All baseball fans can conjure up second-guessings and excuses -- even curses -- to explain why their team didn’t win the World Series. But there’s almost always one reason and one reason only that a team loses.
Its players aren’t good enough.
So in the Red Sox clubhouse, with champagne droplets diamond-sparkling off the World Series trophy, one man made the most sense. He was the irrepressible first baseman Kevin Millar, who a year ago ordered the Sox to “cowboy up.” This season he quoted Wyatt Earp to Doc Holliday on the way to the OK Corral: “Tell ‘em we’re comin’, and hell’s comin’ with us.”
What Millar said during the mad celebration had nothing to do with heroic macho posturings, however much fun. Someone asked about the work done by General Manager Theo Epstein, an executive phenom at age 30. And Millar said, “Theo brought in baseball players.”
The important words there came in italics. Baseball players. Not superstars, just guys who know how to play.
Because baseball has the smallest of differences between winners and losers, it demands the greatest attention to craft over the longest period of time. Baseball players made the Red Sox this year’s best.
Look at Jason Varitek, the catcher. Epstein had nothing to do with Varitek’s coming to Boston, but now, in Varitek’s free-agent winter, Epstein no doubt will do everything to keep him in town. The Red Sox are a team of free spirits who called themselves “The Idiots.” Center fielder Johnny Damon insisted that the Red Sox succeeded because they were incapable of thought. Varitek, then, became the central intelligence essential to any baseball team.
Look at Varitek, standing casually by home plate. First inning, Game 3, Boston leading, 1-0. The Cardinals have the bases loaded, one out. On a fly ball to left, a runner tries to score. Even as Manny Ramirez’s throw comes toward Varitek, the catcher stands casually, as if the throw went somewhere else. The idea is to persuade the runner coming from third that he might not have to run flat-out. No professional runner should fall for that, but who knows? A baseball player makes the decoy. And when Ramirez’s throw arrives, Varitek makes a sudden and sure catch and a dive across the plate to tag the sliding Larry Walker. An inning-ending double play.
“Manny’s throw was the key play of the game,” Varitek said later.
It was that, even in a 4-1 game, because it turned a potential big inning into a disheartening nothing. But it wasn’t so much the Ramirez throw from shallow left that made that play; Varitek’s catch and tag were the more difficult elements. The catcher took no credit, not even when asked, “Did you deke Walker?” He allowed himself the glimmer of a conspiratorial smile. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said.
Game 3 told us this Series was over because that was Pedro Martinez’s game. For a month the Red Sox right-hander had been ineffective, no better than a five-inning pitcher. Were the Cardinals to beat Martinez, they would begin the middle three games at home with a victory; just as important, they would set the stage for seeing Martinez again in a Game 7.
Instead, once the Ramirez-Varitek play shut down the Cardinals, Martinez was masterful in seven innings of shutout pitching. When a reporter asked what Varitek thought of Martinez’s work, the catcher said nothing.
He didn’t know how to say what he felt. He felt that oneness of warriors who have each other’s backs. At last, he managed to say, “To have the scrutiny he’s under all the time and to go out there and perform the way he did, I tip my hat to him.”
Forget the Bambino.
Forget the Curse.
As Johnny Damon might have put it, these Red Sox couldn’t spell 86 years, let alone feel the weight of history.
“When we were down 0-3 to the Yankees,” said second baseman Mark Bellhorn, “it was like, ‘OK, if we’re going out, let’s go out having fun.’ That’s the way we did it all season. It was, ‘We’re men playing a kids’ game.’ ”
These men could play. They had the great hitter, Manny Ramirez. They had two Cy Young-caliber pitchers, Martinez and Curt Schilling. The closer, Keith Foulke, became extraordinary when ordinary wouldn’t do. Manager Terry Francona was so rich with common sense as to gaze upon his carefully unshaven crew (heroic stubble all around) and declare them beautiful: “If it was Cub Scout Troop 14, I might have them cut the hair.” But this was good ol’ country hardball.
Look at Jason Varitek, a baseball player. Sixth inning, Game 4, Red Sox up 3-0, the Cardinals at bat with two out and a man on. When Derek Lowe’s 2-2 pitch to Albert Pujols is called a ball, Varitek walks to the mound and stands with Lowe, his arm around the pitcher’s shoulders.
“I went out there because I was emotionally involved with the previous pitch,” Varitek said. He thought Lowe had struck out Pujols. “And if I felt it, I knew my pitcher would, too. I wanted to take some time for both of us. And then he executed the next pitch perfectly.”
Pujos popped up. The Cardinals were done, the Red Sox had won.
And they did it without any rewinding of baseball history.
The damn Yankees could keep their sweet Bambino.
What the Red Sox did was better than that.
Baseball players made baseball plays.