Opening Night: Magic

Opening day arrives at last.

Winter is finally over.

Life is good.

Yankees in Fenway? That’s the way to do it.

Pedro throwing out the first pitch? Epic.

Oh, and the Sox won the game.

Life is good.

Play ball!

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NOMAH! or, A Welcome Return for the Beantown Prometheus

Nomah.

No mas.

It’s fantastic to see Garciaparra, and the Red Sox brass, both burying the sharpened Louisville Slugger and letting No. 5 retire as a Red Sox. Hard to believe it now, but there was a time (about a decade ago) when two things seemed certain: Nomar was never leaving Boston and he was headed to the Hall of Fame. As we now know, injuries, declined production (with the bat and the glove) and a prolonged and excessively bitter break-up (first with the front office, then the team, then the town) made him merely a once-great player who put together a career most pros would kill to copy.

Here’s the thing that a lot of people, even some Red Sox fans (so of course I’m not counting the pink-hatted posers who decided it was cool to be a Sox fan circa 2004: it was cool, especially if you’d spent your previous life –and everything prior to 10/27/2004 was a previous life for any real Red Sox fan– on that peculiar rollercoaster, the one that took years and sometimes decades to get to the top and then, like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff, would drop down into a fresh new Hell) may not recall: with the exception of Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, Nomar didn’t just play for the Red Sox; he was not merely the star of the Red Sox; Nomar was the Red Sox.

In between the late ’80s and the early ’00s, the Sox sucked. Even teams that went to the playoffs weren’t really going anywhere. And everyone knew it (especially the other teams). Seriously. After 1986, there was not a single playoff run (if you can call one-and-done series runs) where I actually believed, much less hoped, that the Sox actually had a chance to win the World Series. Nevermind the whole “curse” thing; the teams were just never deep enough to scare anyone. Of course that changed in a big way in 2003 (that team could and should have won it all, but if they had not failed they very possibly would not have set themselves up to be such a solid team going forward, which seems more true than ever in hindsight, and is easier to swallow now that the team has claimed two world championships).

But before 2003, Nomar was it.

Don’t get me wrong, Pedro was GOD, but even Petey only played once every five days. In terms of the one steady presence that bridged the bad old days and the glorious postscript that is still unfolding, Nomar was the guy. (And real fans should realize the debt we owe these two, as well as Manny, can never be repaid or properly appreciated: these three players made the Red Sox a half-way respectable franchise for the first time, arguably, since the 1986 season, and never forget there were some ugly years in between the late ’70s and that season-that-almost-was.) These guys unified the fans and sold merchandise in the slowly, but steadily growing Red Sox Nation.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t just that Nomar was our all-star. Certainly, that was great and he was a blessing that any franchise could covet. He was the real deal: he played hard and he played hurt, and nobody who knows anything about the game would argue that Nomah did not give 100% every single outing. Of course it’s a cliche, but the unfortunate fact of the matter is that those players are increasingly rare (outside of the NHL, anyway) and will elevate a franchise just like a team cancer can kill one.

He was, to use another inevitable cliche, discernibly old school. But he was also contemporary, and he had his signature quirk that endeared him for the ages. You remember the ritual. The whole OCD thing with the batting gloves. Needless to say, that compulsion became less cute once he stopped producing (but fortunately, he was already playing for other teams at that point!).

Yes, he was wary with the media, but trust me, if you had to deal with this douchebag every day, you’d be wary. And quite possibly violent. (And speaking of that shit-stirring punk, suffice it to say he lowered himself to the occasion and managed to be both petty and graceless regarding Nomar’s return.) Yes, he burned his bridges to get out of town, and that blew up in his face when he ended up having to watch the team he helped create make it to the promised land without him. Stop and think about that for a moment: we’re talking real Promethean type shit here. Every time he had to watch a replay of that final out on 10/27/2004, it was like that cosmic eagle taking another bite out of his liver. Just like every replay of Bucky Dent, or Bill Buckner, or Aaron Boone sent a psychic shock down the spine of every Sox fan…up until 10/27/2004. Can you say full circle?

The moral of the story? We are, of course, playthings of the Gods, and always have been. Batter up!

But all’s well that ends well. I’m not entirely sure what that even means, or is meant to mean. But I think it can safely be applied to situations like this. Nomar, having already been embraced by Boston (see video clip above), got to give hugs and smiles and transition into his new life as a broadcaster (yes, the same dude who once put red tape around his locker area to keep pesky reporters away; some might see hypocrisy, I choose to see irony –and a little irony never hurt anyone). I used to genuinely wonder, and worry, if Nomar had found (or could ever find) peace considering the way things ended. Fortunately, they had not yet ended. Now they have, and everyone can be happy.

And so I want to celebrate one of the best, most beloved and –in many ways– unappreciated players who patrolled the sacred grounds at Fenway.

Welcome home Nomah.

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Speak Loudly and Be a Big Stick

When Reggie Jackson ruled The Big Apple he famously referred to himself as “the straw that stirs the drink.”

Dan Shaughnessy, the controversial columnist for The Boston Globe, has never been loved by many, and he has long been loathed by more than a few (fans and especially players).

Here is a guy who could not complain enough when the team was filled with “characters” like Manny, Damon, Millar and especially Schilling. Now? Arguably they’ve bid adieu to some distractions (Damon, Lugo) and ran out of rope with malcontents (Manny) and did their best to retain delusional free agents (Jason Bay) and picked up gamers who do their talking on the field (Beltre, Lackey) and are now comprised, practically top to bottom, of winners. So who shows up today, whining that the team has become bland? Guess who.

Shaughessy has officially become the anti-Reggie Jackson: he is the stick that stirs the shit.

In recent weeks he has predicted that the upcoming Josh Beckett contract negotiations will end badly. He has giddily wondered if Big Papi is done and how bitter Mike Lowell will be in 2010. He has happily jumped on the naysayer bandwagon about how poor the team’s offensive production is likely to be (as in: they didn’t/couldn’t land a big bomber in the offseason; of course, the song was near the top in runs scored last year so this sudden teeth-gnashing about run production is hysterical at best). He has, in short, been a man in frantic search of a controversy.

I know, you might say. This is what columnists do; it’s their job. Nevermind the fact that this is a poor commentary on what newspaper writers do these days. The point here is that Shaughnessy is slowly but irrevocably being exposed as the most opportunistic of hypocrites. He made a career out of lamenting/celebrating “the Curse of the Bambino”, and then sort of tolerating the good times (for non-fans or people not paying attention, The Red Sox have been to the postseason every season but one since 2003, winning two World Series in the process) but breathlessly pointing out every hiccup and hurt feeling. And, when there was not enough readymade action, he would always foment some. It’s what he lived for. A guy who could not say enough bad things about Manny or Curt, he now invokes both as being the exact type of flavor the team now lacks. The mind boggles. But it really doesn’t. This is Shaughnessy. This is what he does.

Look: if the team is merely a perennial playoff contender who steers clear of me-first prima donnas, I will speak for old school Sox fans everywhere by saying, Great! If there was one thing real fans could have done without the last decade or so, it was the proliferation of pink hat-wearing bandwagon jumpers. It’s safe to assume that so long as the team continues to win, this element will happily attach themselves, but if some of them (per Shaughnessy’s projections) fall by the wayside, all the better. Besides, they’ve really been rooting for the wrong team anyway: if you want bottomless pocketed ownership and me-first mercenaries, there is a team that just opened a very big stadium in the Bronx. In fact, it’s in the shadow of the old stadium Reggie Jackson used to enliven. Maybe that’s the same spot Shaughnessy should have been all these years.

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October 21, 1975

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2004: The Gift That Keeps Giving

This postseason, I promise not to mention the Yankees, Manny Ramirez, or the team that annihilated your beloved Red Sox

Okay. This is genius.

The truth hurts.

And the fact of the matter is: 2004 was sweet enough to soften enough pain for another hundred years. Though I doubt we’ll have to wait that long (just as we only had to wait three years for the second title this decade). That’s two more than the Yankees have, just in case anyone is keeping count.

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Jim Rice: Hall of Fame

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It’s about time. Congrats, Jim.

The man once broke a bat on a check swing: that alone should have ensured him enshrinement in the hall. He was a very bad man and two things, above all, need to be said: if he doesn’t get hurt late in the season in ’75, the Red Sox absolutely beat the Reds in the World Series. 100% And, all of his accomplishments are untainted by performance enhancing drugs. He did it right and he did it clean: he defines old school.
On a personal note, the first home run I ever saw live was at Fenway Park in 1977, against the Seattle Mariners. The man who hit it was at the time the most feared slugger in professional baseball: Jim Rice.

It’s a great day for Rice, and a great day for Red Sox fans.

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When the Good Guys Beat the Bad Guys

I love virtually everything about New York City, except for its insufferable sports teams.

Incalculable bandwidth could be spent articulating my disdain (and those who know me well know too well how thoroughly this ground has been covered), so in the interest of brevity, let me turn to my man Jean-Luc Picard to convey my sentiments:

Last night was a rare opportunity for forces of good to combat–and prevail over–evil. The Caps, down 3-1 against the upstart Rangers, needed to pull out all the stops, so they did. The Red Sox open the season series against the loathed Yankees, and required some magic: Done. (Thanks Jason Bay for the 9th inning HR off the usually reliable, and unhittable, Mariano Rivera, and thanks Youks for the walk-off wonder, making this one an instant classic.)

First the Caps. Ho-hum; just another in a growing repertoire of impossible goals for the Great 8. Alexander Ovechkin is far and away the best hockey player on the planet. Hopefully everyone realizes, and recognizes this.

That is not a man; that is God.

Naturally, the reason the Red Sox wore red instead of their home whites is because they saw what the Caps did to the other New York team, and wanted to follow suit. I just made that up, but it works for me. It worked for Youks, too:

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Curt Calls It Quits

Not much to add to that photo. Especially if you are a Red Sox (or, HA!, a Yankees) fan.

Curt is finally calling it quits.

In his own time, on his own terms, Curt rides off into that sunset. Here’s to hoping he does work in the broadcast booth and avoids making a high-profile buffoon of himself via his prehistoric political views. Even if he never surfaces in the public eye (or ear) again, admittedly a most unlikely proposition, he will endure long in the hearts and minds of anyone who cheered for the teams he helped win. Especially the team he ended his career with.

At the end of the day, as always, this is a little kids’ game and it’s ludicrous that grown-ups with serious responsibilities and worries take it so seriously. But we do take it seriously. And, arguably, no group of fans took it more seriously, and suffered more for their devotion, than the Red Sox fans circa 1918 to 2004. I can only claim being a fan for part of that time, but it was a sizeable enough chunk to cover the “unholy trinity”; the tri-fecta that includes the Bucky Bleepin’ Dent game (’78), the Bill Buckner Game 6 Debacle (’86) and the Aaron Bleepin’ Boone HR (’03). It was, of course, scarcely a month after that irredeemable evening in the Bronx (that infernal house of horrors that is thankfully gone for good), that the boy wonder, Theo Epstein, intruded upon Schilling’s Thanksgiving in Arizona and made his pitch to the pitcher he (we) coveted. It worked, and Schill, in his brazen fashion, quickly drew a line in the sand regarding the “Evil Empire”: I’m not sure I can think of any scenario more enjoyable than making 55,000 people from New York shut up, he said, transforming himself into a hero in Boston (and public enemy Number One in New York). Of course, talking the talk is what anyone with a mouth can do; walking the walk…well, let’s just say bloody sock and leave it at that.

2004 (and 2007 for that matter) would not have been possible without Curt Schilling. Period. For that, anyone who ever has or ever will call themselves Red Sox fans owe the Great 38 their eternal gratitude.

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