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A strange year … evenin the Red Sox Nation

When you support the Red Sox, you’re always learning new lessons about baseball and about life. And I mean, always.

Manny RamirezFor instance, after the ’75 World Series, I found out that life wasn’t fair. After the ’78 playoff game, I found out the Yankees were evil incarnate. After the ’86 World Series, I found out what my skin smells like when it’s burning. After I graduated college in ’92, I came to the sudden realization that my entire life might pass without seeing the Red Sox win a World Series. After Roger Clemens left Boston in ’96, I finally realized that it was about the money. And so on and so on.

Those were some of the bigger lessons. I also learned a number of smaller lessons along the way:

  • That I have the ability to spell confusing 11-letter Polish names like “Yastrzemski.”

  • That it’s OK for a general manager to look like a serial killer (the Dan Duquette Era).

  • That I can say the words “That just missed Pesky’s Pole” without cracking up.

  • That it’s probably not a good sign when everyone on your team’s coaching staff wears matching Raybans and mustaches and looks like the cast of an all-male porno movie (the Kevin Kennedy Era).

  • That you’re 100 times more likely to get Jack Brohamer in a pack of baseball cards than Freddie Lynn.

  • That I can fit my 6-foot-1 body into a seat that was meant for a 5-foot-2 person back in the early 1900s (the Fenway Park Era, which mercilessly won’t end).

  • That it was a good idea to leave Fenway earlier to beat the traffic whenever you hear the PA announcer utter the words, “Now pitching for the Red Sox … Heathcliff Slocumb.”

  • That a player with the requisite credentials can be denied entry to the Hall of Fame simply because he wasn’t that friendly (the Jim Rice Era).

  • That it’s OK to have a centerfielder who’s completely wacko, as long as nobody makes eye contact with him (the Carl Everett Era).

    The list goes on and on. And on. And on.

    But the 2001 Red Sox season has been the strangest Red Sox season of my lifetime … and lemme tell you something, that’s a strong statement. We’re only 100 games into the season, and Red Sox fans have learned more lessons than Ben Savage learned during the entire ’96 season of “Boy Meets World.” The $100 Million Little Engine That Could keeps chugging along, and we keep counting them out, and dammit, they keep chugging along.

    Fifteen games over .500? Tied for first place in late July? It’s amazing, it’s dumbfounding, it’s downright inexplicable. And to be honest, it hasn’t even been that much fun for many Sox fans. It’s difficult to enjoy a nice summer cruise on the bandwagon, when you keep waiting for the wheels to come flying off.

    Without further ado, here are 10 lessons that Red Sox fans learned from their team so far this season:

    1. Ongoing, sweeping team dysfunction isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
    And this hasn’t been mere dysfunction with the Red Sox — even the Manson family didn’t have this many problems. The franchise is being sold. The GM (Duquette) and manager (the immortal Jimy Williams) share one of those frosty, phony “Bill and Hillary” working relationships, with just about as much public affection. Not only have the Sox used four different closers, they tried so many Nomar Replacements at shortstop that you kept waiting for Moonlight Graham to finally get a chance.

    Carl Everett was busy being Carl Everett, which normally wouldn’t have been a bad thing … if he wasn’t hitting like Chad Everett for much of the season. Players kept going down like a platoon in a Vietnam movie, and not just soldiers, either — we’re talking big guns, including four of the five best players on the team (Nomar, Pedro, Everett and Jason Varitek).

    Wait, it gets worse. Many of the Boston players have bristled at Jimy at various points this season — an astounding 18 in all so far, by my count. And the ones that didn’t gripe also couldn’t speak English, which gave them something in common with their manager (more on Jimy in a second). Throw in the fact that many of the team’s overpriced veterans are finishing the final years of their contracts (translation: they want to play every day to showcase their wares), and it seems like everyone has been bitching about something.

    And yet this ongoing dysfunction hasn’t remotely affected the Red Sox on the field. Have you ever rooted for a baseball team that staged enough comebacks to provide that constant feeling of “Hey, we’re still in this!” — even when they’re down by five runs in the ninth inning of a 100-degree afternoon at Comiskey Park? That’s the 2001 Red Sox. You can’t give up on them. You just can’t.

    They’re like a 25-man homage to Jason Voorhees. And every time they suffer one of those backbreaking losses that inevitably spur a losing streak — like Derek Lowe squandering a two-out, 3-1 lead in Toronto last Thursday night in the span of about three nano-seconds — these Sox possess an uncanny knack for bouncing back and winning the following game. As David Cone described them this week, they’re “unflappable.” Nothing fazes them.

    So what’s going on here? Here’s my theory: The constant chaos and the “Melrose Place” storylines actually helped the Red Sox as a team this season. It strengthened them. It toughened them. Hey, when goofy things happen day after day after day, maybe you become immune after awhile. Maybe you learn to ignore the distractions. And maybe, just maybe, you transfer that same “I’m tuning all this crap out” focus to the field.

    (Just for the record, nobody represents the 2001 Red Sox better than the utterly unflappable Manny Ramirez, who looks exactly the same whether he’s chewing tobacco in the dugout, playing catch with a teammate, sharing a burrito with Rich Garces or batting in the ninth-inning of a one-run game at Yankee Stadium in front of 60,000 screaming fans. You could land a small plane in right field during a Manny at-bat and he probably wouldn’t notice. And yet, I digress.)

    2. It’s never a good idea to anger the Bambino, not even if you’re the best pitcher in 35 years.
    Curse Schmurse. I mean, think about this rationally … do you really think Babe Ruth is devoting his afterlife to haunting the Red Sox franchise? Wouldn’t he devote his energies to haunting Roger Maris and Hank Aaron, or taking revenge on William Bendix’s extended family after seeing Bendix’s swing in “The Babe Ruth Story”? Why would the Babe even care about the Red Sox? Being sold to the Yankees was the best possible career move for the Babe, wasn’t it?

    And yet, with that said …

    Ummm …

    Well …

    Just follow this timeline:

    May 31: Pedro follows a shutout over the Yankees (four hits, 13 K’s) by scoffing at the idea of a Red Sox curse and telling reporters, “Wake up the Bambino and let me face him — I’ll drill him in the ass.” At this point, he’s 7-1 with a 1.45 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 81 innings (as well as 67-18 with a 2.17 ERA in his three-plus years in Boston).

    June 4: Pedro gets yanked after six innings in an eventual loss at Yankee Stadium. Since nobody can figure out why you would lift your best pitcher after 90 pitches against your die-hard rival, we naturally blame our manager, Jimy Williams, given that Jimy is, you know, completely insane and all.

    June 9: Pedro gets racked by the Phillies. Days later, we find out that he’s suffering some “shoulder stiffness” and might miss a start. Uh-oh.

    June 21: Pedro pitches five innings in Tampa Bay, barely topping 93 on the radar gun. Oh, God.

    June 26: Pedro leaves an eventual home loss against Tampa in the fifth inning and immediately goes on the disabled list. Eventually we find out that he’s suffering problems with his rotator cuff, that it might require surgery and that the world will now end in 60 seconds.

    I mean …

    It’s just …

    Well …

    (Let’s move on …)

    3. The more foreign-born players on the roster, the merrier.
    This ties in with the aforementioned “Curse,” which isn’t about Babe Ruth as much as it’s about the kooky ways that Red Sox fans react to their team from day to day during the season. We’re either wildly optimistic or hatefully pessimistic, with no middle ground; the local media alternately preys on our fears or stokes our optimism, with no middle ground. It’s a rollercoaster ride.

    As I’ve mentioned before in this space, all Red Sox fans are terrified that they will live an entire life — 80-85 years, followed by death — without seeing their baseball team win a World Series. Maybe that’s why the pressure mounts in October, because every game literally feels like a do-or-die event in this area.

    The point? American baseball players sense these issues, because they grew up here. But why would someone like Hideo Nomo or Hipolito Pichardo pay any attention to a “curse” or even give it a moment’s thought? Is it even on their radar screen?

    Could that be one of the reasons why this year’s team — featuring a sizable collection of Asians, Dominicans and Latinos — has seemed so unflappable? Might that make the crucial, push-us-over-the-top difference between the Pedro Era teams and the Yaz/Rice/Williams Era teams? Or am I just grasping at straws here?

    (Wait, don’t answer that.)

    4. When it comes right down to it, few things in life are more enjoyable than a baseball reliever with a cheesy mullet.
    For further evidence, please refer to the Rod Beck Era in Boston (1999-2001).

    5. Even the Ewing Theory has its limits.
    You might remember me writing about the Ewing Theory back in May (in a nutshell, the theory states that teams can actually thrive without a superstar in certain situations — the 2001 Mariners being the quintessential example). The ’01 Red Sox fit the formula perfectly — Nomar injured his wrist in spring training, the fans/media panicked and the team “somehow” remained in the playoff race all season. Somehow? Hah! Ewing Theory scholars knew exactly what was happening.

    But when Pedro went down last month, that was another story. Nomar was one thing, but Nomar and Pedro? Let the record show that since Pedro pitched his last game, the Sox have stumbled to a 12-13 record and the bullpen is finally showing signs of wearing down. Apparently everything has limits … even the most powerful theory in sports history.

    6. The only thing more fun than one 300-pound Latin reliever is two 300-pound Latin relievers. I mean, have you seen Boston’s tandem of Rich “El Guapo” Garces and Carlos Castillo? That’s more than 600 pounds of fastballs!

    There hasn’t been a tag-team with this much ooomph since Tugboat and Earthquake teamed up in the WWF back in the late-80’s. I’m getting giddy just writing about it. When will the Red Sox bring back the bullpen car, for everyone’s safety?

    (And while we’re at it, why did they ever get rid of the bullpen car in the first place? Was there a greater invention than the bullpen car? Didn’t the mere sight of the bullpen car send you into a veritable frenzy as a kid? Why are younger generations of baseball fans getting gypped out of the bullpen car experience? ANSWER ME!!!!!!!!)

    7. Apparently anyone can manage a successful baseball team, as long as you have a head, two arms and two legs.
    We’ve actually known this lesson for years — remember, the Red Sox are the same franchise that gainfully employed Darrell Johnson, Don Zimmer, Ralph Houk, John McNamara and Walpole Joe Morgan at various points over the last 25 years — but Jimy’s performance during the 2001 season has drilled it into our heads for life.

    Before we delve briefly into Planet Jimy, please remember that baseball managers have the easiest coaching job of any professional sport. I mean, really, how difficult is it to pick a five-man rotation, fill out a starting lineup every day, make sure all 25 players stay awake, juggle the bullpen so it doesn’t get burnt out, handle the wide array of egos and handle the media as well? It’s hard … but it’s not that hard.

    Coaching an NFL team, now that’s hard. When you’re managing a baseball team, you’re basically steering a boat — as long as you’re cruising along and you don’t ram into anything, you’re fine. As the old saying goes, “Managers can’t win baseball games, but they sure can lose them.”

    (Actually, I just made that up. Sounded good, though, didn’t it?)

    Jimy apparently believes that managers can win baseball games. Although history has proven that baseball teams thrive on continuity and defined roles, Jimy thrives on insecurity and general chaos. He tosses out goofy lineups, relies on game-to-game whims (I’d give you more detail here, if I wasn’t worried about having a cyber-seizure), inexplicably shifts people around in different roles from week to week, drives his players batty and explains everything with his two-word, Rain Man-esque catch phrase:

    “Manager’s decision.”

    And yet somehow the Sox have remained 10-15 games over .500 all season, despite Nomar’s absence and the injuries to Pedro, Varitek, Everett and everyone else, despite the fact that Jimy apparently drifted away from his 25-man roster after they turned on him last May (during a clubhouse meeting in Oakland), despite the lack of a dominant starter during the dog days of summer, despite everything.

    How is this happening when the best compliment you could give the manager is, “He keeps everyone on their toes,” and it sounds like you’re describing a Doberman? Who knows?

    Of course, last night I was sitting at Fenway, bitching to my buddy Gus because Jimy pencilled in Scott Hatteberg as the No. 2 batter against Toronto. There have been a variety of links between Hatteberg and the phrase “No. 2” this season, but the batting order shouldn’t be one of them. And yet there’s Hatteberg batting second … and he goes 2-for-4 against the Jays. Go figure.

    Sometimes you wonder if Jimy could walk back and forth across the Mass Pike at rush hour without getting hit, but that’s a story for another time.

    8. Note to every Sox opponent: Don’t give Manny Ramirez anything to hit with the game on the line.
    I mean, ever.

    (Actually, there might be some AL managers who don’t know about this one yet … lemme re-write this one …)

    8. When Manny Ramirez comes up with the game on the line, definitely challenge him and definitely throw him a fastball, because he can’t get his bat around on anything over 90 mph.
    That’s right. This guy’s a bigger choke artist than Inari Vachs — he has been killing us all season. The $160 million fraud, I call him. What a waste of cash.

    (There, that’s better.)

    9. Nothing’s more frustrating than a closer who can’t be trusted.
    Statistically, Derek Lowe has been OK for Boston — 4-7, 4.06 ERA, 20 saves in 23 opportunities, and one brief demotion in April. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Lowe has allowed 88 baserunners in 57.2 innings, or that he’s squandered leads or ties 10 different times in 45 appearances. Yikes.

    And yet those numbers don’t even tell the whole story. You can have your faulty field-goal kickers, your up-and-down goalies, your point guards who never seem to make that clutch 15-footer … but for my money, nothing is worse than a shaky baseball closer. You become paralyzed by this constant feeling of dread; even when you’re winning in the late innings, you can’t enjoy the lead because you’re too busy thinking to yourself, “Oh God, he’s coming in.”

    In Lowe’s case, you spend the ninth inning rooting for things to go smoothly for him … and then something happens (a single or a walk), and you start searching for signs that he’s OK, and he is OK, but maybe something else happens (a stolen base, a walk) and then … BOOM!

    He makes the face.

    My buddy J-Bug calls it The Derek Lowe Face, a distant cousin to The Troy Aikman Face. Remember when Aikman would suffer a concussion, and TV cameras would catch him on the sidelines — glassy-eyed, totally shellshocked — and the Dallas trainers would literally shove 10 pounds of smelling salts in front of his nose, as Aikman stared out onto the field, undaunted, looking like he just saw Milton Berle naked? That was The Aikman Face.

    The Derek Lowe Face is a little different. It’s a frozen expression like The Aikman Face, only it’s more anguished and tortured (imagine someone taking a dump and suddenly realizing that there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom). And as soon as Lowe starts making that face, the umpires should halt the game and award it to whomever the Red Sox are playing. I have to admit, I’m haunted by The Derek Lowe Face.

    I spend every one of his appearances saying to the TV, “Don’t make it, don’t make the face, stay cool, come on, stay with us, hang tough, kiddo.” It never ends.

    (Note to the Red Sox: I’d like to order the Ugueth Urbina please? And hold the mayo.)

    10. “Enjoy the game!”
    This was actually the promotional slogan that the Philadelphia Phillies unleashed on their fans back in the late-80’s. Remember how teams used “catchy” phrases to promote ticket sales back then? Philly was so woeful one year that they simply told their fans, “Enjoy the game!” In other words, here’s a ballpark, two baseball teams and a seat. Enjoy the game!

    But there’s a lesson in there somewhere. Sometimes you have to forget that your manager drives you crazy, that your franchise shortstop is coming off wrist surgery, that your franchise pitcher might not ever be the same, that your closer is a human rollercoaster ride, that your bullpen can’t ride in the same elevator together without risking a calamity, even that your players seem to have an addiction to bitching. Sometimes you have to forget that your team only sent one representative to the All-Star Game, and worse yet, you weren’t even pissed off about it because nobody else deserved to go. Sometimes you have to ignore the curses and the karma.

    Sometimes you simply have to enjoy the game.

    For instance, after completing nine-tenths of this column on Tuesday, I headed to Fenway to watch the rejuvenated Cone, who scattered six hits, three runs and about 15 different “at-him” balls over six-plus innings en route to his sixth win (the 10th consecutive time that Boston has won a Cone start, and yes, Coney’s officially been hooked up to the Juvenation Machine).

    I watched a team full of .270 hitters grinding out two-out RBI hits like they were going out of style. I braced myself in the late innings for a Blue Jays’ comeback that never happened, even listening with both hands covering my face as Lowe slammed the door in the ninth. And when I was leaving wretched Fenway and trying to regain the feeling in my legs and lower back, I realized to myself, “Hey, I enjoyed that game.”

    And yes, there’s another lesson here, the one about pathetic Red Sox fans who always think “maybe this is the year” and “something strange is going on here” and “I just have a good feeling about this team” and everything else that makes us feel more comfortable about the Sox Team Du’ Jour. But you know what? Maybe this is the year. Something strange is going on here. Maybe we should have a good feeling about this team. And maybe we should kick back and enjoy the game.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to take my ulcer medication.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

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    Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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