Sports Nut

The Last Weekend

The Red Sox and Yankees fight to the death, again.

He loves it when you call him Big Papi.
He loves it when you call him Big Papi

If it is all right with David Ortiz, whose blessing we in Boston now seek in all things, it will be incumbent upon every unaffiliated baseball fan in America this holiday season to send a fruitcake to Eric Wedge and his glorious Cleveland Indians. This is not simply because the Indians have been the best story in the game for nearly three months now, what with their marvelously irrepressible rookies and the sudden emergence of C.C. Sabathia as the walking ghost of Bob Lemon. The Indians have done more than simply scare the daylights out of the Chicago White Sox. They also have helped to rescue the rest of baseball from revolving exclusively once again around the overly dramatic pole stars of the Yankees and the Red Sox.

As baseball rounds into a final weekend that may be spectacularly chaotic enough to make everyone forget briefly the embarrassing presence of the San Diego Padres in this year’s playoffs, it is the Indians that pried open at least the possibility that either Boston or New York will miss the postseason entirely. The presence of a third team in the playoff hunt means that the master narrative of the climactic series at Fenway Park will at the very least have to acknowledge that baseball does occur west of Buffalo. In turn, this will spare us a revival of all the Athens-Sparta nonsense that was laid to rest during last year’s American League Championship Series. On second thought, probably not.

It had all been laid to rest until the past month, when the threadbare Boston bullpen finally caught up with its equally tattered rotation and Yankee fans rejoiced in the tiny miracles wrought by Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small. In this same space earlier this season, when the Yankees were floundering around close to .500, I argued that New York would spend the year as an interesting team but not necessarily as a contender. Since then, of course, Chacon and Small anchored the pitching staff until Randy Johnson was able to round back into his aging form. New York is 9-3 in games that Chacon has started, and his brilliant six-plus innings against Baltimore on Wednesday night may turn out to be the most signifying victory of all. That’s when the Red Sox were getting pummeled 7-2 at home against Toronto and the Yankees were thereby able to break out into the vast, clear daylight of a full one-game lead.

That lead would be two games, of course, if not for the ludicrously excessive heroics of Ortiz and the Red Sox on Thursday night. Down 4-1 to Toronto, and with the Yankees preparing to hand Mariano Rivera a six-run lead, Boston first got an opposite field two-run homer from Manny Ramirez. And then Ortiz tied the game, also with a home run the other way, this one into the seats atop the left-field wall. Ortiz then won the game in the ninth inning with a solid single that (again) went to left field. Ortiz now has 47 home runs—more than any other Boston player besides Jimmie Foxx—and 20 of them have either tied a game or put the Red Sox into a lead. If he’s not the American League MVP, then I’m Michael Kay.

It was Ortiz who kept this weekend’s face-off a two-out-of-three proposition, but this round of Sox-Yankees will be a series of supporting players. In a series of small-ball deals that brought Chacon and outfielder Matt Lawton to the Bronx, New York general manager Brian Cashman showed himself capable of subtle moves not entirely dependent upon the fact that he does his job within the biggest vault in professional sports. Meanwhile, in Boston, GM Theo Epstein pretty clearly spent the year trying to buy time in 2005 without peddling 2008-2012 out of town. Epstein reasoned—correctly, I believe—that the trading deadline this year was a tour of the Petrified Forest. So, rather than scramble after some left-handed orthopedic case, Epstein hung on to young pitchers Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen, and, especially, Jonathan Papelbon, who together make up the strongest group of young Red Sox pitchers since the Oil Can Boyd-Bruce Hurst-Roger Clemens class of the mid-1980s. Epstein took a gamble that the Red Sox had just enough to squeak back into the playoffs again. But that was before the Indians broke up the wild-card picture by storming through the second half of the season.

So, the teams have reversed roles. The Yankees look solid and contenderish. The Red Sox have drained every last drop from what was never a big gas tank to begin with. Some of the dismantling of the 2004 world champions still seems curious. If it was at all possible, there should have been a more serious attempt to re-sign Pedro Martinez, especially since Derek Lowe ran off to Los Angeles in order to run off with TV reporters, and since it was obvious almost from the moment the champagne dried that Curt Schilling was damaged goods. And the unseemly haste with which Series hero and exquisite defensive shortstop Orlando Cabrera was shuffled out of town in favor of Edgar Renteria and his 30 (oy!) errors is still a mystery. (Cabrera fit in splendidly with his teammates, many of whom have spent an awful lot of time this season admonishing the various talk-radio lycanthropes to go easy on the iron-gloved Renteria.) And some of the changes were pure individual self-destruction; in terms of personal unpopularity along the banks of the Charles, former closer Keith Foulke is closing fast on former Cardinal Bernard Law.

(Perhaps the season’s most surreal moment came when Foulke expressed anger that his performance was being criticized by “Johnny from Burger King.” Given that Foulke’s been dead meat on the mound for most of the season, this particular Johnny struck most Sox fans as a perfectly appropriate judge of the pitcher’s abilities.)

Absent Epstein’s trading for solid starting pitching that wasn’t on the market anyway, the Red Sox face the series with Tim Wakefield as the team’s best starter and Mike Timlin tremulously hanging on as the closer.

Moreover, in the closing days of the race, Curt Schilling has determined that it’s time to start driving nails into his own palms again. Last week, an anonymous Red Sox player wondered to a Boston Herald columnist why Schilling, who spent the offseason rehabilitating his famous stigmatic ankle, still gets cheered “like he’s the Pope” even though he hasn’t produced on the field. Schilling responded by laying out a long, lachrymose self-drama in the Boston Globe.

Sides were chosen. Suspected moles were run to ground. Villains were fashioned and heroes defended, and the Internet sites dedicated to the Red Sox degenerated—albeit not very far—into what looked like high-school slam books written by Bill James. Of course, for drama’s sake, if the two teams split the first two games of the series, it will be Schilling who gets the ball on Sunday to pitch for the pennant against Mike Mussina—two famous brand names who have spent a good part of the season on the remainders table.

So, despite the best efforts of the Cleveland Indians, who sought to spare us all, your defending world champions enter the final weekend against the Yankees with the past around them like a shroud. Of course, this time, it’s only their most immediate past, so things are looking up, God and Papi willing. But, of course, I repeat myself.