Mythbustersby Larry Mahnken
October 21, 2004
History is a story, but it's a true story. It's a story that's always being re-written, not just because of different interpretations, but because it's constantly changing. Events that seem to be of little consequence have a tremendous impact unforeseeable to those who live through it. We're living in the story, and we don't know how it's going to turn out.
The Boston Red Sox have not won the World Series in 86 years, since before the invention of television, before there were even radio stations. The Black Sox had not yet sullied baseball, Babe Ruth had not yet changed it, and the men who played it were white. Since the Red Sox last won the World Series, the world of baseball, and the world in general, has changed completely.
For 86 years, that's been the story of the Red Sox. It still is the story of the Red Sox, but to many of those living through this story, the question hasn't been when this story will end, but if this story will end. But it will end, perhaps in as little as a week. And when the story ends, we will realize that everything people thought it was about was not what it was really about at all.
It's not about Babe Ruth, it's not about the Yankees. It's about the Red Sox and it always has been. It's every bit as much about the Impossible Dream as it is about Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone, as much about Game 6 in 1975 as it is about Game 6 in 1986. Telling the story of the Red Sox while only talking about the failures misses the point completely. It's not just about the failures, it's about the wait. It's about eternal hope.
Eventually, they will win. Eventually, they have to win.
Eventually some team would have to blow a 3-0 series lead, too. There is probably no more humiliating outcome in baseball, but fate has had a funny way of playing that out. The team to which it finally happened to, the Yankees, is the only one that nobody outside of their fans feels sorry for, and is the only one whose reputation can survive it.
Nobody on the outside of the rivalry felt sorry rooting for this comeback, because nobody wanted the Yankees to win in the first place. And while nobody will ever forget this collapse, the legacy of the Yankees is 26 World Championships, not four games. They'll move on. For Yankees fans it's a horribly painful loss, but New Yorkers are a remarkably resilient bunch. They've gotten over worse things, they'll get over this, and then they'll sign away all your favorite players.
This series destroyed myths. The myth of the Yankees' imperviousness to the Red Sox was shattered -- and it was never more than that: a myth. In 1948, the Yankees and Red Sox entered the last weekend of the season tied for second, one game behind the Cleveland Indians, and when the Indians won their next to last game, each needed a two-game sweep at Fenway for a shot at the pennant. The Red Sox won to deny the Yankees a possible second-straight pennant, and the next day the Yankees failed to return the favor, getting beaten 10-5. Boston went on to lose the pennant to Cleveland in the playoff game the next day, but that had nothing to do with New York. When it was all on the line for both teams, Boston came out on top.
The myth of Derek Jeter's clutchness was shattered, or at least it should be if you were paying attention. Coming into this ALCS, Jeter had a career Gross Production Average (GPA) of .289, and a career postseason GPA of .290. That could be spun as being clutch, since overall postseason batting is lower than regular season batting. This is usually true, but not always -- the overall postseason OPS was higher than the regular season OPS in 2002 and so far this year. Jeter's career OPS+ (without park adjustments) is 110, his career postseason OPS+ is 116. That's certainly better, but it's in too small a sample and too small a difference to be indicative of a special skill.
However, in the seven postseason series in which Jeter had done poorly in before the ALCS, the Yankees had won all but one, and in the one they lost, 2001, he had hit a game-winning home run which became the lasting memory of him in that series. But in this ALCS, Jeter posted a .567 OPS, and batted only .200. He had a three-run double in Game 5, and an RBI single in Game 6, but for the most part he did nothing when he was needed. Throughout the series, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver talked about Jeter leaving his mark on the series -- well, his .567 OPS left a pretty deep one.
Jeter's a very good player, but there's nothing magical about him. Just like every player, he has bad streaks at inopportune times. That's just the way it is, and people should stop pretending it isn't.
Another myth that died was that there's only one way to win in the postseason, or that sabermetric theory doesn't work. While some in the mainstream nonsensically reveled over the failure of the A's to make the playoffs, they ignored the presence in the playoffs of two declared sabermetric teams, 50% of the movement. The A's missing the playoffs by one game was considered a repudiation of sabermetrics, but Dusty Baker's Cubs missing the postseason by three games wasn't considered an equivalent failure for traditionalists. Now the Red Sox have won the pennant without bunting or moving runners over, with players who don't run and strike out a lot, and it wasn't just because they played a Yankees team with the same "failings" -- they beat a very good Anaheim team that does all the "little things" first.
The mentality that there's a right way to play the game may have actually cost the Yankees this series. In Games Four and Five, Derek Jeter sacrifice bunted after a Miguel Cairo hit -- one a single, the other a double. He defended his decision to bunt the second time, saying that in that situation you have to move the runner up. He seems to have fallen into that trap, forgetting his priorities. Sixteen times this season he laid down a sacrifice bunt, after having laid down only 20 in the previous six seasons. The job of a batter there is not to move a runner over, it's to move the runner home. Moving the runner up can certainly help that, but for a hitter like Jeter to give up an at-bat to do that is insanity.
But to blame a sacrifice bunt (or, if you like, the failure to make productive outs) for the Yankees losing this series is as silly as… well, blaming Babe Ruth for the Red Sox not winning the World Series. There were several mistakes by the Yankees in this series, from Torre's usage of his bullpen to his lineup construction to the Yankees' plan of attack (or rather, lack of one) against Curt Schilling in Game 6. The Yankees certainly blew it, but they couldn't have done it if the Red Sox hadn't shown a spectacular resiliency, both mentally and physically. There's no point in making excuses. What happened happened, and that's baseball.
I’m a Yankees fan; I always have been and always will be. They've had glorious successes, and now a horrific failure. As a fan of my team, I'm pained. As a fan of baseball, I can appreciate how important this was for the sport. And I can appreciate the story.
As much as I hate to say this, the best thing for baseball is for the story to have a happy ending. The best thing for baseball is for the myths to be thrown away. The best thing for baseball is ... gulp ... for the Red Sox to win the World Series.
Larry Mahnken is a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and co-editor of the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. You can contact him with your comments, questions, romantic propositions and incoherent rantings at DLMahnken@hardballtimes.com.