Good morning! Or should it be good mourning?
To the fans still hung over from Boston’s sudden demise at the witching hour on Wednesday, get over it. The Red Sox stopped being a Cinderella team a long time ago. They have the third-highest payroll in baseball and were beaten for the final wild card spot by a Tampa team with the second lowest payroll. Admit it, Evan Longoria ($2.5 million), James Shields ($4.25 million) and Jeremy Hellickson ($418,000) would look better in a Red Sox uniform than their former teammate Carl Crawford ($14.8 million). The team that rebounds from trailing 7-0 to win in extra innings is more fun to root for than the team that blows a nine-game lead in September.
As Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory wrote, “This collapse has been far more fascinating than frustrating.” In Las Vegas last February, odds makers predicted the Phillies would win 97 games, the Red Sox would win 96 and the Yankees 91, and at ESPN, 35 of the network’s 36 analysts picked Boston to make the playoffs. Rooting for a team like that is like cheering for the sun to rise. The Rays, having lost Crawford to the Red Sox and Rafael Soriano to the Yankees, and traded 15-game winner Matt Garza to the Cubs, were tabbed to win 86 games. Boston making the playoffs was a fait accompli that not everyone took kindly to. In March, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said in Men’s Journal, “I’d like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll. You got Carl Crawford because you paid more than anyone else and that’s what makes you smarter? That’s why I like whipping their butt.”
How sweet it must have been for Showalter’s boys to do exactly that, beating the Red Sox five of seven down the stretch and shoving them out of the postseason. The O’s finished 28 games behind the Yankees, but seeing them pile onto Robert Andino after his single beat Boston in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday was like watching a World Series celebration. “A pennant race atmosphere for a cellar dwelling club,” proclaimed the Baltimore Sun.
It was the Red Sox’ own undoing that sent them packing. They lollygagged through spring training and shrugged off a third-from-last place record (15-19) in the Grapefruit League. In packed stadiums throughout Florida they performed to adoring crowds like they were rock stars and not ballplayers getting ready for the season. The Rays, meanwhile, used spring training to prepare for the 162-game season. They bunted, stole bases, and hustled to first base.
When the season began, everyone dismissed Boston’s horrid 2-10 start by saying “it’s only April.” They righted the ship and on August 31 were 83-52, 31 games over .500, and playoff invoices were in the mail.
Then came the fall from grace, and it was precipitous. They lost four of their next five games, beat the Blue Jays 14-0 on Sept. 6, lost another five straight, beat the Blue Jays again 18-6, then completed their historic collapse by losing 11 of their final 15 games.
Management didn’t foresee the collapse of the starting pitching. Nor did it anticipate that 32-year-old Kevin Youkilis would break down after being moved from first base to the danger zone of the hot corner. The catching tandem of Jarod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek batted .229 and opposing runners stole at will, caught just 49 times in 205 attempts. Right fielder J.D. Drew missed 87 games this year, making it 210 in five seasons.
Meanwhile the departed thrived for playoff-bound teams: Victor Martinez batted .330 in Detroit and Adrian Beltre hit 32 homeruns and knocked in 105 in Texas.
Last season was a bridge year; this season was jump-off-the-bridge year, so excuse me while I go to the registry and exchange my Red Sox plates for Bruins plates.
It’s time for a little levity amidst the gloom. When the Red Sox and Yankees finished tied in 1978, home field was decided by a coin flip. Yankees president AL Rosen was in the league offices on Park Avenue and Red Sox GM Haywood Sullivan was on a speakerphone. Sullivan told Rosen to make the call and AL president Lee MacPhail flipped a fifty-cent piece. Rosen called heads and it was tails.
According to Bill Madden in his book The Last Lion of Baseball Rosen dreaded telling George Steinbrenner he’d lost the coin flip.
“I’m sorry to tell you George, but we lost the coin flip.” “You lost?” barked the Boss. “How could you lose? What did you call?” “I called heads. Why?” “Heads!” yelled Steinbrenner, now ballistic. “You bleeping imbecile! How in the hell could you call heads when any dummy knows tails comes up 70 percent of the time? I can’t believe it! I’ve got the dumbest people in the world working for me.”
True story. On the plus side, Steinbrenner paid well.
SQUIBBERS: During ESPN’s coverage of the Phils-Braves on Wednesday, Steve Berthiaume was none too kind after a cutaway showed Marco Scutaro being tagged out at home: “… and Tim Bogar had another runner thrown out at home for Boston.” … The Braves’ season ended at 11:41 p.m. in a 4-3, 13 inning loss that capped a collapse nearly as staggering as Boston’s… Thinking the Bombers would mail it in, the Rays were -$210 versus the Yankees on Wednesday, meaning bettors risked $210 to win $100. Some books were so leery they took the game off the board… The Red Sox game ended at 12:02 a.m. “An unbelievable finish, a stunning finish,” said Don Orsillo, and Jerry Remy concurred: “Stunningly, stunningly this game is over for the Boston Red Sox, and maybe their season.” … Three minutes later Evan Longoria lined a homerun near the left field foul pole that confirmed Remy’s fears…. Sudsy Dorhamer’s children bought him one of those $250 inscribed bricks the Red Sox were pushing all season at Fenway Park. “Gonna help me look for it?” asked the retired Greenfield postal worker. No need to Sudsy, the park’s empty now. You’ll be able to find it easy enough by yourself.
Chip Ainsworth, a columnist for The Recorder of Greenfield, Mass., has covered high school, college, and professional sports in New England and beyond for four decades. Chip is the 2011 first-place winner for sports commentary, small newspaper category, in the annual New England Associated Press News Executives Association competition. He has won the award numerous times.