Hanging on my office wall is a framed front page from The Philadelphia Inquirer dated October 22, 1980, the day after the Phillies won their first—and only—World Series. The headline in gigantic bold letters reads: “Champions!” I look at it now with a mixture of joy and sadness. With the best player in baseball, Mike Schmidt, the best pitcher in baseball, Steve Carlton, the future all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, and potentially, the biggest undivided market in all of baseball, the Phillies overcame 97 years—97 years, Red Sox fans—of frustration to finally win and have the satisfaction of hearing Tug McGraw say, “New York can take this championship and shove it.” Surely a new dawn had come, my family felt. It proved to be a false dawn.
I think of that headline and that season whenever I hear Boston Red Sox fans whining about “the Curse” and now, “the End of the Curse.” (Or worse, writers who have now solved the curse, such as Fox Butterfield in last Friday’s New York Times: “Pitching was the only hex.” Really? If so, why did the Yankees use Babe Ruth as an outfielder?) As the credits were rolling at the close of the World Series telecast, Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck suggested, “This could well be the start of a new golden age for the Boston Red Sox.” Well, yes, it could be; and it might also be their 1980.
From a local perspective, the most interesting thing about the end of the 2004 season is not so much the ecstasy it has released in New York’s Red Sox-centric press, but the torrent of abuse it has directed toward the Yankees. You can have fun sitting at a diner in Manhattan, going through the local papers, and circling the word mercenary as applied to Yankee players. Here’s Bill Madden in the October 22 Daily News: “The Yankees have lost their ‘team’ identity and have instead become a team of individuals—high priced mercenaries—who have come here seeking to simply absorb the legacy of O’Neill, Tino, Girardi & Co.” Pardon me, but is it really all that relevant that those three came to the Yankees in trades instead of as free agents? And wouldn’t a player coming to New York as a free agent be indicating at least as much of a desire to play for them as one who was traded?
And what exactly does it mean when the Yankee stars are criticized as “mercenaries”? Are Manny Ramirez, Keith Foulke, and Curt Schilling volunteers? Since when, exactly, did the Red Sox become David to the Yankees’ Goliath? The Red Sox have the second-highest payroll in the major leagues, and the only reason it isn’t as large as the Yankees’ is not because the Yankees have more high-priced free agents than Boston, but because the Red Sox have not won six pennants since 1996 and haven’t been faced with the task of rewarding numerous players with long-term contracts. Perhaps now we’ll see whether the Red Sox ownership shows the same degree of loyalty to its mercenaries as the Yankees have. (And, after all, shouldn’t you be paid more to play baseball in New York? Doesn’t it cost more to live and work in New York? Doesn’t everybody come to New York to make more money?)
It has practically become an article of faith among local writers and commentators that the right way to win a pennant is for a team to cultivate players through its own farm system. If this is true, then how to explain the Red Sox, whose only homegrown player is Trot Nixon? The Yankees didn’t win, so it goes, because they didn’t have enough left in their farm system to trade to Arizona for Randy Johnson the way Boston had enough left in theirs to trade for Curt Schilling. Well, the three gems in the Red Sox system who went for Schilling were pitchers Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge de la Rosa, who were a combined 14-32 this year with a collective ERA of almost six runs per game. The Yankees had several studs in that category, including Felix Heredia, Scott Proctor, Jose Contreras, and Tanyon Sturtze, whose collective ERA this season with the Yankees was about 5.6. For some mysterious reason, the Diamondbacks wouldn’t bite on the Yankees’ lemons as they did on the Red Sox’s lemons; I’d love to believe that this had nothing to do with Arizona’s willingness to make the front end of a deal that resulted in the Brewers, Bud Selig’s old team, dumping high-priced slugger Richie Sexson, thus taking a chunk out of Milwaukee’s payroll. But let that pass. The point is that the deal for Schilling, baseball’s ultimate mercenary—salary $12 million a year and a résumé that includes pennant-winning stints at Philadelphia and Arizona and millions of fans who cursed him for being a hired gun when he left—was precisely the kind of deal that Steinbrenner and the Yankees would have been criticized for if they had made it.
The number one target for blame, predictably, is Alex Rodriguez, who just a few months ago the Red Sox and their fans were lusting after—lusting so hard that Commissioner Selig, ever ready to stick it to Steinbrenner, personally intervened to try and make the deal. Rodriguez was flogged by, among others, Mike Lupica (Daily News, October 22) for coming up “as small as an exercise jockey in Games 6 and 7 against the Red Sox” and by just about everyone else in the sports media for failing to step up in the postseason. Of course, this isn’t just an exercise in Yankee bashing, but an illustration of how the playoffs and World Series have turned us into an audience with a two-day memory. Manny Ramirez ended the 2003 season being ripped as a selfish slacker who took time off for illness and then showed up at a bar with his pals. We will remember 2004 as the year Ramirez—who made enough horrendous plays in left field to make Sox fans forget Bill Buckner—won the MVP while A-Rod flopped.
In point of fact, A-Rod (in 26 postseason games) has outhit Ramirez (in 78 postseason games) by 74 points, .330 to .256, and in 11 postseason games this year had the same number of total runs (19) as Ramirez had in 14. But somehow A-Rod has been tagged as a guy who can’t deliver in the clutch; it’s a good thing Willie Mays, who batted .247 with one home run in 25 postseason games over his career, isn’t playing today.
Far be it from me to rain on anybody’s victory parade. I hope Red Sox fans get so drunk that they’re finally in a mood to admit that the ’86 Mets were a better team that should have won anyway. But I wouldn’t put too much stock in what happened this year as an omen. Just ask Phillies fans as we count the days from 1980 to the next World Series win. That should be 2077, if it’s on time.
Allen Barra is the author of Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries (St. Martin’s Press).