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?