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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

What You Must Watch on TV Tonight

The guys who wrote Rocky, Rudy, The Natural, Hoosiers, Friday Night Lights, The Iliad, The Odyssey, the Greek myths and much of what we consider to be the Great Books couldn't pump out scripts like this. Big talk at the outset from a premier player, only to have him fail and aggravate an injury. Intermittent worry about whether he was done for the year, whether he would (or should) take one for the team and gut it out, and how he would do after he decided that if this were going to be his last hurrah, he would go down with his boots. Bloody right ankle and all.

At the season's outset (and before I started this blog), I e-mailed my friends in the Red Sox nation after the BoSox had traded for Curt Schilling. "This is the guy," I wrote, "who you want in there with the big game on the line. He wants to come to Boston, and he wants to be the guy who helps lead his team to break the dreaded Curse." "You want him in the big game more than anyone else, more than Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson. He wants the ball like no one else." I've blogged on him here and here, mostly about how much of a gamer he is, and how, if he has a few more good seasons, he'll be a solid candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Schilling surely delivered during the regular season, putting up great numbers and winning 21 games. Again, he'll be a Cy Young bridesmaid, for as outstanding as he is, Johan Santana of the Twins put up such great numbers that he's a shoo-in for the hardware unless the writers decided to make the award a lifetime achievement kudo, which I'm sure they didn't do. He pitched well in the sweep against Anaheim in the ALDS, but he tweaked an already sore ankle in his one outing and limped into Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the ALCS. Everything that he worked for -- to help get the Red Sox a world championship -- was in balance. Would he shine? Or would he suffer from the Curse too?

As it turned out, he put his foot and ankle in his mouth. Prior to the Game 1 start, he said that it would be a very satisfying feeling to get 55,000 Yankee fans to shut up. As it turned out, he was the one who had to shut up, as he gave up 6 ER in 3 IP, and his effort paled in comparison to that of another stellar pitcher (and one who doesn't get his total due), Mike Mussina, who had a perfect game going for a while. Curt Schilling was Rocky Balboa in the early part of Rocky III, the champ who went into the ring and got his lights put out by a formidable opponent. The question was how bad was his ankle, and whether he would be able to come back on it. Would he rise up to re-take his title, or would he go on the scrap heap of post-season history, the once mighty hero that time caught up to.

Jayson Stark of said after that game on ESPN Radio that it was the worst he'd seen Schilling pitch ever, and given that Stark covered the Phillies for The Philadelphia Inquirer before, he had watched Schilling pitch more than any other pitcher in the game. Schilling had no command, his fastball was a foot short at least, and, well, Schilling was the Schilling you had come to know. Yankee fans pooh-poohed comments like these, saying that if Schilling were really hurt, he shouldn't have been in there. Of course, these comments didn't come from the Red Sox or Schilling, who isn't one to give excuses. He felt that he had let his team down, and he wasn't happy about his effort. And that's the way it should have been. No excuses.

The great ones present interesting dilemmas. They always want to play, and they never want to come out of a game. They'll pitch when they're a little bit too tired, they'll stay in a football game with an aggravated hamstring that risks letting an opposing player blast by them, they'll stay on the basketball court with knees so sore that every step feels like a land mine is going off beneath them. Their managers and coaches face tough decisions -- can they really deprive the stars of the stage, will the stars disregard their ailments and rise to the occasion, or can some lesser-known replacement who is healthy do the job just fine? On paper, the decisions seem rather straightforward, but in real life they are about as difficult as they come. Because what makes the true stars shine so brightly is that they cannot be harnessed (only channeled), and that they simply won't quit fighting until the last out is made or, as the case may be, the clock runs out. So the decision is somewhat simple, but perhaps the reverse of what you might think -- you want those players on the field. Even if they're gimpy.

And Curt Schilling faced a dilemma -- a snapping ankle tendon that made it hard to push off from his back foot to get the command and velocity he needed to bedevil hitters. He looked at all sorts of remedies, from Johnny Unitas-like shoes to shots, and in the end he opted for the shot, a shot of something that made his ankle a bloody mess. Perhaps the Sox planned it this way, perhaps Schilling wanted to create an indelible memory of the bloody sock, or perhaps the blood came after the ankle was wrapped and there was no time to change the bandage, but no matter how it got there, it symbolized the effort of the entire Boston team. Bloodied, but not bowed, and they came back with a resolve that baseball fans hadn't seen in the game's history. Led by General Curt Schilling, who dared to step into the arena and risking tarnishing an almost unblemished post-season legend, risking further injury perhaps, the Boston Red Sox didn't pay attention to the numerous obituaries written about them and played as though it was the last day of their life. They kept on coming, and they came back.

And the peformance that Curt Schilling gave last night was an all-timer. Pitching on one leg, or at least one ankle, he mowed down a very formidable Yankee lineup that had bashed Red Sox' pitching for 19 runs only a few games ago. He didn't have his best stuff on this cold, damp night, but he had very good stuff. The stuff of a champion. The script writers wrote it so that Schilling's ankle didn't become Achilles' heel.

But he needed some help. He needed some hitting. He needed the Red Sox to take the lead. Because while baseball isn't a team sport the way football or basketball is, you do need your teammates to carry their share of the load and generate some offense. You can't win 0-0, and while Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore go down in baseball lore for pitching 21 innings apiece in a 1-1 tie, you want to be remembered for more than that. You want to be remembered for a great game, but you want to win that game. Above all else.

The Red Sox were patient at the plate, getting to Yankee starter Jon Lieber. And the great thing about baseball is that you never know where all the heroics are going to come from. In basketball, it would be hard to imagine the recent Lakers' teams mounting a comeback without Shaq and Kobe leading the way. The same in football with Tom Brady and now Corey Dillon of the Patriots. It's not like a third-string quarterback who sings in the church choir and hails from Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania and played his college ball at Beloit will come off the bench to lead the Steelers to victory. It's not as if the Division III guard from Bowdoin who has published a volume of haiku will be the twelfth man who helps the Lakers rebound from a 2-0 deficit against the San Antonio Spurs. How often does that happen?


But the rich textures that baseball gives us also on an annual basis give us an almost-perfect performance by Brandon Backe, a game-winning HR by Bucky Dent (and Aaron Boone), late game catches by Sandy Amoros and Al Gionfriddo, none of whom are or were the big names on their teams at the time. Far from it. It was Gene Larkin, a back-up 1B, whose sacrifice fly clinched the '91 series (one of the greatest) for the Twins, and a 23 year-old Johnny Podres who pitched the Brooklyn Dodgers to their only world championship in 1955.

And last night, it was Mark Bellhorn. Not the miracle worker, David Ortiz, or the locomotive who helped pull the Sox all year, Manny Ramirez. It wasn't their gifted leadoff hitter, Johnny Damon, who has had a miserable ALCS, and it wasn't their spiritual leader, as it were, catcher Jason Varitek. It was a bottom-of-the-order hitter who led AL hitters in strikeouts and who isn't that good a fielder. In the early innings, with 2 men on, the lefthanded-hitting Bellhorn lofted a fly ball to left field and barely made it over the left field wall. That three-run homer, and Schilling's effort, enabled the BoSox to win Game 6.

An unprecedented feat. No team in baseball history had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to tie a post-season series. The irony, of course, is that the cursed Red Sox are the ones who staged the miraculous comeback. Does this mean that they can shed the curse for good? Or does it mean that the turn of script writer tonight will be taken by the writers of Greek mythology, who will create some Sisyphus-like ending for the Red Sox, having them once again accomplish a significant amount only to fail to reach the top of the mountain. And, with Derek Lowe, who has gotten battered in 3 starts at Yankee Stadium this year (ERA 9.75), it may well be that the BoSox will run out of gas and fail to reach the top of the hill. Even if the Yankees' hurlers are tired, they are pitching at home. Edge: Yankees.

Or is that right? Or may it be that Lowe will summon one great effort, an unexpected effort, and pitch the game of his life tonight? After all, he won 19 games last season. Isn't that the way baseball works? The heroes hit .162 in a series, and the flawed role players muster up one great effort that helps their team win. Comebacks. Vindication. Redemption. Resurrection. Surprises. All wrapped up in one.

Regardless of who you are rooting for, it's a great, great series. These teams are maxed out, they are running on fumes, they are trying to summon up the last bits of their ability to defeat a worthy and stubborn foe. Tired bullpens, sore shoulders, bruised hands, hurt feet, streaky hitters, close calls, the potential sight of Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez walking out to the BoSox bullpen, together, in the fifth inning, and of Mike Mussina doing the same thing for the Yankees (the way he did last year). It's everything that a baseball fan could want.

And more.

So stay tuned tonight. If you're a baseball fan, you have to watch. If you're a casual sports fan, you should watch.

The trend today on TV is to move away from dramas and comedies and toward reality shows. Whatever you think about that trend and about TV in general, you'll have to agree on one thing:
the Yankees/Red Sox series is, by far, the best reality series there is.


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