No, The Red Sox Did Not Choke

September 30th, 2011 at 5:51 pm | 13 Comments |

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It didn’t take long for the mob to start spewing venom over the Red Sox’s collapse. On the morning after the team’s season-ending defeat Wednesday night, the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy cut to the chase: “The greatest choke in baseball history ended the only way it could have ended, with the Red Sox gagging on the Camden Yards lawn one last time.”

A nice helping of hostility piled into a single sentence, but it’s misguided. Let’s start with that alleged last gag, a 4-3 loss to the Orioles. Shaughnessy and I must have seen different games, because I sure didn’t see a choke. I saw Jon Lester, a cancer survivor pitching on three days rest, gutting out six innings and leaving the team a slim lead. I saw the lead preserved in the sixth inning by Marco Scutaro and Dustin Pedroia turning a double-play that defies description. Then I saw the lead relinquished when the Orioles scored two runs on three clean hits in the ninth inning. That’s baseball. Where’s the choke?

In the cut-throat world of professional sports, someone has to be vilified, and Jonathan Papelbon and Carl Crawford are among the designated victims. It’s silly to fit Papelbon, the losing pitcher, with goat horns. He threw 30 pitches the night before to preserve the Red Sox season, and the human arm is not meant to throw a few dozen 95 mile per hour pitches on consecutive nights. Had Papelbon walked several batters, maybe you could say the pressure got to him. But he came out throwing strikes and never stopped. Understandably, a few of his heaters were a bit flat and not located well. Three professional hitters drove the ball for clean hits. Give them credit. Where’s the choke?

Some blame Crawford, who came up empty on his attempted sliding catch of the game-ending base hit. Crawford was paid a fortune as a free agent and had a weak year, so Red Sox Nation won’t cut him any slack. But a missed sliding catch — that’s a choke? No, that’s baseball.

Of course, everyone’s got the long knives out because the Red Sox lost 20 of 27 games in September, coughing up a nine game lead. That’s why Shaughnessy calls this “the greatest choke in baseball history.” But guess what? The Sox stunk in April, too. They thrived from May through August. That’s baseball’s ebb and flow.

Injuries took their toll, particularly to the pitching staff. Daisuke Matsusaka missed almost the entire season and Clay Buchholz much of it, while Lester and Josh Beckett also landed on the Disabled List. During most of those September losses, the Sox started the washed up Tim Wakefield and John Lackey and a kid who had a losing record in Triple A before he was forced in over his head. When you’re weak on the mound, you tend to lose. That’s choking? No, that’s baseball.

There was also bad luck that might be called The Curse of The Perverse Schedule. During their respective season-ending series, the Tampa Bay Rays had the good fortune to play the mighty Yankees while the Sox were saddled with the lowly Orioles. No joke. The Yankees, who had already clinched a post-season berth, rested some of their regulars. In the last game, they ran out 11 pitchers – and none of their top three relievers, even as a seven run lead slipped away. Meanwhile, the Orioles were passionate but loose. For them there was nothing at stake, and yet, when they walked off with the win, they celebrated as if they’d won the World Series. For all non-Sox fans, it was delightful to see a raucous celebration of a last place team’s 69th victory.

The Orioles’ joyous intensity contrasted mightily with another spectacle that also played out on the last day of the regular season: the shameless “performance” of the Mets’ Jose Reyes. Locked in a race for the National League batting title, Reyes beat out a bunt in his first at-bat and then pulled himself out of the game. In an example of baseball’s capacious imagination, Reyes’ stunt came 70 years to the day that Ted Williams declined to sit out a doubleheader in order to preserve his .400 batting average.

Williams understood that something achieved by not playing lacks value. It’s all about playing. Though you’d never guess it from listening to the braying wolves in New England, there was no disgrace in the Red Sox’s defeat: they played and lost. That’s baseball. What Reyes did isn’t baseball. Disgrace is a good word for trying to win an award by sitting. Why not vilify those who deserve it and leave alone athletes who try their hardest and happen to come up short?

Recent Posts by Alan Hirsch



13 Comments so far ↓

  • Frumplestiltskin

    sorry, but when the odds are calculated that the season ending the way it did as being around 1 to 278 million, that counts as a choke. I read that the Sox had a 99.6% chance of winning the division on labor day. People choke, it happens, the fact that it happens more to the Red Sox is proof of something, God, the devil, I dunno, but it is proof of something. You should take comfort in that.

  • Ingersoll

    This might be the most embarrassing, pathetic article I have read in a long time. I love contrarians, but this isn’t some interesting new take on conventional wisdom. Injuries? Tim Wakefield is washed up? The schedule? Geez, really insightful. In March, the Boston Globe said this was the best Red Sox team in history. The Red Sox crowed about their huge off-season signings. And for the second year in a row, the Sox didn’t make the playoffs, despite spending $300 million during that time.

    Bottom line: if losing 20 of 27 games at the end of the season is not choking, then that term has no meaning. Can anyone tell me why this article is on this site?

  • arvan

    No one’s claiming that a single 4-3 loss or a missed sliding catch constitute the Sawx choking. That was just the end of their fall. Going from first in the American League in the middle of the year to dropping 20 of 27 and missing the playoffs is an historic collapse. The past month has been a slow motion trainwreck for Boston fans. Denying it won’t make it not so.

    You’re spot on with Reyes though. It pissed me off when he did it, and apparently the Mets fans were none too happy either, as they booed him as he left the field for what will likely be the last time.

  • Candy83

    The Major League Baseball world divides in two: New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Following them are everyone else.

    This is the way it is.

    This is the way it has to be.

  • JohnMcC

    As we in the Tampa Bay area are saying: “Sox to be you, don’t it!”

  • SydneyCarton

    Dan Shaughnessy is the greatest hack sportwriter in the history of Boston. He’s had a chip on his shoulder ever since the Red Sox destroyed his beloved curse in the greatest comeback in the history of baseball in 2004. So their hobbled pitching staff didn’t get a wild card shot. Whoop-dee-doo. They weren’t going anywhere in the playoffs.

    The 78 Red Sox were a better team, blew a 14 game lead and the season ended with a horrible Bucky Dent home run. The Buckner/Schiraldi/Stanley game 6 collapse in 1986 was way worse. Game 7 in 75 was more disappointing. This may be upsetting to the bandwagoners since 2004 but I can’t that bent out of shape about it. After all, they’ve won two of the last eight world titles and will be right back in the hunt next season.

    If you need to, I recommend Red Sox fans soothe the pain at baseballcentury.com.

  • CKW

    OK, I’ll play along. Boy, the RedSox didn’t choke, but they sure did asphyxiate in September.

  • Slide

    Choke. Unequivacal choke

  • Clayman

    Reyes’ strategy paid dividends, as Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun went 0-for-4 to finish at .332, five points behind Reyes’ .337. Reyes becomes the first player in Mets history to win a batting title, finishing the season with 181 hits in 537 at-bats.

    Shades of Ayn Rand

  • LISGUY

    If my recall is correct, the Red Sox in the month of September, had a team ERA of 7. All they had to do was win 1 more game in the month of September, everything else being constant. While people are piling on the Red Sox, some opprobrium needs to be heaped on the Atlanta Braves for doing what the Red Sox did down the stretch and give up a sizable lead to miss out on the post season. I agree about Reyes. Getting the batting title by taking himself out after the first at-bat was disgraceful. Unprecedented? no, but disgraceful all the same.

  • carlsonj

    Let me see if I have this right:

    1. The Red Sox didn’t choke, they just sucked really badly in the last month of the season. If the season had just ended a month earlier, everything would have been super.

    2. They had the oh-so-unfortunate luck to close out there season against one of the worst teams in the American League. Why, if they had good fortune of playing the best team in the AL, like the Rays did, that wildcard spot would have been a stone cold lock.

    Hey, if this helps you get through the winter, so be it. The rest of us in the “reality based community” will be waiting for you when you are ready to rejoin. And, hey here is a thought: only 134 days until pitchers and catchers report.

  • rubbernecker

    OK, you’re right, the Red Sox didn’t “choke.” The trending expression appears to be:

    “historic collapse”

  • Russnet

    In fact, the modern German language was invented when Mongol invaders began choking Poles.