Outfielder Carl Crawford, one of their prize off-season acquisitions, a talented veteran who was supposed to be good at the plate and great in the field, was terrible all year long. Last Saturday, for example, in a game the Sox needed to win on the road against the New York Yankees, Crawford botched a fly ball in the second inning that doomed the team. On the final night of the season—on the Sox final play of the season--Crawford was unable to catch a catchable ball that would have sent the game into extra innings and given the Sox a chance to face Tampa Bay in a one-game play-in. Afterward, Zen-like, Crawford said, "If I should have caught it, I could have caught it,'' whatever that means.
That was dramatic—and surely symbolic of all that went wrong for this team this month. But my favorite inconceivable Red Sox defensive moment came a week earlier, this time at Fenway Park, when Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald (who at times this year looked like he couldn't hit a can of corn if it were under-handed to him) misplayed not one but two balls in the same inning of a game against Baltimore. The glare from the sun was bad, it was said, which is a tried-and-true loser's lament in baseball. Watching that inning live, I thought of Casey Stengel and the hapless 1962 Mets (who, not for nothing, had a better September record than the Sox this year): "Can't anyone here play this game?"
You hit the ball
There was a time—last century and earlier this season—when the Red Sox could overcome poor pitching and bad defense with strong hitting. That time is not this time. The heart of the Red Sox order was crippled by injury, bad swings and an utter lack of clutch play. David Ortiz, the 3-hitter, was virtually impotent in September—he was suffering from an injury, it was said. Kevin Youkilis, the cleanup hitter, hardly played at all during September because of a sports hernia and bursitis. Adrian Gonzalez, the 5-hitter who came over from the San Diego Padres, put up great numbers for the year but never gave the team the hit it needed when it needed it. They all popped the clutch, you could say.
Take Wednesday's game, for example. The Sox were 2-11 with runners in scoring position. They had a runner—Marco Scutaro—thrown out at home in the eighth inning because he had hesitated running the bases. They had another runner—David Ortiz—thrown out at second base in the seventh inning trying to stretch a single into a double. All season long, the Sox padded their statistics with routs, scoring 10, 12, 18 runs a game. But on Wednesday night, when they need a single—or a sacrifice fly, for christsakes—they were unable to get one. As one wag said earlier this month after Carl Crawford was unable to lay down a sacrifice, "20 million a year and the guy can't bunt."
"Gods don't answer letters," John Updike famously wrote about the greatest Red Sox of them all, Ted Williams, upon the latter's retirement 50 years ago. It's a good thing the Splendid Splinter wasn't around to see this collapse. And, speaking of God, the aforementioned Gonzalez said in the locker room after Wednesday's game that "God has a plan. And it wasn't God's plan for us to be in the playoffs." That happened. He actually said that. I guess it's better than saying, "God didn't want me to hit that curve ball." But it helps explain why so few members of the Red Sox Nation, spread out all over the world, can't stand this team of underachieving apologists.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.
As they do every year, the Red Sox owners spent a fortune collecting these particular players. They reportedly spent over $340 million, in fact. Before the season, the Sox were a consensus choice to make the playoffs—and compete for the World Series. It all looked so good on paper. But they don't play games on paper. And Bill James, the legendary baseball statistician who is on the Sox payroll, evidently hasn't come up with a Sabermetic that computes heart and soul and accountability. What we now know of the team, what Sox fans have known for at least the past month, is that it was devoide of all the intangibles that make a group of athletes into a team; that generate a cohesive product that is more than the sum of its parts.
Theo Epstein, the GM who has received so many accolades this year, deserves most of the blame for that. He's the one who brought Crawford aboard and who terribly overrated the Sox starting pitching staff. If Epstein really wants to go to the Cubs he has my blessing. Vaya con Dios. The manager, Terry Francona, also failed to perform his job well enough. So, too, did all the lesser coaches, from Curt Young, whose pitchers fell apart, to the strength and conditioning coaches, who allowed too many of the players to look like Weebles during the September swoon. There is nothing mysterious about any of this. It was a complete system failure.
I will leave the final word to the Oracle himself, David Ortiz, beloved Big Papi, whose life-sized cardboard cutout we keep in our living room during the baseball season. Ortiz said after Wednesday's game: "We're not a playoff team. The Rays deserved it and we didn't. You can't say we were a good team.'' No, Big Papi, you can't.