Saturday, October 02, 2004

The waiting game

Well, Red Sox Nation has scored another ticket to the postseason by clinching the American League Wild Card (a.k.a. Major League Baseball's consolation prize, which at this point seems to have been especially designed for the always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride Old Towne Team), though all we know for now is that we won't be playing New York in the Divisional Playoffs - that'll come later, if Fate has any sense of irony.

No, the team we'll face next week will be either Oakland, Anaheim, or Minnesota - whoever has the best record at the end of the regular season - and since these three teams are right now in a virtual dead, we're just going to have to watch and wait until the last game has been played.

There's still some excitement going on elsewhere in the world baseball, however. Despite the fact that his team is about to finish the season with an embarassing record just under the .400 mark, Seattle Mariner outfielder Ichiro Suzuki made history yesterday by breaking the all-time record for most hits in a single season, which had held for 84 years after being set by George Sisler with 257 hits while playing for the St. Louis Browns in 1920. With a pair of singles in last night's game against the Texas Rangers, Ichiro catapulted himself beyond Sisler's record up to 258 hits, with two games left in the season to be played.

Now impressive as Ichiro's achievement may seem, here's the catch: Sisler set his record playing a 154-game season, while it took the Japanese hitter 160 games to match and then break it. Does that qualify the new record somewhat? Perhaps. But even so, 258 hits is no small feat, and there's no telling how many more hits he'll add to that total between now and Sunday!

Just as Ichiro's star seems to be in the ascendant, that of former Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra appears to be something of a steep decline these days - after being traded at the last minute to the Chicago Cubs in midsummer, Nomar has played hot and cold for his new team, which is now two games out of the National League Wild Card race.

Garciaparra's ongoing misfortunes (including a recent 12th-inning bunt which failed to bring home a much-needed run against the Cincinnati Reds, who went on to win the game 5-4) have been the cause of not a little Schadenfreude here in the Nation, especially among the Dirt Dog set, who always envisioned the Sox superstar as a kind of "anti-Dirt Dog", but I ask you: is it fair to keep kicking a guy when he's so obviously down as Nomar has been this season?

This is how careers crash and burn. Clearly Nomar wasn't happy with Sox management after they botched the A-Rod deal; and from the sounds of it, he wasn't getting along all that well with the cult of shaved-head and goateed "team players" (a term invoked more to bash Nomar and other marquee players than to foster a real team spirit a la Bill Belichick's Patriots) who had taken over the clubhouse in the wake of manager Jimy Williams' departure back in 2001.

If the team had any class whatsoever, it would have let Nomar go his own way in the off-season so that he could find a team that he'd be happy with and - more importantly perhaps - a fan base who wouldn't find fault with his every action on or off the field. Instead they dumped him in midseason onto a team no less cursed than Boston itself, leading all of those susceptible to magical thinking and superstition to conjecture that Garciaparra was in fact steeped in bad mojo and will bring ill fortune to whatever team picks up his contract, like that cheesy Polynesian talisman from The Brady Bunch episode where they went to Hawaii.

Never mind that if anything, the addition of Nomar's bat improved Chicago's chances at landing a Wild Card berth, even if in the end they're just not a strong enough team to eke it out this year. And who knows? We may miss the guy yet, if our new infield acquisitions fail to deliver during the postseason. And I guess this is why as we close out the regular season I feel a little uncertain about cheering on a team that is predicating its latter-day success to giving a Boston legend the old heave-ho.

If the Sox do in fact go all the way this year, they will have in essence "proven" that Garciaparra was Everything That Is Wrong With Baseball (tm), and as much as I'd like to see Boston reverse The Curse, I'm not so sure that I want Nomar to go down in history as its last living embodiment. Pedro is no less of a diva than Nomar - and no less problematic a player this year as well - and yet he will share in the glory should his team achieve the impossible; Nomar should have been allowed the same.

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