'Our Red Sox,' Still?

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In late March, all sorts of sonorous media drumbeating began. Apparently Stephen King had failed to clear the field, and there were a gazillion new Red Sox books coming out. (Mercenary opportunists!) There was a new Sox HBO documentary on reversing the curse, there was a new Sox feature film starring Drew and Jimmy and directed by the Farrellys (true fans, at least, those Providence boys). And there was, principally, the opening day bash at the Stadium approaching: Sunday night, April 3, nationwide, prime time. The players had barely finished their stretches, and it felt like October all over again.

I didn't go to that game. I feel no need to put myself through the Bronx sturm-und-drang again until I inevitably have to do so in the fall. I watched at home with Luci and the kids, bidding goodnight to the twins, who are four and a half now, in the first inning; Caroline, seven, in the second, and Luci, 29 (really!), in the third. Assessment of the drubbing? Well, by my lights, it wasn't much of a game, and I say that even while realizing that by Yankee lights a 9-2 blowout is a terrific way to open a season. But let's face it, the Sox played an April game. Wells looked like a 90-year-old fat guy with no evident desire to be pitching on a cold, raw night. Everyone in the lineup seemed to hit into a double-play or two. There was precious little spark in the World Champs, I felt, on the first day of their defense.

I amused myself during the debacle by parsing the commentary of Yanks broadcaster Michael Kay. His partner, the former great moundsman Jim Kaat, sees things clearly, but Kay views the world through pinstriped lenses. I particularly liked his take on a Giambi single to left. That's what they've been working on with him this spring, Michael averred: going the other way. And why might that be, Mikey? I asked silently as I waited for amplification. Might it be that Jason, now (by necessity) off the juice, weighs 140 pounds and the Yanks realize they must turn their erstwhile basher into a Punch-and-Judy hitter—or risk getting nothing at all out of him for all their wasted millions? Michael didn't mention the S word and, to my surprise, neither did Kitty.

But I must, since this early-season ramble is about the Red Sox and, therefore, about baseball—and, therefore again, about steroids. Everything about baseball is about steroids right now. My take is: I'm very glad the secret is out, and I hope things change. I can't understand how Mark McGwire was able to look the Maris brothers in the eye back when he was hitting 70, never mind pose with them, smiling. But then, I didn't understand it at the time—knowing what everyone in the sporting press already knew (but couldn't print without proof). I thought the Congressional hearings were just showboating as they loomed, but then found myself riveted by them when they finally happened. All that long, long day. I sat, entranced, as by a 1-1 game. I still can't believe the legislators didn't press Sosa further about that carefully worded opening statement put together by lawyers. He probably spoke truth, that he didn't take things that were banned by baseball, but that's because baseball wasn't banning things back then. What did he take, if anything? The suspicion continues to hang above them all, especially Bonds, and the whole affair is a shame, a shame on the game that Bud Selig allowed to happen by willfully looking away as balls flew and gate receipts soared. Please remember: When McGwire was found to be taking Andro in his big, big year, it wasn't illicit. Then Major League Baseball "studied" Andro in the off-season very quietly, one January or February day, Commissioner Selig announced that the investigation was "inconclusive." I.e.: Andro was okay, and McGwire's record was in no way tainted. Selig thought he could play that game then, and knows he is facing different pitching now. He's the worst kind of hypocrite.

Steroids on the Sox? Maybe. I'm sure there are 'roids, or human growth hormone, or good old-fashioned bennies being taken (the latter two still not tested for, and the next refuge for baseball scoundrels who are today decycling on their steroids programs). I was talking to Bill Leiderman, the owner of Mickey Mantle's on Central Park South, during his midday radio show that's broadcast from the restaurant, and he told me all the guys—the players—who come in for a drink say that pills are still a huge part of the game. "They need their pep."

I take some small solace in the knowledge that our big guys were big when they were small. What I mean is, Manny and David were physical specimens when they were 11 and 12, and so might have come by their enormous strength in a natural way. You don't have those alarming, Charles Atlas then-and-now photos that you have with Bonds, Giambi, McGwire. But do I think that none of our World Champions has taken steroids? No, I emphatically do not.

And that saddens me a bit. But, to me, this club has always been about team and community and home and family and New Englandm more than it's been about the individuals wearing the B-hats. I readily and happily acknowledge Ted and Yaz and Fisk and Luis and their legacies. I applaud the happy, wacky stars who lifted last year's team, and thus lifted us all. And if one of them tests positive I'll call him a crumbum and call for his ouster. But we'll still have our Red Sox.

A rationalization? Sure, but there you have it.

Back to the Stadium: Games Two and Three were pretty good—in fact, really fine for April. And they were the first evidence that the Sox and Yanks were ready to tango again, in most entertaining fashion, in '05. Has baseball ever had consecutive seasons of extended theater as these two have provided since April of 2003? I can't imagine it has. And if we've got six more months of that in prospect, well, God bless us.

Look at those two games this way: The Yanks won one, we won one, both were decided in the ninth, and there were subplots. The question of whether Pavano is better than Clement is yet unanswered and certainly not important at this point. Whether any of these new relievers is the goods is not yet important. Whether Manny is moving his feet too much is unimportant. Manny will be fine. A-Rod's error that was so crucial to the Bosox win? It was sweet, but I can't imagine our bete noire will be booting the ball in September.

Is it important that in a three-game series Giambi and Jeter got hit a collective five times by Sox pitching, and that Jeter visited the hospital (after a clearly unintentional conk on the head by Timlin)? Sure—that's very important. It will echo, down the line. And is it important that Mariano blew two more saves, getting a win and a loss, for four blown in his last four ops and six in his last 11 against the Sox? That's really important.

There are theories on this: That Mo's getting old, that the stats against Boston are somehow misleading. I subscribe to the idea that the Sox, and no one else, have figured him out. By the end of the series in the Stadium, Mariano had faced the Red Sox 29 times since opening day of '03. His ERA against them was 2.89 (1.38 against all other clubs) and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 2.2 (5.9 against the rest of baseball). The Sox all stand well back in the box against Rivera now, and the lefties are opening up to better catch the cutter. All the hitters are allowing the borderline cutters to dive out of the strike zone if that's what it wants to do; they're the only ones in the league with the confidence to show patience against Rivera. Mariano knows they've got a strategy with him, and he approaches the Red Sox, now, with uncharacteristic hesitation. This story will play out intriguingly this season.

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