend to behave in patterns, sometimes we don’t. A player who bats .333 for a year doesn’t get one hit every game. That’s never happened before, not even close (the longest hit streak ever comprised just over one third of the season, and even THAT hasn’t been managed in nearly 70 years). Hitters sometimes get a hit, sometimes they get more, sometimes they don’t hit at all. If enough players get enough hits at the same time, that team will generally win. The best recipe for success probably lies in some combination of evaluative methods.

Does Moneyball Stand the Test of Time?

The Oakland Athletics have declined mightily since Moneyball’s publication. Since 2004, they have only made the playoffs once, getting swept in the ALCS by the Detroit Tigers. Their recent seasons have been unspectacular at best, not breaking the 95-win mark at all since 2003. Since 2006, they have finished in third or fourth place in their division every single season. As of this article’s publication, they are in third place in their division, eight games back and 14.5 out of the wildcard. As I said before, teams go through high and low periods periodically. The Athletics are definitely in a low period now, and fans are probably wishing that those early-decade teams had brought home a ring or two to go with all their 100-win seasons.

It can be said that we are living in the post-Moneyball era of baseball. Most teams now accept sabermetrics and at least employ one sabermetric analyst. The Oakland Athletics decline can be as much attributed to richer franchises USING sabermetrics as it can to some kind of conceptual error IN sabermetrics. Still, Moneyball is an amazing piece of sports journalism. Lewis tells a story of a revolution in baseball and clearly sets out both how the revolutionaries succeeded and how the baseball world tried to stop them. It is a fascinating look at baseball as it was at the turn of the new millennium. It is incredibly well-researched and well-paced. You will be fascinated by characters like Billy Beane and Bill James, and you will understand their feelings of rejection by their peers. Lewis presents a strong, concise point, and he uses the 2002 Athletics as his argument. It is incredibly convincing, and I think baseball since publication has proven him right. Reading Moneyball, I could feel myself getting angry at some of its posits. That’s a sign of good writing, when it elicits an emotional reaction. As I read on, I became more and more swayed by Lewis’s and Beane’s (even though Beane is not an author, his strategy is what Lewis defends) arguments. As I watched a baseball game the night I finished it, statistics began to swim in my mind next to the players on screen. Moneyball will change the way you think about baseball. No greater accomplishment in sports writing can be achieved.

Ortiz’s First Triple of 2010 Leads to 3-Run Fifth; Red Sox Triumph Despite Rain Delays

The Boston Red Sox had momentum coming into Sunday’s home game against the Toronto Blue Jays, having won last night in extra innings when Jed Lowrie deposited an 11th inning pitch into the right field bullpen. The last thing they wanted was rain but, unfortunately, that was what they got. Sometimes it came in drizzles, sometimes in downpours. But rain was the constant. It washed out the 1:35 PM start time for the game and, as the afternoon drifted on, it looked like it might wash the game out entirely. However, around 2:45 the rain started to lighten up. It never stopped completely but, faced with a quickly-shrinking schedule, the umpires and both teams decided it would be better to at least TRY and play the game rather than face a potential double-header. So after a 1:44 minute rain delay, play began. The Red Sox sent ace Clay Buchholz to the hill, looking for his fifteenth win. The Blue Jays countered with11-6 Shaun Marcum. Both were coming off excellent starts, with Buchholz throwing seven scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and Marcum throwing a complete game of one hit, one run baseball against the Oakland Athletics. Both would start strong, but only Buchholz would finish strong.

There was an evident pattern in the opening innings of Sunday’s game. In each of the first three innings, Buchholz would walk the lead-off batter. He would then settle down and get out of the inning without giving up a run (although he did give up a few hits, all singles). In the second, he struck out the side while pitching around a lead-off walk and a two-out single. Shaun Marcum, meanwhile, would set the Red Sox down 1-2-3. He looked absolutely dominating, and it looked like a long day for Red Sox hitters. However, the rain reached unplayable intensity in the top of third inning with one Blue Jay on and two out.

A 59-minute rain delay followed, and when the game resumed Marcum was not the same pitcher. He pitched a 1-2-3 fourth inning, but then he began to tire. David Ortiz crushed an 0-1 pitch in the fifth to deep center and, thanks to the always-challenging angles of the wall in center field, the ball bounced around enough to let Big Papi leg out a triple. It was his first of 2010, much to the delight and amusement of his teammates. On the very next pitch, Adrian Beltre doubled to left, driving Ortiz in. Later in the inning, with two outs and Beltre at third, Bill Hall hit a towering shot to left that went over everything and landed in the parking lot behind. The fifth inning ended with the Red Sox up 3-0, and that would be all they’d need. Buchholz would pitch through the sixth, allowing no runs. The Red Sox bullpen would pitch the final three innings, allowing just one hit (an infield single), a walk, and a hit-batter. The Red Sox also scored two insurance runs in the eighth on successive RBI singles from Victor Martinez and David Ortiz with two men on. The Red Sox finished the game victorious, beating the Blue Jays 5-0. Buchholz picked up his fifteenth win (now tied for second place in the AL with several other pitchers), Marcum his seventh loss.

Red Sox at the Plate

While Bill Hall’s two-run home run punctuated the fifth inning, it was David Ortiz who really set the tone for the Red Sox offense. He went 2-4 Sunday with an RBI and a run-scored. His batting average now sits at a completely acceptable .283. As more and more mainstay Boston players go down to injury, Ortiz has emerged as a second stabilizing force in the lineup, along with Adrian Beltre. He has proven he still has life in his legs. He can hit when called upon and, given the right opportunity, can even still run. Ortiz triples may be as much due to luck as anything else (Ortiz can hit it deep and double with ease, but to triple the ball has to take an odd-enough bounce that it takes an extra-long time for the outfielder to get to it), but when they happen they can’t help but inspire. The other five Red Sox hits Sunday (seven total) were evenly distributed among five players: Victor Martinez (1-4 with an RBI), Adrian Beltre (1-4 with an RBI and a run scored), Mike Lowell (1-3), Bill Hall (1-3 with two RBIs and a run, all via his fifth-inning two-run home run), and Ryan Kalish (1-3 with a double and run scored). The offense was not on except for two innings but, when combined with good pitching, sometimes that’s enough. The Red Sox took advantage of tired Blue Jays starters and relievers, and they did more than enough to win.

Red Sox on the Mound

Throwing six innings of shutout baseball is commendable. Throwing such a shutout against the Blue Jays, who’ve hit more home runs than anyone else in the MLB, is even more impressive. But throwing a six-inning shutout against the Blue Jays when you’ve had to warm up twice and wait through an hour-long rain delay in the middle? Well, that’s borderline amazing! And that’s exactly what Clay Buchholz did today. He threw six innings of shutout ball, giving up just five hits (all singles), walking three and striking out seven. He has now won five straight decisions and has not allowed an earned run in his last three starts. His scoreless-inning streak now sits at a whopping 23 1/3 innings. First in the AL in ERA (2.26), second in wins (15), and third in winning percentage (.750), it is time to start bringing his name up when talking about the Cy Young award. In a season marked by a boring team without compelling characters or stories, the emergence of Clay Buchholz as the pitcher we always hoped he could be has been the exception. Without the rain delay and extra warm-up pitches, he likely could have gone past the sixth (he was only at 97 game pitches at that point). The bullpen also pitched well tonight. Special props go to Felix Doubront, who pitched the final two innings of the game, only allowing an infield single and a hit-batter while striking out two. He has proven himself to be an able member of the Red Sox relief corps.

The Game in Context

The Red Sox won Sunday. Unfortunately, both Yankees and the Rays also won, meaning that the Red Sox gained ground in neither the divisional nor wildcard races. This is the problem with being as far behind as they are: gaining significant ground is difficult. The Red Sox have six games left against both the Rays and the Yankees. Without a sweep in at least one of those three-game series, Boston will likely miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Tonight was a gutsy performance by the best starting pitcher on the 2010 Red Sox. A couple more, and some losses by his competitors, and we might get a Cy Young silver lining to the cloudy and dismal season of the 2010 Red Sox. Cloudy and dismal; kind of like the weather Sunday.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Low-brow met high-brow when Sports Illustrated recommended sports fans pick up the summer edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, a literary journal founded by former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis H. Lapham. The issue, entitled “Sports & Games,” features a cornucopia of articles, from all topics, places and times. The issue takes the reader from Wu-Ling, 1615, to Wonderland, 1865. You’ll read about the origins of Sumo wrestling in a Japanese passage dating to 29 B.C.E., then follow it with a passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel “Fight Club,” wherein the narrator describes how Fight Club dictates the rest of your life. Victor Heiser’s 1910 accounting of Igorot tribesmen in the Phillipines replacing their brutal headhunting wars with baseball contrasts starkly with Ryszard Kapuściński’s 1969 accounting of a series of soccer matches between Honduras and El Salvador essentially causing a war. Through it all, the common theme is that, much as sport and sports writing have evolved through time, the essentials of sports and how we view them remain unchanged.

Take, for instance, Virgil’s 1174 B.C.E. tale of a boxing match between young stud Dares, “The Missile-y from Sicily,” and retired veteran fighter “Bull-crusher” Entellus (I made those nicknames up). Upon seeing Dares boasting of his incredible skill and strength, Entellus is coaxed into battling him by his friend and agent Acestes. What follows is a brutal battle wherein Entellus tries to out-think the stronger but less experienced Dares. In the end, he wins, and proclaims that the glory of the win is worth more than any trophy (which he promptly destroys, just to prove his point). This is essentially the same plot as Rocky Balboa, and I highly doubt Sylvester Stallone ever read The Aeneid. But even in real life we have any number of athletes for whom this story is exactly the same. Brett Favre, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong, the list goes on. The thrill of competition driving a man out of retirement is a timeless tale.

As another example, take this quote from Pliny the Younger, a Roman lawyer who wrote around the turn of the second century C.E.:

“And if, in the midst of the course and contest, the different parties were to change colors, their different partisans would change sides and instantly desert the very same men and horses whom just before they were eagerly following with their eyes, as far as they could see, and shouting out their names with all their might. Such mighty charms, such wondrous power reside in the color of a paltry tunic!”

Now, compare it with this:

“We’re basically rooting for laundry in sports. Of the 10 best guys on this particular Boston team, seven of them weren’t Celtics during last season’s despicable tank job, and two of them weren’t Celtics as recently as January. As much as I like the new guys and everything they brought to the team, I still feel like I’m getting to know them.”

This latter passage comes from ESPN columnist Bill Simmons’s June 18, 2008, article about the Celtics defeating the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The messages are one and the same: the uniform a player wears makes him a representative of the fans, and whoever wears the uniform is far less important than the simple fact that he wears it. Every Red Sox fan should identify with this notion: how quickly did we put ourselves in David Wells’s corner once he became a Boston pitcher, despite him publicly saying he’d help tear down Fenway Park given the chance when he was a Yankee? How quickly did we turn on those who left us, players like Johnny Damon or even Mark Bellhorn? How many Atlanta natives came to the support of Michael Vick, a man who made money hurting and killing animals, just because he wore a Falcon’s uniform? And as a more general point, how else can we explain our ability to love a team just as much as we did the year before, despite the sometimes complete changeover of personnel? The uniform matters more than the player. Always has, always will.

Lapham’s Quarterly is pretty self-aware with regards to this concept. It’s pretty clear to me that this message of continuity of sport and sports fandom is what the editors were going for. To that end, the issue features three “discussions,” wherein quotes from different athletes are put next to each other. The first, a series of quotes from Yogi Berra paired with a series from “Sir” Charles Barkley (highlights include “I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four” versus “We don’t need refs, but I guess white guys need something to do”), doesn’t do much beyond showing that sports breed their fair share of lunatics. The second “discussion” pairs John Northbrooke’s 1577 “Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes” with Rev. Steve Strickland’s 2006 indictment of the game “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee following Devin Moore’s 2003 murder of several Alabama police officers. The messages are strikingly similar: gaming leads to violence and ruination. 500 years later, we’re still using religious imagery to warn against gaming. For the high-and-mighty, gaming (and by extension sports) has always been and will always be something sinful. The final “discussion” pairs a Bacchylides ode from 460 B.C.E. with a passage from Dutch historian Joseph Huizinga’s famous novel Homo Ludens. The message of both is that seeing a person victorious makes us feel victorious for having seen it. Through these pairings of ancient and modern text we see just how little the relationship between sport and the populace has changed over the millenia.

A year ago I wrote that “baseball only has so many stories to tell, and… most of them have already been told. But that doesn’t stop the media from rehashing them over and over again.” That is essentially true, but perhaps I missed the point. There are a finite number of stories about sports: the underdog team (Polybius, writing in Olympia, 212 B.C.E., nailed this notion), the veteran coming out of retirment, the sheer glory of competition, its maddening effect on the people and how that’s viewed by those with power (especially religious power), etc. But it’s amazing to think that these stories have lasted upwards of 2000 years. 2000 YEARS! How much of our civilization has remained constant for that long a period of time? Religions have changed. Politics have changed. Economics have changed. But sports remain essentially the same as they were before the time of Christ. New sports have come along, but it usually becomes clear that they are mere variations, retellings of the ancient tales. After all, what is Ultimate Frisbee, described by novelist and Yale professor John Crowley as “the world’s best new team sport,” but catching the discus (now made of plastic) hurled by the ancient Greeks?

That the same sports stories have existed for so long says that something about sport speaks to the human condition. These are not Greek stories, American stories, British stories, or Chinese stories. These are HUMAN stories. If there really is something like what we call “human nature,” a universal, almost genetic, set of behaviors and beliefs about the world, then sports are the only things we’ve discovered so far that act as a means to discovering it. “Play,” states Huizinga, “cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

The Truth, and Nothing But the Truth… Except for Everyone Else

When asked what he thought of the newly-extended Paul Pierce last week, former center Robert Parish spoke quickly and emphatically: “I think Paul Pierce, the way he manufactures points is the best player the Celtics have seen thus far.” He was absolutely certain that when Paul Pierce retires his number will be retired to the rafters of the TD Garden (or wherever they’re playing in four years), joining the likes of Bill Russel, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, and Robert Parish himself.

The Argument for Paul Pierce

Statistically, Paul Pierce is in the top-five of all offensive players for the Celtics. He ranks third in points (19,899, behind Bird and Havlicek), second in points-per-game (22.51, behind just Bird), first in free-throws made (5,422), first in attempts (6,763), and first in three-pointers (1,467). He also ranks in the top ten in several other key offensive categories, including offensive rebounds (8th, 892), field goals (5th, 6,505), and assists (7th, 3,402). This level of production on so many different offensive fronts could easily justify Parish’s placing him as the best offensive player the Celtics have ever seen.

I think that Robert Parish also considers basketball now to be the best its ever been. Looking at the way offenses run today, especially for players who work primarily out of the small forward position, it is fair to say that the goal is to drive to the basket and get fouled. Ideally you score a basket, but getting to the line is seen as just as valuable. If that’s the case, and if that’s the best basketball has ever been, then the Celtic with the most made free-throws could be considered the best Celtic there’s ever been. And no one has ever produced free-throws for the Celtics (what Parish calls “manufacturing points”) like “The Truth.” However, if you don’t believe that basketball is better now than its been at any previous point, then Pierce’s contributions as a free-throw shooter are not so spectacular.

The Argument Against Paul Pierce

The biggest argument against Paul Pierce as the best offensive player ever comes down to numbers. Specifically, the number of championships and the number of MVPs won. Paul Pierce has one of each: one NBA title, one Finals MVP. No league MVP awards. Compare that with any number of former Celtics and it becomes clear that Paul Pierce just hasn’t performed at the same level. Bill Russell, for example,won eleven championships and five MVP awards (to be fair, Russell was known for his defense rather than his offense). John Havlicek, meanwhile, despite only one MVP (Finals MVP, 1974), boasts eight championship rings. Larry Bird had a more balanced career, winning only three rings, while picking up three season MVPs and two Finals MVPs. While Paul Pierce may have some individual statistical achievements, it can’t be argued that he was ever good enough to carry his team to a title. It was only in 2007, when the Celtics finally brought in some help, that he was able to put together a championship. So while he was the best player of the Finals in 2008, it can be argued that he might not even have been the best player on the team that year. If that’s the case, and that was his best year, how can he be considered the greatest offensive player in Celtics history?

Additionally, Paul Pierce is only first in free-throws made, attempted, and three-pointers made. These are all important offensive categories, but frankly I think they’re all secondary to the big stats: total points and points-per-game. Free-throws have only become important since the general offensive strategy of the NBA shifted to place more importance on fouls and getting to the line than passing and finding the open shots.

I attribute a lot of this to the influx of soccer-influenced European and South American players into the NBA in the last 15 years (basically, I blame it all on Manu Ginobili). With them came the practice of “flopping:” aggrandizing every contact to the point that you appear to be in so much pain and distress that the referee has essentially no choice but to call a foul. Once flopping came to the NBA, every player started doing it. And Paul Pierce is one of the worst floppers there’s ever been. It gets him to the line, allowing him to “manufacture points,” but I think it brings down the overall game. Constant fouling diminishes the quality of the game. It slows things down, disrupts both sides from finding offensive rhythm, and makes everything more about the individual than the team. Watching games from the era of the first Big Three (in my opinion, Boston’s best period), you don’t see this. What you see is what soccer fans call “the beautiful game:” continuous passing, constant moving, gorgeous shots coming from all angles. And defensively you see real battles and tests of physical strength. The threat of the foul has kept modern NBA teams from really committing to the rebound, leading to more scrambles and a general sense of anarchy and uncertainty after the shot.

Paul Pierce’s three-point numbers are interesting, but the three-point shot has always had a curious place in the NBA. Purists despise it and conspirators think it was invented to given certain players (mainly white ones) an advantage. In any event, its importance has only grown because the paint game has gone down the tubes because everyone is scared of getting called for the foul. Without the inside game, teams go more to beyond the arc, in part because there’s no point in taking a shot from 21 feet when taking a few steps back will give you an extra point with little added difficulty. So once again we have one of Paul Pierce’s top stats diminished if we accept the notion that NBA offense now is not as good as it used to be.

So If It’s Not Pierce, Who’s the Best?

The only way we can accept Paul Pierce as the best offensive Celtic better is if we accept that the NBA’s current offensive strategy is the best ever. If it’s not, then Paul Pierce drops a few pegs, back into the top five. Which I think is where he belongs. He’s an amazing player, dynamic and captivating. He’s tough as nails and an incredible captain. And his willingness and desire to stay with the same team for his entire career, especially with free agency the way it is, speaks to his character as a person. There’s no doubt in my mind that his number will be retired by the franchise the moment he does. After all, who else could wear number 34?

But if the Truth is not the best, who is? I think we have to turn first and foremost to John Havlicek. His eight championships ties him for third all-time behind Russell and Sam Jones. He leads the franchise in career points and is third in points-per-game. He also leads the franchise in games and minutes, meaning his contributions to the team lasted the longest. And his epic steal in the 1965 Eastern Conference Championship will live forever in Celtics lore as one of the great plays in playoff history.

Paul Pierce boasts neither the career numbers, rings, awards, nor magical moments (the closest may be his game-winner against the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, but that play neither clinched the series nor led to a title) to be considered the best offensive player in Celtics history. Havlicek was probably the best, Bird the most versatile and clutch, and Cousy the most innovative. Paul Pierce probably stands at 4th behind them. And considering the talent and gravitas of the above-mentioned players, that should be enough for anyone.

Oh, Jackpot!

(I can’t find the “Family Guy” clip, so the title’s allusion will have to do)

There’s not much to do in Milwaukee. At what there is to do is hard to get to if you don’t have a car. My parents grew up in a Milwaukee suburb called Fox Point. Its streets are a grid of two-story farm houses, all of them the same design, all of them some combination of white or cream buildings with dark-colored roofs. There are no sidewalks. Each street is so similar that once my dad and I managed to get lost on a walk around the neighborhood, despite the fact that HE GREW UP THERE!

So whenever my family makes its annual late-August trip to visit my grandparents, I wind up watching a lot of TV. Every four years, this means the Summer Olympics. But for the off-years, what I wind up catching a lot of ESPN’s coverage of the Little League World Series. And after all of these years, I can honestly say I love watching the miniaturized action that takes place in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

To begin with, I love those sporting events which can truly be called “international.” The Olympics are one such example, the World Cup is another. The World Baseball Classic is not, nor is the FIBA World Championship. But the LLWS is. 8 teams from the U.S., 8 from the rest of the world. People travel from all over to come to the games and root on their city or country. Recognizing the cost some families might pay to support their children, the LLWS has made all of their games free to watch (the World Championship game’s tickets are distributed by the LLWS, but they are still free). What other major sporting event can be said to treat its fans with such care and respect?

And it IS a major sporting event, no doubt about it. A common complaint you find among children that age (11-13) is that adults neither understand them nor do they care. Well, I think we can say we care about this. ESPN will air many of its games and stream all of them for free via ESPN3. They treat these children as what they are: athletes. Sometimes that will mean criticizing their play, but more often it will glorify, making as big a deal of their talents as they would a professional’s. They will make as big a deal over a 12-year-old’s 70 mph fastball as they will a 24-year-old’s 98 mph fastball (because of the shorter distance from mound to home, the speeds are actually almost equivalent in terms of difficulty to hit). A home run is still a home run, no matter the age of who hits it. And a diving catch always makes it to “Baseball Tonight.” The only difference is how much the pitcher outwardly  cheers on the play.

The question I always have about the LLWS is whether or not it’s good for a child that young to be put into situations whose tension can rival the pros. Scouts will be there. More people than most of these children have ever seen before will watch them, and even more will watch them on t.v. Their successes will show up on SportsCenter, but so will their failures. Everything is magnified in the LLWS, and that kind of pressure can be crippling to a child. They lack the emotional maturity of young men, what psychologists call the “coping mechanisms” that allow them to process anxiety and failure.. They can’t fall back to the professional’s knowledge that what they do is their job (think J.D. Drew) and doesn’t define who they are. And, ultimately, they know that they’ll never have this chance again (a college player could have as many as four chances, the professional upwards of ten). That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child. And while the structure of the LLWS prevents the onset of some negative behaviors that plague college and professional athletes (alcohol and drug abuse, for instance), the inability to express that pressure (how many 11-year-olds can calmly describe a feeling as complex as performance anxiety?) can be profoundly damaging.

This is not to say that parents and coaches aren’t aware of all of this. Any time I see a coach visit the mound (interestingly, the LLWS mikes coaches and umpires, but not players), the conversation is nothing like the kind you’d find in, say, “the Mighty Ducks.” There is no harsh criticism of a player, no demand for perfection. The coaches (at least the American ones… I can’t understand the international ones) respect the talent of their players enough to ask them to perform, but try not to let them get too caught up in the negative tension in the air.

I remember one particular game where a coach visited the mound after his pitcher had walked the bases loaded. The game was in its last inning and his team was up by one. Another walk would tie the game. A hit would probably lose it. The coach was aware of this, but he did not start screaming at his pitcher. He calmly explained the situation, respecting the player’s intelligence enough to make the reality of the situation clear. When the kid would get a forlorn look on his face and his eyes would start drifting towards the scoreboard, the coach would get his attention back. He told the player that he believed in him without putting undue pressure on him (no expressions like “it’s all on you”). And he knew that, should his team lose, no one would feel worse than the pitcher. His team DID wind up losing the game, and the pitcher broke into tears. A very common reaction to profound loss at that age. But the coach knew there was no need to make the pitcher feel worse, so he didn’t.

Ultimately, I think the LLWS does more good than harm for these young athletes. I’ll skip the afterschool-special shpiel about how athletics build confidence, teamwork, and an interest in physical health at a young age. However, I believe the very trauma of loss I warned about in the last paragraph is the best thing that can happen to a young child with aspirations of playing at a higher level. While children may feel loss more deeply than adults, they also show the ability to recover from it quicker. Some might give up athletics after such a loss, but most with the talent to play at that level continue on to higher levels. For them, they will subconsciously compare every loss they subsequently suffer to this one. This loss might sting the most, but every time after they’ll know that they’ve suffered worse losses and survived, so they can survive this one as well. It’s like the stand-up comedian describing an early-career bomb as the best thing for his career (Dave Chapelle has described such an experience). The pain they feel now will translate to a resiliency later. It will enable them to persevere through injury, through loss, through trades and the uncertainty of being a professional athlete. And for those lucky few who win it all, they will learn how to win with grace at a young age. No greater skill can be learned by an athlete at a young age.

The championship for the New England region will take place tonight at 7:00 PM. I’m voting for Rhode Island, but only because they have better Italian food.

Homers Fly Like Canadian Geese as Red Sox Out-Slug Blue Jays

After splitting with the Yankees, the faintest of playoff hopes remains for the Boston Red Sox. But to keep that hope from dying, they would need to continue to dominate their rivals from north of the Niagara.

The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays began their four-game series Tuesday night at the Rogers Center in Toronto. The game featured the pitching match-up of Daisuke Matsuzaka versus Ricky Romero. Both pitchers were coming off stellar performances in their most recent starts. Matsuzaka’s last start saw him pitch eight innings of one-run ball against the Cleveland Indians, while Romero pitched a two-hit, two-run complete game against the New York Yankees when he last toed the rubber. History favored the boys from Boston Tuesday night, as Matsuzaka was 6-0 with a 3.51 ERA against Toronto, whereas Romero was 1-4 with an 8.76 ERA against Boston. Romero’s last start against Boston was the shortest of his career, lasting just 2 1/3 innings while giving up nine runs (five earned). However, history would have little say in this game, as neither starter would wind up factoring in the decision.

Matsuzaka wanted to set the tone early for his team, and he did so by striking out the side in the first. When the Red Sox next went to bat in the second, they responded to him, belting three doubles and a single to give themselves a three-run lead early in the game. Toronto’s Adam Lind got one of those runs back in the bottom of the second, hitting a solo homer, but the Red Sox re-upped their lead to three in the third inning on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly by Mike Lowell. Unfortunately, Matsuzaka’s control failed him in the bottom of the third, and he walked the first two batters he faced. Next up was Travis Snider, who crushed the second pitch of his at-bat (one of several fastballs that Matsuzaka left high in the strike-zone) into the second seating level behind right-center for a three-run home run. Just like that, the game was tied.

The scoring continued in the top of the fifth inning, with J.D. Drew crushing a 3-1 offering into the second level in right field. The Red Sox had retaken the lead, and it seemed like Daisuke might be able to eke out a win despite a sub-par performance. However, he was lifted with two outs in the sixth and the job of securing the win fell to Boston’s often-maligned bullpen. They lived up to their jeers, unfortunately, as they yielded a game-tying solo home run to Jose Bautista (the leading home run hitter in the MLB) to lead off the bottom of the seventh.

The Red Sox did not let themselves get discouraged, however. With two outs in the top of the eighth, Mike Lowell came on to face Shawn Camp, who had been brought in with one out in the inning. On an 0-1 pitch, Lowell put the ball just out of reach beyond the wall in left center, breaking the tie with a solo home run. The Red Sox would add an insurance run in the eighth, though they would not need it. Jonathan Papelbon worked around a one-out double to Snider and closed out the game without giving up a run. The final score was Boston 7, Toronto 5. Felix Doubront, despite giving up the initial game-tying home run to Bautista (and picking up his first blown save in the process), earned the “vulture” win. Shawn Camp picked up the loss, while Papelbon earned his 29th save of the season.

Red Sox at the Plate

Two Red Sox homered in key situations Tuesday night: J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell. Lowell went 1-3 on the night with two RBIs.

Three Red Sox players had multi-hit games: David Ortiz, Jed Lowrie and Jacoby Ellsbury. Both of Ortiz’s hits were doubles, the first of which was driven home for the first run of the game. Jed Lowrie, meanwhile, hit two doubles (one of which was ground-rule), drove in two, scored a run and drew a walk. Ellsbury had one RBI, but was caught stealing on his one attempt. The bottom two in the lineup, Lowrie and Ellsbury, played exceptionally well tonight. They provided the basic hitting to contrast the middle of the lineup’s power hitting. When both are happening, the Red Sox offensive can really do damage, which explains why the Red Sox are in the top-five in the MLB in most significant offensive categories (second in runs, second in home runs, third in hits, first in total bases, etc.). It might be wise to keep Ellsbury in the nine-hole for now, letting him re-acclimate to hitting in the majors before resuming his role as lead-off hitter.

Red Sox on the Mound

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s pitching performance Tuesday best could best be described as “spotty.” There were spots of brilliance, such as his three-strikeout first inning or his 1-2-3 fourth, but there were also spots of mediocrity, such as his 2-walk, 3-run home run third inning. And then there were average spots, where he would just give up a hit or a run (second and fifth innings). When he’s on, Matsuzaka definitely CAN pitch. We’ve all seen it. What is so maddening about him is that you never can tell what you’re going to get from start to start or even inning to inning. He can be brilliant for stretches, then it can all fall apart for him, then he can find it again, then he’ll have a horrible string of starts, then he’ll have a few good innings, and so on and so forth. At some point he’ll probably wind up on the DL, then come off it at after a seemingly arbitrary period of time. There’s no pattern to his pitching, no way to tell when you’ll get a good start from him or a bad one. It’s like the knuckleball, except with that it’s either on or off, and you can usually tell early into a game which is the case. Matsuzaka pitched great at points during this game, but at other points he would struggle with control or leave fastball after fastball up in the zone. It’s not being “effectively wild,” it’s just being unpredictable. And it’s hard for fans to sit on an edge for three-plus hours of baseball.

The bullpen pitched well Tuesday night. After surrendering the game-tying home run in the seventh, Doubront retired the next three batters he faced. He also pitched his way out of a two-on, two-out situation in the bottom of the sixth, striking out the second batter he faced after giving up an infield single. Overall, the Blue Jays managed just two hits and one run in 3 1/3 innings pitched by the bullpen. While you would have liked to see them lock it down completely, allow no runs, and finish the win for Matsuzaka, at this point in the season you’ll take any game the Red Sox can walk away from with a win. The bullpen wasn’t brilliant Tuesday night, but perhaps they just won’t be this season. While this may come back to haunt them in the postseason, most fans would be happy if Boston could just MAKE the postseason this year.

The Game in Context

By splitting their series with the Yankees, the Red Sox continued to dangle the playoff line in front of their fans’ eyes. A playoff birth remains very far away, but not so far away that fans can write it off as gone completely. And that’s what makes a win like this unsettling. Yes, the Red Sox won. But the starting pitching wasn’t spectacular tonight, and the bullpen wasn’t much better. The hitting was good, but they were facing a just-average pitcher with a bad history against Boston. So it’s difficult to look at this team and be optimistic. If the Red Sox make it to the playoffs, most fans will have a hard time looking at the Yankees or the Rangers and thinking the Red Sox match up well. But there’s always the hope that if one or two more players come back and/or find their form then this team will transform into something like the team that was at one point just a half-game out of first place in the AL East. It’s a glimmering of hope, not bright enough to see by, but not so dark that you develop night vision either. This game was a metaphor for the entire season: you’re never sure what to think, and it drives you crazy.

It’s 30 Years Later and We’re Still Trying to “Be the Ball”

Picked up the latest Sports Illustrated today. Not bad, some interesting articles. One in particular caught my eye: an interview with the cast and crew of the cult classic “Caddyshack,” which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary (it debuted in theaters on July 25, 1980). For those who’ve never seen it, be warned: it’s about golf… sort of. It centers around Bushwood Country Club, where there has always been a clear definition of place in society. On the one hand you have the staff and caddies, comprised of working-class Italian, Irish, and African-Americans (mostly Catholic). And on the other hand you have the members, rich and Anglo-Saxon (namely Lutheran). The status quo is shaken up by two iconoclasts: Ty Webb (played by Chevy Chase), the reclusive wunderkind golfer whose father helped found the club, and Al Czervik (played by Rodney Dangerfield), the nouveau riche real estate man who throws money around like it’s growing on trees. Ty Webb does his best to aid caddy Danny Noonan (played by Michael O’Keefe) in Noonan’s dreams of escaping his place in society by going to college, although he cautions Noonan not to compromise himself in order to do so. In the background is a side-story involving greens-keeper Carl’s (played by Bill Murray) ongoing battle with an annoyingly cute gopher (played by a puppet) that’s damaging the course. All of the stories come together in the climactic golf battle between Webb, Czervik, and two longstanding club members (with Noonan caddying), with Carl simultaneously trying to blow up the gopher’s underground tunnels using plastic explosives. I won’t give away the ending, but it wraps the various stories up in bizarre but satisfying fashion.

“Caddyshack” grossed nearly $40 million in North America. It has been named as the 7th best sports movie of all time by the American Film Institute. Most importantly, it has become an inextricable part of Americana. Its quotes pervade not just the American populace but the sports world as well. Golfers will frequently tell each other to “be the ball.” And Carl’s usage of the term “Cinderella story” (the term may have existed before, but “Caddyshack” popularized it) is now the go-to expression for any team rising above and beyond expectation. This was a film whose production was characterized by rampant drug use (Dangerfield arrived for his first meeting with the movie executives and greeted them by doing lines of cocaine on their desk), off-screen feuds and mis-communications (Chase and Murray had never acted together before due to a feud that dates back to their “Saturday Night Live” days; the final scene’s use of explosives was never cleared by the country club’s owners, so the producers sent him to a meeting off-site and detonated them essentially “behind his back”), and little to no script or direction (most of the famous scenes are just improvisation). And yet, it has gone on to incredible critical and financial fame. After 30 years, we have to ask ourselves, “why?” What is it about this film that is so classic?

For me, what makes this movie so unforgettable is the acting of its three stars, Dangerfield, Chase, and Murray. Rodney Dangerfield is wonderfully over-the-top, turning every observation into a barb, every detail into a point of humor. This was his first film, and he was still trying to figure out how to turn his stand-up routine into a successful acting style. While he would go on to greater performances (my favorite is definitely “Back to School”), there is so much to love about his flamboyance, his lack of interest in any established norm or rule. Meanwhile, Chase brings an affable otherworldliness to the character of Ty Webb. His character is so out-there that you honestly have no idea what is going to come out of his mouth at any given moment. His quiet, calmly bizarre attitude stands in poignant contrast to Dangerfield’s and Murray’s more in-your-face characters. And speaking of Bill Murray, what else can be said? In the words of the GZA, he’s “Bill Groundhog-Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray!” His lines are ridiculous, his acting is insane, and his improvisation is without compare. It’s not just his voice, but his facial expressions (the slack-jawed, diagonally-positioned mouth, the mostly-stoned eyes), posture (constantly leaning, never upright, never RIGHT), his gravitas. While Czervik is kind of everywhere, and Webb is somewhere else, Carl is just not there. We barely know what to do with a character like his, as every time you think he’s just a goofball he starts muttering about cutting people’s hamstrings. Dangerfield would go on to greater things, and Chase was in mid-career stride, Ty Webb being a memorable but not mind-blowing performance. But Murray’s Carl, for the sheer mindless insanity, is perhaps Murray’s greatest comedic performance.

Since this is ostensibly a sports blog, I feel obliged to mention something about golf. So here we go: something about golf. Ha ha! “That was a doozy, judge!” (or something like that). Anyway, I don’t know very much about golf. The SI article interviews several golfers about the movie, and the consensus seems to be that the sentiment is right on, the atmosphere accurate, and the play-style very accurate to the 1970s (the mechanics of the golf swing have changed since then). I think golf as a sport, despite its “purity” (Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” reminds us that it’s “just you and the ball, all by your lonesome”), brings out something negative in us. Golf’s history has been defined by separation and segregation. Blacks, Jews, Irish, Catholics, a cornucopia of minorities have been denied access to this game, and to this day it is played primarily on private golf clubs and expensive resorts. While race  and ethnicity have SOMEWHAT evaporated as means of exclusion (all the same, golf is perhaps the whitest professional sport there is, with the possible exception of hockey), class remains. Membership in country clubs across the country remain elusive, and resorts charge top-dollar to make use of their greens. For this reason, many sports fans avoid golf, where the typical garb resembles that of the rich, stuffy, and exclusive. Whether we feel it brings up something undesirable in ourselves or we honestly feel no connection with it remains to be seen, but golf is a marginalized sport, with only the greatest of its athletes achieving broad-spectrum appeal (think Tiger Woods, then think how quickly we tore him down). Your typical sports fan will usually eschew golf in favor of a sport where the athlete speaks to the more heroic notions of the human experience (the poor Hispanic immigrant who barely speaks English but whose pitching talent allows him to achieve super-stardom; the boy who grew up playing hockey on the local frozen lake and goes on to win a Stanley Cup; the African-American growing up in a troubled home in a troubled neighborhood transforming his talent into a college education he could never otherwise obtain) and the racial makeup more accurately reflects America as it is today.

“Caddyshack” has a universal message however: fight for what you believe in and you will be rewarded, regardless of your place in society. Czervik, Webb and Noonan are all out of place in their worlds. They see things as askew and want to change them. To that end, they do what is possible to either undermine (Webb and Czervik) the status quo or break away from it completely (Noonan). Their success (I won’t kill the ending, but I will say it’s a happy one) gives us hope. We can change what we see as wrong. We can be better than what society defines for us at birth. All it takes is hard work and talent. This is the purest notion of the “American Dream,” and anything that recalls it will do well in American society. Many have talked about the death of the “American Dream” in the last 30 years, citing an increasing feeling amongst the working and middle class that the upper class, despite everything, remains a constant in society, comprised of the children of those who occupied it 30 years ago, and that there is no room for newcomers. This may be true; if so, it’s a depressing truth. Anything that can let us feel for a moment that this is not the case, and especially that does so with style and flair and humor, becomes a part of Americana. This is why “Caddyshack” remains so beloved: it lets us dream, if only for a moment, that we can be more than what society tells us to be. Like the man says: “In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher’.”