At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Monday, October 02, 2006

Silver Linings in the BoSox Final Cloud

The 2006 Boston Red Sox season mercifully is now behind us, and thanks to injury and what GM Theo Epstein described as “some weaknesses” in the team, the Sox finished in third place (behind New York and Toronto) and missed the post-season for the first time since 2002.

For all the frustrations and medical bills, though, the end was more satisfying than it could have been. So while the talkradio crowd piles on – so easy and convenient to do – let’s take a minute to consider some of the positives:

• The players (seemingly most of the ones not wearing 24, anyway) heeded manager Terry Francona’s call to play the game “right” regardless of the club’s place in the standings or likelihood of making the playoffs. I attended Game 80 on Saturday evening and was gratified to see first-hand the hustle and grit that characterizes winning teams. (That, and a reliable bullpen – but that’s a column for another day!) What a wonderful object lesson for my 11 year old son, who was as inspired as I was by David Ortiz’s ninth inning blast to the triangle that would have tied the game had it been hit five feet to the right.

• Another object lesson could be found in Francona’s caring and class when dealing with the team’s August implosion, the ongoing l'affair Manny, and the opportunity for such fan favorites as Trot Nixon and Mark Loretta to get their due from the final-day crowd. Though he clearly was disturbed by his club’s Dog Days collapse, Francona remained publicly constructive and focused on the future, he politely refused to comment on Manny Ramirez’s injury or trade status except as it affected that day’s ability to play, and he had the presence of mind to engineer on-field substitutions during yesterday’s rain-shortened game to ensure Nixon and Loretta, possible non-returnees next year, could receive their measure of the fans’ appreciation. Well done, Tito, and thank you.

• The latest fruits of the farm system were able to showcase themselves and demonstrate to the brass and the fans that they are worthy of plying the Fenway trade. The headliner, of course, was Jonathan Papelbon, who set a new standard for Red Sox rookie closers and who, for reasons related to health, will move to the starting rotation next year. But David Murphy, Kason Gabbard, Devern Hansack, and David Pauley also all showed promise, and as long as this year’s trial by fire doesn’t ruin them, we may still see good things from the likes of Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen. Dustin Pedroia may be the most notable young gun of them all, for after a painfully slow start, he made adjustments to his swing that enabled him to finish the year with the kind of solid stroke that prompted his promotion in the first place.

• The general manager was available, open, and honest in his remarks following the final game, and made clear he is rededicating himself to the organization’s stated strategy of not sacrificing future performers in the pursuit of short-term gains. In an age when high-level decisions are defended and justified regardless of their outcome, it was refreshing to hear Epstein admit he was “impatient” when he traded Cla Meredith and Josh Bard to San Diego to reacquire Doug Mirabelli. “I don’t think we dealt with it the right way, and that’s not going to happen again,” he said. Bravo!

• Speaking of players acquired via trade, Josh Beckett seemed to be learning how to pitch – and not just throw – as the season wound down. The Sox will need him to build on this progress if they are to feel good about the big contract to which they signed him at mid-year, but the signs are there that we may yet forget about Anibel Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez, whom we traded to get Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell – who himself, lest we forget, was terrific in the field and solid at the plate.

• And speaking of fielding, what a joy it was to watch the Red Sox throw the leather this season! They set records for errorless games and turned double plays with a consistency I haven’t seen in my two decades as one of the Fenway Faithful. I became a full-time New Englander in the fall of 1986 after watching 20 years of National League baseball, a span that encompassed such slick-fielding clubs as Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the early- and mid-’70s and St. Louis’ masters of the Turf in the early ’80s. So I remember well watching the Sox ‘turn one’ instead of ‘two’ during the ’88 playoffs and observing to a friend that “they don’t play the same game they do in the National League!” It was great to see the Sox place a premium on infield defense when building this year’s team, and greater still to hear Epstein say he intends to similarly upgrade the outfield when preparing for ’07.

So much for the silver linings. Stay tuned for a preliminary roster forecast!

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