This morning began with one little bird chirp sprouting from somewhere in the massive oak tree hovering above my stucco bungalow. Then another. It was as if word was being passed along the hundreds of dormant branches: “Wake the kids. Spring is near.” In his poem Locksley Hall, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” My fancy has been there since the fall, and actually long before that, but for reasons untold, this bright morning I’m thinking baseball.
Exactly four weeks from tomorrow is Opening Day for the Red Sox. Well, actually it’s opening night with an 8:05 ESPN tilt against the… yep, the Bombers. The “World Champion New York Yankees.” Man, even after the epic “greatest comeback / biggest choke” in the history of professional sports in 2004, it’s still not easy to cough up that Yankee hairball. Anyway, one reason the Yanks are champs and the Sox naught is still tilting the American League East equation this year… The Red Sox have no fear in their lineup, and the Yankees, um, do.
Sox GM Theo Epstein has stated, “We actually have nine guys on our club who hit 25 or more home runs in a season.” Yeah Theo, but those were career years for many of them, and right now, not one of them strikes fear in an opposing pitcher, and that’s a problem. Theo’s a numbers guy, and his calculus has produced two world championships, but what’s getting lost in the Sabermetrics is that the game is played with emotion by human beings, and in the biggest situations you need emotion on your side, and one of the most important is fear.
Aside from their tremendous ability to hit, the 3-4 combo of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in their prime was psychologically devastating to opponents because they struck fear into the hearts and minds of pitchers. Let’s say it’s the 8th inning and the Sox were down 2-0 with the top of the lineup coming to bat. Not only would the pitcher have to worry about Jacoby Ellsbury and JD Drew, but they’d be especially worried knowing Papi and Manny were to follow. So they’d have a little less focus on Ellsbury… They’d press… They’d squeeze the red stitching a little tighter. With heightened emotions, missing a close pitch aggravates them more than it should. They squeeze. They over throw. Ball four. Ellsbury’s on and becomes another worry. “Shit, if Drew gets on, I’m screwed. I can’t walk him.” Drew knows it and laces a first pitch fastball that caught too much of the plate the opposite way. Big Papi lumbers toward the spotlight… We know how the rest of the story usually turned out.
That’s how big innings happen. It’s rare that a team just bashes the baseball hitter after hitter. There are hits, yes, but mental errors caused by pressure, caused in large part by fear, fuel those innings. Right now the Yankees and every other team have nothing to fear but the Red Sox getting Adri?n Gonz?lez…