Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rays of Hope: Why The Red Sox Aren't Done Yet

It has been long established on Sports Karma that we support the underdog. We love Boise State going for two, the 14th seed in the NCAA Tournament that won't go away, The Miracle On Ice, William Wallace savaging the British Empire and Ric Ocasek of The Cars, who may be the biggest underdog-made-good ever, when you consider that he married supermodel Paulina Porizkova. Seriously, Ric Ocasek looks like Howard Stern on a heroin bender. How he wooed her is a bigger upset than Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson.

But I digress. All that said, it should stand to reason that we should be supporting the Tampa Bay Rays, a completely anonymous collection of young talent that spanked the Red Sox and Yankees all year long, won the AL East and now are on the precipice of going to their first World Series in franchise history. This from a team that has never won more than 70 games in a season, was routinely mocked by both the baseball pundits and the rich jocks in their division who were both too busy outspending their way into superiority, and would never stoop so low as to pay their lowly basement-dwelling cousins to the south much attention.

But now the Rays have the Red Sox down three games to one, and all the major websites and sportswriters seem to almost concede this series to Tampa Bay. After all, they did just massacre Tim Wakefield's knuckler in Game 4, and this Red Sox team, unlike the 2004 and 2007 teams, don't have Manny Ramirez anymore. The Citgo sign behind The Green Monster just caught fire as well, so many view this as a foreshadowing of sorts, symbolizing the Red Sox inevitable doom.

Maybe I'm wrong. If I am, this piece will look incredibly silly, but I wouldn't exactly write the 2008 Red Sox obituary just yet. Consider the last five years, if you will:

2003: Down 2-0 to Oakland in the ALDS. They won the series 3-2
2004: Down 3-0 to the Yankees in the ALCS. They won the series 4-3, and became the only team in baseball history to comeback from being down three games to none.
2007: Down 3-1 to Cleveland in the ALCS. They were supposed to be beaten by the Indians' two-headed pitching monster in Sabathia and Carmona. They won the series anyway, 4-3.

I don't know whether the Red Sox simply thrive better in do-or-die circumstances, but I do know that they have consistently demonstrated more resiliency and more moxy in pressure situations than any team has over the last five years. And while the faces have changed slightly, a few things haven't.


1. Terry Francona

Until he's proven otherwise, Terry Francona is simply the best big-game manager currently alive. I would take Francona over every other manager in the big leagues, without fail. Not Torre, Leyland, LaRussa, Pinella or anyone else. Francona has captured two rings since being hired on in 2004 by getting more out of his players' abilities, trusting in them to get their job done without ridicule, tuning out the uber-cynical Boston media, and carefully managing the unending circus that comes with being baseball's biggest draw.

His counterpart, Rays manager Joe Maddon, has done a miraculous job of transforming the culture of a losing franchise, and knowing how to handle an incredibly young team of men still learning not just how to play baseball at the highest level, but how to manage their emotions as well. Remember, this is a Rays team that earlier in the season was busy fighting all comers from the Red Sox and the Yankees, and when they got done fighting them, they fought each other in the clubhouse. This is also a team that features budding superstar B.J. Upton, who on multiple occasions, has been benched by Maddon for not hustling out ground balls and pop-ups.

Maddon should be credited for keeping all of these guys together when it seems they could very well have crumbled with all the fighting and lackadaisical play. However, it should be noted that Maddon is a disciple of Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia. Let the record reflect that Francona owns a record over Scioscia in the playoffs that I think is roughly 293-0. My math could be slightly off on this one, but I think Argentina put up more of a fight over the Falkland Islands than Scioscia has in the playoffs against Francona.

If the Rays actually manage to lose this series to Francona and the Red Sox, I'm sure Scioscia might confront Maddon in his room and ask him how he managed to lose in such a fashion. I can only imagine that Maddon would respond like this:

2. Big Papi

Yes, I know he hasn't been playing well. Yes, I know he hasn't been healthy this year. Yes, I'm also aware that he may no longer be what he once was, that his three-year window may have shut and that David Ortiz may very well be remembered like Kurt Warner, The Ultimate Warrior or Axl Rose. Three to four years of absolutely mind-boggling, gooseflesh-rendering dominance followed by a rather drastic and equally absolute fall from grace.

But are we seriously going to shelve the greatest clutch hitter of my lifetime just yet? Does anyone really believe that the 2008 ALCS will be Papi's Spaghetti Incident? I highly doubt it, and it is moments like tonight where David Ortiz has been at his best.

3. Red Sox Nation

Simply put, the Nation is everywhere, and especially in Florida where, literally, millions of New England transplants and retirees now live. Let's just say that the Red Sox steal Game 5 at Fenway. Don't you think the Nation is going to show up en masse to Tropicana Field for a Game 6 and a potential Game 7? Won't Game 6 really be nothing more than a glorified home game? And how do you really think a young Rays team is going to respond when it appears the home crowd is cheering against them? Given their collective temperament does it seem totally illogical that they'd want to go beat the crap out of the paying customers for not cheering them on?

Maybe this is all moot. If the Rays take care of business in Boston tonight, they will face Philadelphia for the 2008 World Series. Win or lose against the Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays will have accomplished one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history. By and large, they already have.

But they still have to kill the Red Sox first. And as Oakland, New York and Cleveland can tell you, killing them might actually be the more remarkable achievement.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kings For A Week

True story: Ramiro, Brad and I were all at Lucky's Pub in Houston for the Texas Exes Watch Party against Oklahoma on Saturday, swilling down an array of various adult beverages ranging from the ordinary (Lone Star) to the ridiculous (Red Bull & Jameson's before 11:30 AM). The Longhorns were already down 14-3, and I must admit I was having flashbacks to 2000.

It was my senior year in college, and I was a proud intern for 1300 The Zone here in Austin. The Zone is the flagship station for Longhorn football, and I gladly blew off the trip to Dallas so that I could work the station's watch party at a Tex-Mex joint in town. I was up at 5 AM on a Saturday, at Antonio's by 6, ready for the broadcast by 8, and completely jacked up for kickoff by 11.

And then Quentin Griffin scored. And scored. And scored. And scored some more.

Honest to God, other than my cousin Michael's and my grandfather's passings, this was the worst day of my collegiate life. I had gotten up earlier than any college student ever should on a Saturday, and by the time Oklahoma had finally finished off a merciless 63-14 drubbing of the Longhorns, I was breaking down broadcast equipment in a 52-degree driving rainstorm. I can't even express how crappy this day was, and even though, the Longhorns won the 2005 National Championship led by The Greatest Performance Ever, I admit to this day to having extreme, sometimes completely irrational doubts, about the Longhorns' true capabilities. Hell, I thought we would lose five games this year. I had more faith in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae than I did in Mack Brown.

When we were down 14-3 this Saturday, I immediately harkened back to being the intern, the grunt, hauling out speakers and poles quietly, solemnly and absolutely tired as hell considering what time I got up that morning. I immediately harkened back to stepping outside with microphones and cables, getting blitzed by a swirling rain that tangled my hair in a direction-less mess. I felt like I was being shoved by a multitude of ghosts, random winds, pushing me from countless directions with all that expensive equipment in my arms. I remember getting home and peeling off my prized Longhorn hoodie, which I still have and proudly wear, as it stuck to my skin. Taking it off when I got home was like trying to rip off an upper-torso sized bandage.

"I'll bet you we go down 28-3," I said to Brad.
"I'll bet you a drink on that one," he replied.

No sooner than we made the bet, Jordan Shipley returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and we were right back in the game, only down 14-10.

Our waitress came around and I bought Brad a Double Jack and Coke. I've never been more happy to lose a bet.

True story: Brad and I saw about half of the paying crowd at Reliant Stadium get up and leave when the Texans were down 28-23. They saw what happened last week, and just assumed spare themselves the added misery. From the upper deck of the south end zone where we were sitting, I remarked to Brad: "These people are going to kick themselves for leaving when the Texans win this game."

Sure enough, Matt Schaub inexplicably threw into double coverage again, but Andre Johnson quite literally stole the football from the Dolphins defender. I've seen the replay of that catch at least 10 times now, and I'm still not sure how in the world he managed to catch the football standing behind the cornerback. Honestly, I'm not totally sure if the Dolphins employed the worst cornerback in NFL history or if Andre Johnson is David Copperfield playing wide receiver.

Maybe it's both.

That play, in addition to Schaub's bomb with less than 20 seconds to go to Owen Daniels, set up the Texans' winning play, a quarterback draw from Schaub on fourth down for the touchdown with three seconds to go.

He had thrown two interceptions on the Texans first two possessions. He made more poor decisions with the football than Congress has made with the economy. But Matt Schaub seemingly made all the plays down the stretch, and the Texans somehow defeated Miami 29-28 with only about a quarter of the paying crowd there to see a remarkable finish.

We were getting ready to exit, as so many did earlier, and I turned to Brad confidently exclaiming, "I never doubted it for a minute. Sports Karma rules, man!"

True stories: We walked out of Lucky's Pub triumphant and epic on Saturday. We left Reliant Stadium on Sunday feeling most relieved. We got in the car on Saturday, and listened to Craig Way, the Voice of the Longhorns and a man I interned for at The Zone, speak breathlessly about the greatness of this performance and Colt McCoy. Way even intimated there's the slightest chance that after this performance and several others along the way that Colt might just have his #12 hung next to Earl's, Ricky's and Vince's in the not-so-distant future.

We got in the car on Sunday, and listened to 610 KILT, the Texans flagship station, excoriate and ridicule everything the Texans did. I swear, if you didn't know any better, you'd think they lost by 40. Matt Jackson, the host of the postgame show, damn near said every nasty thing about Schaub except, "His mother was a fat, alcoholic whore." And at the rate he was going, he probably killed his mic and said it under his breath. They ripped the coaching, the offense, the defense, the quarterback play. Everything that the Texans executed poorly, they criticized it. However, everything the Texans did right, including win, they criticized that too.

In so many countless ways, it seemed irrational. Just like me making a foolish bet with Brad. But we've been burned so many times in the past, it's in our blood to distrust and to doubt.

After this weekend, I now know why we must also believe.