Sports Nut

God vs. the Red Sox

And other themes from the baseball playoffs.

The first round of the Major League Baseball playoffs should have been plugged by Fox and ESPN with the slogan “You want themes? We got themes!”

How about the theme of small-market teams having a chance to win? Well, you had Minnesota, Oakland, San Francisco, and Florida to talk about. You prefer the David vs. Goliath theme? Try Minnesota vs. the Yankees, or Florida against the Giants. The Cubs against the Braves fit in there somewhere, but I don’t know where exactly, since the Cubs are a big-market, big-revenue team that never wins anything while the Braves are a small-market, big-revenue team that always wins something.

Then you have the Chronic Chokers theme. A Braves vs. A’s World Series would have wrapped that one up neatly. Between them, the two teams in recent years have blown more leads than Ted Baxter.

Of course, the Cubs vs. Red Sox theme is the one the media is most looking forward to, although I’m not convinced baseball fans around the country give a lick about that matchup. More fans would presumably tune in to a Yankees-Cubs World Series, but to much of the East Coast sports media (this means you, Peter Gammons) the continuing misery of the Red Sox and their fans is the predominant theme of every baseball season.

Myself, I have nothing against the Red Sox, but it can get grating to hear from commentator after commentator why we’re supposed to identify with the suffering of Red Sox fans when all available evidence, from decades of blatant racism in the front office to the thugginess of their fans toward visiting teams, indicates that they so richly deserve it. (Curse of the Bambino, my butt; the Red Sox passed on a chance to sign Willie Mays.)

The Cubs are a different matter, and the differences between the miserable histories of the Red Sox and the Cubs should not be misunderstood. The Red Sox are a rich team that whines about the Yankees being richer. The Cubs, on the other hand, are a rich team that has carefully cultivated the image of a poor one, playing the lovable losers to their fans when they should have been using the fans’ money to hold on to players like Greg Maddux.

The Red Sox are the team God dislikes; the Cubs are the team God merely forgot about.

Until this season, that is, when their respective brain trusts decided that enough was enough. If the Cubs and the Red Sox do meet in the World Series, it will be more than a clash between the game’s best starting rotation and the game’s best hitting lineup. It will also be a confrontation of two teams of astute, hip baseball executives who made a conscious decision to embrace the baseball research that has been percolating for more than two decades.

In fact, that could be the dominant theme of not merely the first round of playoffs but the entire baseball season. Thanks to Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ best-selling book about Oakland GM Billy Beane, everybody knows about Beane’s proclivity for making shrewd and economically creative deals—which is probably why nobody gave him a chance to make any deals coming down the stretch this season. But Red Sox execs, from team President and CEO Larry Luchino (who cleverly dubbed the Yankees “The Evil Empire,” a theme even the New York press has gleefully picked up on, even though Luchino could buy and sell George Steinbrenner) to Theo Epstein, the youngest GM in baseball, also made a conscientious effort to blow away the thick-headedness that has surrounded their team’s baseball strategy for more than eight decades.

Epstein, like Beane, is a fan of baseball’s shrewdest analyst, Bill James, who for more than 20 years has stressed the efficacy of statistics like on-base average. That’s why you heard so much all season about the Red Sox leading the major leagues in OBA. Epstein did better than study James; he went out and hired him as a special adviser.

Yet another Jamesian principle involves the care and handling of strong young pitching arms, and Cubs President Andy MacPhail and GM Jim Hendry brought in the right man, Dusty Baker, to do it. The confidence with which Baker has imbued his team is contagious. Looking at a close-up of Kerry Woods’ steely-eyed stare to home plate tells you right away that this is not a team that is content simply to be in the playoffs—and that it is not going to be content to simply be in the World Series. This is a team that wants it all and wants it now.

Unfortunately for the Cubs—and any American League team that has to play Florida in the World Series—the Marlins have smart people up front, and they’re pretty hungry, too. Florida GM Larry Beinfest is just 39, old compared to Theo Epstein but an upstart by the standards of his profession.

Perhaps more than anyone else whose team made the playoffs, Beinfest, who is also a keen student of James and sabermetrics, has illustrated how a sharp, aggressive executive can turn his team’s season around. There was the off-season acquisition of center fielder Juan Pierre, who not only gave the Marlins greater range in center field but greater speed on the bases with 64 steals. (A James axiom: “Speed is the one talent useful on both offense and defense.”) Then there were the late-season acquisitions of relievers Ugueth Urbina and Chad Fox to bolster the bullpen—the surest sign that a team isn’t going to be satisfied to simply have improved themselves but means to do some serious damage—and the reacquisition of outfielder Jeff Conine, who hit just .238 in 25 games for Florida but who produced 28 runs in that span.

If you’re looking for one more theme to cap the 2003 season, the Yankees, with their lineup of future Hall of Fame candidates assembled mostly by their smart young hip GM, Brian Cashman, will provide one. (For all the press extolling Epstein’s genius, the Red Sox were still barely mediocre outside Fenway Park with a 42-39 record. Their much publicized OBA of .360 shrinks to just .328 outside of Fenway, while their opponents were actually a little better at .333.) If the Yankees beat the Red Sox, as they seem poised to do with the rotation of Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and David Wells, then the theme will be either Big Spenders vs. Cost Cutters (Yankees vs. Marlins) or Baseball’s Greatest Winner vs. Baseball’s Greatest Loser (Yankees vs. Cubs). One way or another, the Yankees are baseball’s most durable theme.