Thursday, October 27, 2005

88 years

Congratulations to the White Sox, who swept the Astros in what was still a close, entertaining series. In fact, as the ever-astute Rob Neyer points out, this series is one of the closest sweeps in World Series history. In the 4 games, the White Sox outscored the Astros by 6 runs, which isn't very much at all. It suggests that the Series was much closer than the 4-game sweep would indicate, and I think that's true. It ties with the 1950 Series (Yankees/Phillies) for closest sweep in World Series history.
The Series is being slammed for being low-rated, but I don't think that's exactly fair. Ratings are VERY down from last year, but that's an unfair comparison, since last year's Series was a mainstream media field day with the Red Sox chasing history. reports that Series ratings are just 2% lower than the 2002 Series, which saw lesser-known teams Anaheim .vs. San Francisco. This was the lowest-rated Series ever, although 2005 might take that title.
What does this indicate? It indicates that baseball no longer occupies the dominant role in American sports. Baseball has let itself get passed up by the NBA and NFL and is trying haltingly to catch up. The emphasis on getting large-market teams in the postseason is an ugly example; very few people watch the baseball playoffs unless their team is playing. But everyone watches the Super Bowl, regardless of who's playing. It used to be like that in the Series, but not anymore. Getting large-market teams to spike ratings is a short-term fix for a larger problem, the fact that baseball is no longer America's pastime.
As far as the Series goes, what was the main reason the White Sox won? Everyone will say pitching and defense, and that is indeed somewhat true. But did you know that the White Sox scored 5 runs per game, much better than their regular season mark? All of their hitting stats were excellent; the Sox just hit well, despite the fact that they're not a good-hitting team. Their defense was great, and their pitching was good, although it wasn't so much the starters as the bullpen. Freddy Garcia was the only Sox pitcher to make a really good start, but the bullpen picked up the slack, and the team sported a great 2.63 ERA for the Series.
How much of this was great Sox pitching, and how much of it was bad Astro hitting? It's hard to see where the one ends and the other begins. But while I can't take anything away from the White Sox' great pitching, I must point out that the Astros were just awful at the plate. The only two Astro hitters who had anything like a good Series were Willy Taveras and Lance Berkman. And the Series exposed a problem that the Astros suffered from all season but really got stung with in the postseason: a lack of depth in the lineup. The Astros had a decent 1-5 in the lineup; Biggio, Taveras, Berkman, Ensberg, Lane. Granted, only Taveras and Berkman actually produced in the Series, but it's a not-too-awful top of the order. But below that, the Astros had nothing. They actually used Mike Lamb in some games, because he's a left-handed hitter. It's nice to have a left-handed hitter in the lineup, but it's much better to have a good hitter in the lineup. Garner actually pinch-hit for Lamb tonight, and I was struck by how unlikely that was. Has any manager in World Series history ever pinch-hit for his #5 hitter? Below him, they had Ausmus, Everett, and Chris Burke. That's just a step above having 4 pitchers in your lineup. Ausmus barely hit .200 for the Series, whereas Burke went hitless. Everett only got 1 hit in all 4 games. And this is about what you would expect from their regular season performance.
Everyone will look at this Series and say, "This proves that pitching and defense win championships." And I admit that the White Sox were a pitching and defense team, and they did win the championship. But if a smallball team did win the Series this year, a smallball team lost the Series as well. At least the White Sox have a good offense beyond smallball, but no one talks about that, because it ruins the image. The Astros had nothing. Even Morgan Ensberg was a dud. The Sox kept walking Berkman to get to Ensberg, and Ensberg kept doing nothing. And with their pitching not quite as good as advertised, the Astros just couldn't pick up the slack at the plate.

On a completely unrelated subject, I recently started reading Mind Game, an account of the Boston front office's revolutionary approach to baseball and how it won them the World Series. It's written by the Baseball Prospectus staff, which is the premiere baseball "think tank." It's a good book so far, but it's also interesting in light of recent events.
The Yankees signed Brian Cashman to a 3-year deal to return as their GM today. It pays $5 million a year. That's a lot of money, but I have a lot of respect for Cashman, and God bless him for taking such a difficult job. It;s not out of line for the top executive in a multi-million dollar enterprise to be paid as such. Then I read today that Theo Epstein turned down the Red Sox' latest contract offer to extend him. The Red Sox were offering $1.5 million a year.
I have all the respect in the world for Cashman, as I said. But the last time I checked, he hadn't ended any 86-year World Series droughts and dispatched the most popular curse/myth in sports history. Theo Epstein did that. The 2004 season aside, there is ample evidence to believe that Epstein is one of the best general managers in baseball. Did he do a perfect job this year? No, he didn't. He made his share of mistakes, and I'll be the first to point them out. But the fact that the Red Sox would actually insult Epstein by low-balling him so obviously is an insult to him, to all Red Sox fans, and any self-respecting baseball fan. I know the Red Sox aren't as rich as the Yankees; so I would expect a reasonable offer to be in the $4-million-per-year range. But if $1.5 million is as far as they got after all these negotiations, I don't even want to think about where the Red Sox started out.
This just makes me think that team president Larry Lucchino is slime. Both he and owner John Henry have been around the baseball block before, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this is part 0f some power play to get rid of Epstein. Not only that, but Epstein's right-hand man Josh Byrnes is one of the top candidates for the vacant position of Arizona GM. So the Red Sox may have their upper management gutted. And if Red Sox fans are intelligent at all, they will cry out against a power play that could send the franchise spiralling back to the Dan Duquette years of incompetence and utter futility. The Red Sox were just another franchise for nearly 100 years. Theo Epstein was the main force behind changing that. And now Larry Lucchino wants to undo all of that and sink the team because of his ego. Have you no shame, sir?
The Red Sox are starting something wonderful, and there have been speedbumps on the way, but Epstein has his World Championship and deserves some respect for being efficient, bold, and thoroughly intelligent. He, and the Red Sox Nation, deserve better than this.

No comments: