These are the very best seasons, the ones that take us by surprise.
The hallowed 1967 season, the one younger generations are probably sick of hearing about from us elders to the point of nausea, was such a season. We may have had a little early warning in the form of a fairly decent second half of the 1966 season, but nobody was prepared for the exquisite adventure that was the 1967 pennant race. Actually being part of the pennant race was a thrill in and of itself. It had been a decade and a half without meaningful September games.
Unlike 1967, there will be no need for final-day drama this year. The Red Sox took charge of the American League East a few weeks back. All thoughts have been directed toward the immediate future, specifically Friday night, Oct. 4, when the American League Division Series will commence at Fenway Park. The chatter has to do with John Farrell’s starting rotation, who will and who won’t be on the pitching staff, and the status of Jacoby Ellsbury. In that sense, this is nothing at all like 1967, because when we entered the ballpark on Oct. 1, 1967, there was a very real possibility it would be the last day of the season, period. The Red Sox, Twins, and Tigers were equally alive. We will be deprived of the suspense and excitement generated by the events of that day, but in its place is the satisfaction of a totally pleasurable season during which baseball dignity was restored here in Boston.
What were the expectations when the 2013 season began?
The team simply had to be better. The 2012 Red Sox were bad, but they were not 69-93 bad. It was a perfect storm of negativity, combining injuries (David Ortiz and Ellsbury played 164 games between them), poor pitching (e.g. Jon Lester), and what might have been the worst managing job the major leagues have seen in the last 130 years.
But they play in the American League East. Toronto appeared to be loaded. The Yankees were old, ’tis true, but in most cases they were distinguished elders worthy of professional respect. The Orioles figured to have something of a market correction after all those one-run triumphs, but they were going to be quite respectable. And Tampa Bay had All That Pitching. To me, 81-81 would have constituted reasonable improvement.
The important thing was to fumigate the premises, to make fans believe that the events of September 2011 and all of 2012 were aberrational and not the new norm on Yawkey Way. Basic credibility had to be restored. Winning the AL East was not required.
Ben Cherington gets a lot of the credit, but I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you any general manager would rather be lucky than good. The baseball consensus was that he overpaid the likes of Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Mike Napoli, and, of course, you don’t hear any of that now that each man has come through. But do give Cherington credit for identifying just the right personalities to brighten up the clubhouse, in addition to bringing specific talents to the playing field. Ben was 3 for 3 with these guys. Two out of three would have been a passing GM grade.
And then there is the wondrous Mr. Uehara.
As everyone knows by now, he was not brought here to be the closer. He only became the ninth-inning guy after both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey went down. Serendipity reigns in this regard.
Let me note, however, that the idea of Uehara having some measure of success is not a shock to baseball’s more seasoned observers. In Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue, each team’s rundown contains a segment entitled “Enemy Lines,” in which an anonymous rival scout evaluates a team other than his own. Here is the entry on Koji Uehara: “A key guy in the bullpen will be Koji Uehara. He just knows how to mess up bat speeds, never walks anybody. A very underappreciated player.”
By way of amplification, the author of the Red Sox preview, whom I presume to be Ben Reiter, had this to say: “Uehara may be the steal of the winter, coming off a year in which he struck out 43 batters and walked three for the Rangers. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.91 to 1 is the best for anyone with at least 31 innings.”
The Red Sox were picked to go 75-87 and finish last in the division. Toronto was the favorite, naturally.
One more thing on the subject of Uehara: Call me fatalistic, call me irresponsible, call me a taxi, but, boy, was I relieved when Uehara gave up that run against Baltimore Tuesday night. Sorry, but the last thing the Red Sox needed was him entering the postseason with a sick string of scoreless innings and consecutive batters retired. You don’t want to rile up the baseball gods, if you know what I mean. One Tom Gordon vs. Cleveland experience was enough. Yes, he lost the game, but the Rays had already lost, so it was a no-harm, no-foul evening in pennant race terms. That’s the way my mind works, anyway.
Do take a bow for Koji Uehara, Ben.
And Mike Carp. Who among us knew anything about Mike Carp? I sure didn’t. I can tell you now that he had a pretty decent rookie year in Seattle back in 2011, that he was good enough to be named the August rookie of the month, and that he had a 20-game hitting streak that year. I can tell you that he spent three stints on the disabled list last year with shoulder and groin issues. The reason I can tell you these things is because I looked them up the old-fashioned way, in the 2013 Red Sox media guide. The truth is until he got here, the name Mike Carp was just a vague box score notation to me. I’m not sure what exactly about Carp appealed to Cherington. Perhaps it was his career .309 batting average against lefties entering this season (Thanks, again, to the media guide).
Nice to have him here, isn’t it?
He came here for the proverbial “player to be named later.” Just as long as it isn’t Dustin Pedroia.
It’s almost ridiculous how well everything has worked out. Gomes and Stephen Drew each got off to slow starts. But we don’t mind seeing either of them up in any key situation now, do we? It has been a real tag-team deal offensively, with guys dove-tailing their contributions as the season unfolded. Then throw in Farrell’s crafty lineup manipulation, a circumstance abetted by the defensive versatility afforded him by Messrs. Gomes, Victorino, and especially Daniel Nava, whose quasifictional journey to his present indispensable role is so far over the top that I can think of no valid comparison, at least not in Red Sox history.
The beard thing is their schtick, and that’s fine. Gimmicks are nice. Just let me remind you that winning begets camaraderie, not the other way around. The important caveat is that even the best players must subjugate themselves to the team ideal. They have won all these games not because they have bonded over beards, or anything else, but because they have played winning baseball, which in this day-to-day grind of a sport in which people spend so much time together means not bitching when your 0 for 4 coincides with a victory.
Some people have stressed over the fallen attendance. Oh, please. Selling out a baseball park routinely is not normal. Only the Indians, Giants, and Red Sox have ever done it. It’s baseball, not football. There are 81 home games, not eight. Selling out every night speaks to a fad, not a legitimate passion. Hey, the Red Sox have played to 90-X percent capacity. That’s good enough for me. I was in this town when they drew 652,201 for a season. And some people romanticize how those were the Good Old Days. Stop it.
Times change. The Patriots have caught up to the Red Sox in local esteem, and more power to them. There remain plenty of us for whom the 2013 Boston Red Sox have provided an enormous unexpected pleasure.