September 2010


It's okay, Okajima. Honest.

I did not watch last night’s Yankees-Red Sox game.

Instead, I made an 8 p.m. grapefruit juice run (I’ve been in a tea-and-medication haze all weekend). Then I came home, and watched the season premiers of The Cleveland Show and Family Guy, followed by my recently rekindled love, Mad Men. I then turned off the T.V., goofed off on the computer, listened to Sonic Youth, and finally passed out when the Walgreens version of Nyquil kicked in, knocking me out for a good eight hours or so.

And when I awoke, I learned that the Red Sox are all but officially, finally done for the year, barring winning out and both Tampa Bay and New York losing every game the rest of the way.

There were a few reasons for not watching last night’s game. First, I cannot stand to listen to Joe Morgan‘s continued campaign on baseball listeners’ eardrums. I could have done the “mute the TV, turn the radio to Joe Castiglione” routine, but I wasn’t up for it.

Also, the Sox had won the first two games in New York. They’d put enough of a scare into the Yankees that Joe Girardi switched Phil Hughes, on three days’ rest, in to start in place of Dustin Mosely. They were taking this Red Sox threat seriously.

And I’ll be honest; being out of the race at this point bums me out. I don’t know if I could really handle the thought of getting back in it, only to see the carnage unfold before my eyes. So between being sick, having cartoons to watch, tunes to listen to and Don Draper to stare at slack-jawed, I had more than enough to distract me. If they won, fantastic. If not, hey, no hard feelings.

As it turned out, the Sox got two runs off of Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, only to see Jonathan Papelbon give up the tying run in the bottom half. And then Hideki Okajima walked in the winning run. And that should just about do it.

This has been a season unlike any I can remember (and for reader purposes, my Red Sox memory stretches back to about 1988). They’ve hung in there despite ridiculous odds, and took the race to the last week of the year. I went to Fenway Park more times (six) this year than ever before. For the first time since 2006, I was able to follow a complete year from beginning to end, at home, living with the ups and downs of the season as it happened rather than reading about them later via box scores and game reports.

So, hey, this wasn’t the year. This was still a great year for me as a fan, and there’s a week of games left, including Mike Lowell Night on Oct. 2. Baseball is the kind of sport that makes its fans soak in each moment, every inning feeling crucial, only to blur together by the end of the year as a collection of highs and lows, the poles always shining brighter than the middle. And there’s always a chance that something will happen that’s never happened before. And most days, there’s hope. In that way, baseball mimics life.

Disappointing? Absolutely. But that’s okay. There are always thrills to balance that out.

The knuckleball.

I didn’t get my first real Red Sox jersey until I was 21 years old. Until then, there was quite a bit of hemming and hawing over which player’s number to get on the back.

The first number I really wanted was 39, in honor of Mike Greenwell, but growing up 50 miles outside of Boston in the pre-internet age, finding that was easier said than done. Then 1995 rolled around, and the Red Sox picked up a knuckleball pitcher who had been released by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was called up on April 26 (my birthday, interestingly enough), was flexible enough to occasionally pitch on two days’ rest, and rattled off a ridiculous number of wins in that first half, flirting with no-hitters and baffling the American League as the Sox climbed to the top of the American League East.

I really wanted Tim Wakefield’s 49 after that. A friend talked me out of it, though. “He’s probably not even going to be here for more than a year or two,” the argument went. I sighed, and agreed.

* * *

Last night, the Red Sox took on the the Toronto Blue Jays in what could accurately be described as a desperate attempt to hang in the playoff race. But John Lackey couldn’t make it through the fifth, and after a less-than-stellar appearance by Michael Bowdon, the Sox were down 10-2 in the sixth inning.

Rich Hill gets through two outs without giving up a run, but Matt Fox gives the Blue Jays their 11th. So, with two outs in the seventh inning, Terry Francona makes another switch.

In comes Tim Wakefield, and as soon as he starts running in from the right field bullpen, the fans start to react. They start cheering. And now they’re standing. And now, down 11-5, Fenway Park is screaming as Wakefield is announced as the new pitcher. Perched in a standing-room-only section above the grandstand on the first-base line, it was a sight to see.

Wakefield is currently in his 16th season with Boston. He’s 44 years old. He’s under contract for one more next year, though whether he comes back remains to be seen. At 179 wins, he’s 14 away from tying the Red Sox wins record shared by Cy Young and Roger Clemens. It seems unlikely that he’ll get there now, being shuttled back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen.

But in 16 years, he’s given the Sox much more than they could’ve dreamed when they signed him to that minor league deal after a year with the AAA Buffalo Bisons. He was a key contributor to two World Series winners, a number of playoff teams, and famously sacrificed his 2004 ALCS start in order to save the bullpen in the 19-8 loss to the Yankees in Game 3. He’s had flops, he’s had gems. He’s been durable, he’s defied age, and he’s consistently taken less money on the open market to stay in town. I don’t think there’s any more he could have possibly done for Boston in his time here.

Seeing a standing ovation burst from a tired crowd in a loss as Wakefield entered made me absurdly happy. It was this fan base at their best, showing appreciation for a lifetime of work. I can only guess how it made him feel.

I never got his jersey, which is too bad; I would have certainly got my money’s worth.

This handsome bastard is moving up in the world.

This is one that’s going to get personal.

At some point between 11 p.m. and midnight tonight, the sports section of The Standard-Times will be put to bed, the stories prepped for the Web, the lights will go off, and the (mostly) thankless work of editors and paginators will be complete. Another day, another edition, until they’re all swallowed whole by the vast expanse of the internet.

And, after eight years, it will be the last time a certain Assistant Sports Editor and Red Sox beat writer will walk out the employee exit onto the cobblestone-packed streets that line downtown New Bedford.

Jon Couture is leaving the paper, moving up the chain to the Boston Herald. Mr. Couture (also known affectionately as “Cooch” by everyone who has ever spoken to him for more than five seconds) happens to be a very good friend of mine. In fact, I live two floors above him in New Beige. In fact, he helped me find this apartment after I moved back to Massachusetts, the daunting task of rebuilding a scattered life made much easier for his efforts.

For Red Sox fans, his blog Better Red Than Dead has been essential, rounding up everything from the press to the pitch counts, quotes, individual feats and a plus/minus scoring system to grade the team. And his Inside Baseball column has been a weekly must since 2005 or so. In his own quiet way, he’s put his stamp on baseball coverage, always conducting himself with class, presenting new angles on the game while refusing to succumb to falsely hair-raising stances.

Outside the press box, he is the quizmaster, our bar trivia captain, ruler of the statistical spreadsheet, keeper of the flame for the Hartford Whalers and the Kids in the Hall, defender of J.D. Drew, appreciator of Oasis, rescuer of lost cats, lover of all things British, organizer of late-night escapades, giver of uncomfortable man-hugs, generous to a fault, and, basically, the best dude I know.

We started within one week of each other at the S-T in June, 2002, and after a three-year layover in Phoenix, I rejoined the staff last summer. Now it’s his turn to move on. I’ll still see him all the time, but the office is going to be emptier without him (less so since he lost so much weight, but you know what I mean).

Jon, speaking on behalf of myself and everyone else who ever had the pleasure of working with you, we wish you the best. This couldn’t have happened to a better guy. Good luck editing on the green screen, and try not to get too evil under the bright lights of Boston.

Waking up on Sept. 6 10 games back is not a great feeling. Between work and other commitments, I didn’t see any of the White Sox series this past weekend. It looks like I picked a good series to miss.

Well, it was a fun year. I suppose it’s time to see what Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Josh Reddick, Michael Bowdon, Dustin Richardson and the rest have to offer for 2011. And I’ll still get to see a couple of games against the Blue Jays in a week, which I’ll never turn down.

This is when the eternal optimist turns from believing in October to finding the glass half full.