SportsProf

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Monday, October 25, 2004

The World Series (Again)

I am on the road at a professional convention (typing at an internet kiosk at a keyboard with a weak space bar), so I won't be providing my 5 posts a week this week (and, to boot, I left my Street and Smith's College Basketball magazine on the plane, thereby depriving me of the ability to write a bunch of good tidbits re: college hoops, but I promise those will be forthcoming shortly (including my Ivy hoops preview), including one about the irony of the Gloger brothers. At any rate. . .

Okay, you can marvel at Mississippi State's upset of Florida (congratulations to Sylvester Croom there), the Chiefs' awakening from a Van Winkle-like slumber to bring the Falcons down to earth, 56-10 (was Dick Vermeil crying after the game because he was happy or because they used too many onions in that fine K.C. barbecue), Harvard's scoring 36 unanswered points to remind the PrincetonTigers that perhaps they're not ready for Ivy football's first division (winning 39-14, which is starting to make Ivy fans think that even in the fair Ivies, there are basketball schools like Princeton and football schools like Harvard), or Iowa's decision over Penn State, 6-4 (there was an escape from the bottom position near the end of the match -- oh, this was football!). All of these (and, for example, Arizona State's late victory in a high-scoring game against UCLA) are wonderful stories. But, once again, this is the peak of the baseball season, and all of those stories do not combine to eclipse that of Major League Baseball's post-season.

First, the venue. Is there anything more cinematically fun in sport than watching majestic long fly balls get launched into the nightime sky, arcing high in the air, where you're left to wonder about their fate? Fair, or foul? Will the ball curve inside the foul pole or arc well beside it into foul territory? Will it go over the Green Monster or clank off it for a long single, or will it dance around the unique centerfield landscape like a pinball off the top bumper? The green, the fans in right, the fans atop the Green Monster, the posts in the lower level that hold up the upper deck? Every city can sponsor an old-fashioned stadium that is fun to take your kids to, that is much more fan friendly than the space-aged saucers that probably marked the nadir of modern stadium architecture, but the old, idiosyncratic classics are the best.

And it isn't even close.

Because this is where Ted Williams played alongside Dominic DiMaggio, and this is where Boo Ferris won 26 games for the 1946 Red Sox, where Jim Rice had that amazing season in 1975 when he amassed 406 total bases (a stat somewhat forgotten, but how many players hit those heights these days), where Fred Lynn won the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year award, also in 1975, where Luis Tiant twirled, where Carl Yastrzemski roamed left field and played the Green Monster like nobody else. Tons of great memories -- Doerr, Pesky, Lonborg, Fisk's home run, and lots of great opponents. You can get these sense that all of those who have gone before are trying to sneak out of Heaven's Gate just one more time, urging on a runner or encouraging a pitcher to go inside with the high hard one to jam the opposing team's cleanup hitter. Many modern stadiums provide great backdrops, but few provide the theater that this particular venue can.

Or perhaps none can.

Last night it was the Sox current answer to Fisk, their feisty catcher, Jason Varitek, who tripled home two early Red Sox' runs. And then it was Bellhorn, who is Tom Lawless, Bucky Dent, and Bernie Carbo all wrapped up in one, blasting in a few more. They waived the bloody shirt in many presidential elections in the U.S. after the Civil War, rooting on one former general after another to victory, and in Boston they'll waive the Bloody Sock through the rest of the first half of this century, and grandchildren will ask their grandfathers whether they watched Game 6 of the ALCS or Game 2 of the World Series and saw Curt Schilling pitch, and we'll just nod and say, as our fathers and grandfathers before us said about pitchers like Bob Feller and Whitey Ford, "Yes, son, he was that good." Only, perhaps, he was better.

This is a tale of two wonderful franchises. The Cardinals' stars are in a horrid slump, but it only takes one Johnny Damon-like burst of baseball fury to turn the tables on an opponent and a series. Who knows, a pair of back-to-back home runs by Rolen and Pujols just might prove to be the tinder in Game 3 that turns that mighty oaks that form the Boston bullpen -- Embree, Timlin and Foulke -- into combustible timber? Tony LaRussa's bullpen is deeper (in that LaRussa relies on more relievers) and perhaps, as a result, better rested, but he needs his starters to give the bullpen a chance to hold leads and save a game. So far, his mighty lineup has not done that.

So now the series moves to St. Louis, whose wonderful history includes a pitcher named Jay Hanna "Dizzy" Dean, a tough leftfielder named Joe Medwick, and an assembly of characters in 1934 who were dubbed "The Gashouse Gang." If there ever were a time for the Cards to draw on their history, it should be on the '34 team, which, led by Frank Frisch and an upstart SS named Leo Durocher, because the 2004 Cards, 70 years, later, need the gas. They need the gas to fuel their offensive engine, and they need the gas from their pitchers to neutralize Boston's tantalizing lineup. And, while they're at it, they should draw on the class of Stan Musial, perhaps the most underrated great position player in history, the fire of Bob Gibson, and the many others who have played since those greats, such as Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock.

And they might be able to use Gibson in the rotation, because there's little doubt that in his early 60's he still has the competitive fire.

But these games aren't about the alumni, at least not for the most part. They're for the guys on the field, the great-fielding Jim Edmunds, the great base-running (and fielding) Scott Rolen, the all-world hitting of Albert Pujols and the steady catching of Mike Matheny. They're about the command presence of David Ortiz, the potential of Manny Ramirez's bat to erupt at any moment like Vesuvius, the balky gloves of many Red Sox players, and the starting pitchers who have beaten back their share of criticism and risen to the occasion.

Yes, the Sox lead 2-0, but they've been in that position before and weren't able to close it out. Not that the players on this team had anything to do with the failures, but they've heard about them, read about them and even have witnessed them incarnate in the form of Aaron Boone (whose grandfather, Ray Boone, recently passed away at the age of 81, was a 2-time all-star and ironically, as fate would have it, spent a good part of his post-baseball careers as a scout with -- the Boston Red Sox). Some storied programs such as Notre Dame football continue to try to wake up the echoes with the hope that they'll carry the team to a greatness not felt, not embraced, since the 1940's. Others, like the Boston Red Sox, hope to put them to sleep for a very long time. Echoes, whispers, whatever, David Ortiz wants to hit them over the right field fence, and Curt Schilling wants to throw them through the Green Monster.

Can they do it? Stay tuned and enjoy every bit of the drama, because if you ever were to argue that baseball is boring and not made for TV, just dare to watch this series, if you didn't watch the NLCS or the ALCS. Weren't you hanging on every pitch, thinking that it could get hit to Toledo or burn through your favorite player's bat, killing a rally? Weren't you worrying about whether your team's (or adopted team's) pitcher was in the game too long, and weren't you at some point pulling for some team because you liked their grit and their effort? If you're a baseball fan, you were doing that.

And you'll be doing it again on Tuesday night.

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