When The Good Ones Go

OT - it's the summer.  Calm down.

I grew up in Indiana in something of a baseball vacuum.  The Cubs were West, the Indians were East (um - right - see comments...), and you never really knew what you were going to get if you ran into a Cards fan.  God help you with the Red's fans.  I grew up being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and remain one to this day, as painful of a proposition as that is.  I think it was mostly to be a jerk to my friends who were Cubs fans; and of course the Pirates of my childhood were actually good. 

Sid Bream isn't a name you hear too often in baseball.  He was not a 5-tool player, as they say.  A career .254 first baseman, he couldn't throw, couldn't run, and couldn't hit.  His tools primarily relied on being left handed, and having a good eye at the plate.  The wheels were already coming off the wagon when he drew a walk off of Pittsburgh Pirate's ace Doug Drabek in game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, prompting then Pirate's manager Jim Leyland to take Drabek out of the game.  Two outs and a Sac Fly later, 3rd string(!) catcher Francisco Cabrera came to the plate for the Atlanta Braves with David Justice on 2nd, and Sid Bream - slow, no-tool Sid Bream - on 1st.  Cabrera sent one into left center on a rope; a base hit that would score David Justice - 5-tool David Justice - easily from 2nd to tie the game.  As Barry Bonds, then skinnily stalking left field in Pittsburgh, fielded the ball, he must have been surprised to look up and see Sid Bream being waved around third to go for the winning run.  He must have though "huh?" and that "huh" was all it took.  His throw, surprisingly limp-armed even for skinny Bonds, traveled up the first baseline.  There was no cutoff because if that throw didn't make it, there was no tomorrow.  Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere fielded the ball and blindly dove towards the plate where Sid Bream was flopping/sliding safely to end the game and send the Braves to the World Series.  The Braves went on to win their division a record 345 times in a row (what?), and the Pirates haven't had a winning season since.

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It hasn't been fun to be a Pirates fan.

And so it was in this environment that I moved from Indiana to Boston and had the option of either hating the hometown Red Sox - as it would be so easy to do - or joining the bandwagon.  I couldn't jump on fast enough.  Then they won the World Series.  Then they won it again.  And I got to know a whole side of baseball that I never knew, namely, the winning side.  I also got to watch a team the way that I've always associated with the 1940's and 50's fervor (this was before getting married, obviously).  After awhile, you kind of get to know these guys in a way that is completely different from football or basketball.  You can see when Pedroia is pressing a little bit - and you tell him to calm down.  You can see the emotion when Terry Francona hugged Jon Lester - having just returned from cancer treatments - after his no-hitter in 2007, and you tear up a little yourself.  Baseball is a slow tour of a sport that allows the fan, if the proper investment is made, to reap the greatest benefit of all - the feeling of being there.  College football is a sprint of color and fanfare that disappears before you're able to see it.  Baseball is an endurance race across a desert; the scenery can be boring, but when you reach those oasis's of punctuated excitement, it's a sight never sweeter.  Dallas Braden gave us one of those sights just this past weekend.

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A part of getting to know the players on such a scale is the inevitable heartbreak when one of your guys doesn't have it anymore.  David Ortiz used to stride confidently into the lefty batter's box and stare down the pitcher in a way that I feel one rarely sees in the human race.  It was purely animal intentions - a superior male sizing up an adversary that might be a challenge, but one easily dispensed with a whip of the bat, the roar of the crowd, and a slow trot around the bases.  The glare hasn't gone away yet, but the fear has.  Teams, sensing that David Ortiz is vulnerable, have stopped putting on the shift.  He's dropped in the order.  He's platooning with Mike Lowell - a fine player in his own right, but nowhere near Ortiz in his prime.

Each time Ortiz comes up to bad, puts the bat down, spits on his hands and claps twice, I hope.  I hope that this is the At Bat that turns it around for him, that he will somehow start catching up to that fastball and start pulling those balls down the right field line the way he used to.  In my lifetime of watching sports, I don't actually know that there's another player that I hope for the way I hope for David Ortiz.  And when he strikes out, or pops out, or hits a harmless fly ball to the shortstop (it's been that bad...) we see all the things that David is feeling right on his sleeve.  He stomps back to the dugout, snapping his bat over his knee.  He gets a reassuring, but somehow patronizing tap on the shoulder from Terry Francona, who says in my mind "you'll get'em next time" even though it's patently obvious to everyone watching that there might not be a next time.  No one knows this better than Terry.  And Ortiz sits from the dugouts across the country and in Back Bay, watching the vultures circle; the hyena's move in; the sportswriters clamoring for the kill.  It's one of the hardest things to watch; the once great hitter who can't catch up to the fastball and looks udderly useless against a good slider - a pitch he used to crack off the monster with a flick of his wrist. 

My hope is that he turns it around.  My gut says he won't.  And I doubt he'll be in Boston at the end of the month.  It will be on that day that it just might be easier to be a Pirates fan. 

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