Friday, February 8, 2008

Finding Clutch; Reflections of a 2007 Boston Red Sox Fan

note: this column appears in the November 2007 Kent News
October 31, 2007- In April, reading over rosters, off season moves and predictions in Sports Illustrated and, I wasn’t sure what to make of the 2007 version of my favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. Six months and a World Series Championship later, I’m still not sure what to think. I saw a good team that could step up and be great or crumble and be mediocre, and it turns out that Red Sox Nation would see both of those in 2007. So what should we call this team? Simultaneously this team was exciting and frustrating. An emotional roller coaster all season, one thing was definite about this team; when it mattered the 2007 Boston Red Sox got the job done.

There are some things in sports that will never be explained. Certain aspects are simply destined to be beyond the realm of our understanding. I’m not talking about your standard questions like “why is Gary Bettman allowed to remain commissioner of the NHL when no one familiar with his work would hire him to run a Dairy Queen” or “why did baseball decide to make the World Series between the AL champion and a glorified AAA team.” I’m talking about those questions that make up the philosophy of competition, like what separates a good team from a great one or why do some players crumble in pressure situations while others bring their game to another level.

The second question has long been debated. What exactly is clutch? Stat heads like SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) or Baseball Prospectus will site statistic after statistic contending that there is no such thing. They will contend that “clutch performers” are just another instance of fans being fooled by what they see, remembering instances that contribute to correlation and disregarding non-events that contradict your theory. This seems to be less than satisfying, contending that “clutch” doesn’t exist simply because we cannot quantify it, akin to someone contending that there is no god simply because they cannot account directly for God’s presence. Clutch works in mysterious ways.

Reggie Jackson was a career .262 hitter who only hit .300 once in his career, and yet in 5 World Series appearances, he hit .357. Josh Beckett has 2 shutouts in 166 regular season starts; he has 3 shutouts in just 10 postseason starts. Even these stats are just numbers however. To most fans, clutch will always be something beyond statistical analysis, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz have had had similar batting stats over the last few years, yet Sox fans relish Papi’s late game at bats while Yankee fans often wish that they had Jeter or even Abreu up in the biggest spots. I can’t tell you exactly what clutch is, but I do know one thing. Whatever it takes to come up big when it matters, the 2007 Boston Red Sox had it.

In October (the only October, because as we all now know, there is only one October, thanks Dane), everything came together. Manny Ramirez woke up from a year long daze after being criticized for watching a long home run, youngsters like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellesbury stepped up and even underachieving off-season acquisitions Julio Lugo and JD Drew came through, Drew swinging the ALCS with a grand slam and Lugo hitting .385 in the World Series.

On the other side of the ball Schilling was solid, giving the Red Sox a chance to win every time he took the ball, Dice-K shook off a bad outing (game three of the ALCS) and allowed just four runs in his next two starts, and the bullpen was dominant throughout the playoffs, highlighted by three shutout innings to preserve a 2-1 lead in game two of the World Series. Oh yeah, Josh Beckett also established himself as the most dominant big game pitcher of his generation, starting off the playoffs with a complete game shutout and the World Series with four strike outs to begin game one. Both of these performances were statements by Beckett showing that a good team and a great pitcher were taking their games to another level.

Even now that the World Series has ended, the Red Sox are champions and I’m chastising Yankee fans with questions like “when is game 5? Who do we play next?” and “4-0, is that good? Did we win?” I’m not sure exactly what to make of the 2007 Boston Red Sox. Were they a great team, definitely not, great teams don’t let fans think that they don’t have what it takes with two weeks left in the season, but the Red Sox were two things above all else.

First of all they were clutch whatever that means. Even down three one, this team knew that it had what it takes (even if we didn’t always know) and knew that it would come through when it mattered.

Most importantly, they were a testament to the job done by general manager Theo Epstein. Epstein was criticized for spending too much on Dice-K and JD Drew, but both of them came up big when it mattered. People said he gave up too much to get Beckett, but even with Hanley Ramirez, a great young shortstop, there is no way the Red Sox win it all without Beckett and supposed “throw in” Mike Lowell (who no longer has to answer to “Beckett trade throw in Mike Lowell” and can now go by “World Series MVP Mike Lowell”) and no one noticed when Epstein drafted well and developed players like Ellesbury, Papelbon and Pedroia or found diamonds in the rough like Bobby Kielty or Hideki Okajima.

People could still criticize him by saying that any GM could win with that large a payroll or pointing out that Matt Clement made $9 million and didn’t throw a pitch in 2007. You could still say this, but like Patrick Roy, Theo can’t hear you. His World Series rings are blocking his ears.

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