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One Night in September

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

The words of former baseball commissioner, and lifelong Red Sox fan Bart Giamatti echo through my mind as I replay a 10 minute sequence that ended baseball’s regular season. Sure, a couple teams played on, but for all intents and purposes, the season came to a rare, dramatic climax late in the September evening along the Atlantic coast.

As Joe Posnanski wrote so eloquently yesterday, baseball largely revolves around anticlimax. More often than not, the predictable happens. Then sometimes, you get events like Wednesday night. Everything held to form for a while, but some time around 9:30 EST, when it starting raining in Baltimore, the script went out the window (ESPN has a timeline of the major events). About 3 hours later, the dust settled on one of the most unpredictable, memorable nights in baseball history.

I won’t go into detail recapping the events. St. Louis dominated Houston, capping a marvelous September run to the NL wild card. Atlanta’s worn out bullpen faltered when it needed to come through, the culmination of Atlanta’s own September dive, driven by a pitching staff beset by injuries and overwork. Tampa Bay, behind their ace David Price, fell behind 7-0 to a less than full strength Yankees club. With all but the scrubs out of the New York lineup, the Rays rallied, scoring 6 in the 8th, and hitting the game-tying homer with 2 outs and a 2 strike count in the 9th. Boston gripped to a 1 run lead from the 5th inning on as their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, took the mound in the 9th. After getting the first 2 men out, 3 straight doubles by Baltimore scored 2 runs to end the game. What felt like seconds later, Evan Longoria homered to win the game in Tampa Bay, ending Boston’s season. What had been a 10 1/2 game lead 4 weeks earlier was gone.

Night
The Red Sox’s season died on a Wednesday night in Baltimore.

The rationale side of me, the pure baseball fan, loved Wednesday’s drama. There were three memorable games with lots at stake. If I could show last night to everyone who wonders why I love baseball so much, they wouldn’t wonder anymore. The night ended with small market Tampa Bay, one of the best run organizations, winning on a walk-off from one of the game’s best players. Even a Red Sox fan wouldn’t begrudge the Rays.

But that’s the thing. I’m also a Red Sox fan. And being a fan of a specific club is inherently irrational. There is no reciprocity in this relationship. I don’t get input into who the club signs or trades, the club doesn’t know I exist, and I doubt it cares about me any more than any other data point in its market research. I’m okay with that. As I said, being a fan requires a suspension of rational thinking.

But the highs of being a baseball fan Wednesday were tempered by the lows of being a Red Sox fan. Given their state, had they advanced, the Sox were likely to go out in the first round. This doesn’t take away the success of 2004 and 2007. But, it is a low point I haven’t felt since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (which was much much worse). The Sox built a team to win in 2011, but they fell far short. They didn’t have the depth to recover when injuries cut into their pitching staff. One of their star acquisitions played like a league average outfielder. Many of their hitters went silent down the stretch.

What lingers is the feeling of lost opportunity, and the worry that the opportunites may not come again, or may be fewer and far between. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2008. They play in a division with the ever-powerful Yankees, the talented Rays, and the ascending Blue Jays. With aging players at key positions, success may be hard to come by for Boston these next few years.

Meanwhile, the games go on. Baseball fans, myself included, look forward to 4 weeks of playoff competition. Tonight, Detroit ace Justin Verlander tries to steal a win at Yankee Stadium. Saturday, Milwaukee – the smallest market in the game – kicks off their pennant run against young, surprising Arizona. It’s Milwaukee’s last chance to win before star slugger Prince Fielder, a free agent to be, likely leaves for greener pastures. Philadelphia, behind it’s stellar rotation, will try to win the championship – which would be the first for aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Texas aims for a repeat trip to the World Series, and St. Louis tries to squeeze another run out on aging core, one that could break up as soon as this off-season if Albert Pujols moves on. The next 4 weeks will surely produce more memorable moments; if any of them approach Wednesday night, baseball fans are in for something special.

And then next year in the spring, as Vin Scully says, “everything old is new again”. Hope and promise will return. Maybe the Red Sox will rebound, and this collapse will be an aberration, not a return to form. But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy being a baseball fan these next 4 weeks.

Playoff Predictions:
Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Brewers.
Brewers over Yankees in the World Series.

Priority of Cheering in the Playoffs:
1. Brewers
2. Phillies (for Halladay to win a World Series)
3. Rays
4. Tigers
5. Rangers
6. Diamondbacks
7. Cardinals
8. None of the Above
9. Yankees

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The Last 42

Mariano Rivera

Earlier today, Mariano Rivera set the all-time saves record, eclipsing long-time San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Rivera, in his 16th season with the Yankees (and 15th as their closer), figures to add to it if he can stay healthy, and surely will be inducted into the Hall of Fame when he retires.

Now, I’m firmly in the ‘saves are overrated’ camp. All 27 outs in a game are equal, and it doesn’t make sense to save your best pitcher(s) for a hypothetical situation an inning or two ahead. But, that’s not Rivera’s call to make, and he’s done what has been asked of him at an elite level for a decade and a half. Even disregarding saves, Rivera has some impressive accomplishments:

– His career WHIP is 0.99, an incredible achievement. He also averages 8.2 KO/9.
– In his 16 years of relief pitching, he’s had a WHIP of 1.1 or greater only twice.
– In 94 career playoff games, he averages 7 KO/9, has an era of 0.71, and a WHIP of 0.766.
– He has appeared in at least 45 games every season since 1996, never missing a substantial part of any season. It’s rare for a pitcher to stay so (relatively) healthy so long.
– That consistency is remarkable. Anyone who plays fantasy baseball will tell you how erratic relievers are from year to year.
– His 94 career playoff games are roughly equivalent to adding a season and a half to his workload over 16 years. That he’s remained healthy and consistently excellent is also remarkable.

One of the neat things about Rivera is that he will be the last player to wear the number 42, Jackie Robinson’s number. In tribute to Robinson, MLB decided a number of years ago that every team would retire the number, meaning that no other player (except those wearing it at the time, who were grandfathered in), would ever wear it. Rivera is the last one, and his on-field impact is a fitting tribute to a man who wasn’t just a pioneer, but a great ballplayer.

As an aside, one of the things I enjoy about soccer is how certain jersey numbers carry a significance, and are considered an honor to wear. For example, goal scorers are issued the number 9 (Newcastle United calls it the Shirt of Legends), and the number 10 jersey is an honour reserved for playmakers and leaders on the field. Wouldn’t the ultimate tribute to Jackie Robinson be to do something similar with the number 42? That only players who had accomplished great things got to wear it? For example, in addition to Rivera, the Cardinals could have Pujols wear 42, Roy Halladay would be Philly’s 42, and there would be discussion right now about whether Justin Verlander deserved the #42 jersey. It would also make for a fun term when discussing truly great players, arguing whether or not a player was a ’42’. Anyway, I digress.

I’ve appreciated Rivera’s talent and performance since he broke into the majors. The first time I saw him was in a relief appearance in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS, when he toyed with Seattle Mariners hitters and pitched 3.1 scoreless innings. He’s been a part of some of the most memorable moments of the past 15 years, amazingly in a losing role for some. He blew a save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, which seemed unfathomable at the time. As a Red Sox fan, I have fond memories of him giving up the tying runs in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing him pitch in person. I caught a Yankees-Mariners series at Safeco Field in 2009. Seeing Rivera warm up then walk in from the bullpen gave me chills. Later in that series, he was part of a great moment at the ballpark.

One of the things I enjoy most about seeing games live is the little things television doesn’t pick up. Watching players (teammates and opponents) interact, the way players move and shift defensively, and seeing the impressive feats some can pull off in batting practice are a highlight of any visit to the park. After the Sunday afternoon game, where the Mariners won comfortably. After the game, all the unused relief pitchers (including Rivera) left the bullpens and walked back towards their dugouts. Along the way, the Mariners bullpen stopped Rivera, surrounding him and chatting with him for a few minutes:

Rivera and Mariners Bullpen

I can only imagine what they asked him, but this gesture struck me as the ultimate sign of respect. There would only be a handful of players who would be treated in this way. When I think of Rivera and his achievements, the numbers come to mind, and tell most of the story. But the reaction of a handful of opponents, the last, and one of the best to wear number 42, says a lot about what he means and what he’s accomplished too.