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Soup of This Day #85: It’s A Cold And It’s A Broken Hallelujah

October 16, 2011

Lemons. My wife and I used them to make Lemon Chicken Casserole tonight. It was a team effort – Photo: André Karwath, 2005. André Karwath is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Yesterday I spent a Saturday morning pruning trees for my mother-in-law and later that afternoon I grabbed a copy of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. More on the book later – I happen to be good at the tree stuff, lopping down branches like a surgeon with attitude. Conversely I’m not so good on the making stuff grow thing. Which might on the surface of it make me look like nature’s spoiler but the truth is I’m actually enhancing the growth prospects of the trees I attack carefully trim.

See, you can improve a tree by pruning, chopping out wood that isn’t productive, that’s maybe even hampering the growth of stronger shoots. The principle is simple – Pick your core branches, your trunks, and then build your structure off of them, focusing on healthy growth. Don’t be afraid of going too far – Tree pruning is like a haircut – It grows back. I reckon most folks err on the side of leaving too much and you can suffer for it. And don’t be scared of going too early – You want to avoid issues before they become significant, not wait for the tree to get tangled in it’s own weight.

If you’re a Red Sox fan you’ve maybe worked out the metaphor here and can see where I’m going with this. The Red Sox have had an unproductive couple of years and it’s time to clear out the old wood and start to look for the healthy shoots that will produce for us over the next 5 years.

But where to start? What wood do we keep and what do we move out? Well, there’s been a fair bit of analysis following ‘The Collapse’. Some of it bordering on hysteria.

An article that has a lot of Sox fans talking is Bob Hohler’s Inside the collapse via The Globe. At 1st read it’s a comprehensive review of what went wrong with the Sox in 2011. It covers a lot of angles, some of which smack the nails fair on the head. Others though just don’t feel right.

For the latter take the revelations about Tito’s marital problems. I don’t get the relevance. For 1 Tito and his wife separated prior to the season starting. Tito moved into a hotel and yet the Sox were smoking hot for May through August. Were there articles then suggesting that Tito’s domestic disharmony was gonna be a September curse? Maybe there were none. Maybe because it’s just not public fodder, not apropos of anything that concerns the baseball world.

And the revelations about his drug problem. Which it turns out are not substantiated, in fact are shot down by Tito, who ran the issue by the team internist, Dr. Larry Ronan. So, he may have had a drug problem which may have affected his ability to manage a team only there is no evidence that such a problem or outcome existed.

It gets column inches anyway.

Smoke means fire which means that’s how the Sox got burnt. Again, the inherent assumption is that Tito’s substance abuse could have wrecked the good ship September Sox but somehow aided and abetted the May Sox, the June Sox, the July Sox and the August Sox. Funny drug problem that, helping a baseball team rock the bleachers for 4 months but then really driving them to their knees via the singular personage that is their manager in 4 weeks.

Tito guided the team to 2 World Series, breaking an 86 year old curse along the way. He’s by all accounts a player’s manager (in a way that Scott Boras is not), extracting the best out of individuals and teams. His take on his role in September is simple:

‘I felt frustrated, my inability to reach maybe guys I’ve been able to in the past. Or affect the outcome a little bit differently, and that bothers me.’

So a good manager, a successful 1, leaves and this is where we get to some of the real substance in Hohler’s article:

Some guys, pointedly including starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey, would spend their off days in the clubhouse drinking beer, eating takeout chicken and playing video games, while their teammates were on the park trying (and mostly failing in various abject ways) to win games. This is headline stuff and the beer and the chicken and the video games can be jumped on as indicators that all was not well in Soxtopia. Hohler certainly takes this tack and at least 1 commentator I’ve read has suggested that this is bunkum – And asks if it is ridiculous that Hohler writes about:

‘The overdetermined tales of year-long slackness and sloppiness from a team that went 20-6 in July?’

Here’s the thing: It’s not that they drank beer, it could well have been water or whatever isotonic @#$% passes for re-hydration these days. It’s also not that they were playing video games, they could have been watching a doco on Darfur that moved them to better consider their high incomes. Likewise it’s not they they ate fried chicken, it could have been twice cooked escargot with a wasabi and green pea jus.

If you see a restaurant with that on the menu anytime soon please let me know – It will mean that I can start to use the word ‘influential’ on my masthead. If you are a restaurant and you use that on your menu – You’re welcome.

No, see none of the content of what they did is the problem. It’s that they did it in the clubhouse while their comrades were fighting it out from the bench. That was plain wrong.

Which is where we get to Moneyball. Billy Beane set out to build a team based on Bill James Sabermetrics approach. He and his crew analysed stats that most established scouts ignored, relying instead on gut feel built over years of living the game. Beane had to go this way, his budget is peanuts compared to the big guns like the Yankees (and now the Sox). Essentially he needed an edge – A way to more accurately project whether a prospect is not just going to be good, but whether they are going to fit into a team as a necessary and complementary piece of a puzzle.

The stats that Beane and his crew and now pretty much everybody else in the game utilise describe what a player is likely to do in given situations. They will tell you how likely it is that Fred Fictitious will get on base with RISP in NL night games, against LHPs when the air is at +34% humidity. Or something.

What they don’t do is show you Fred’s heart. And when I say ‘heart’ I’m not referring to his actual blood-pumping-organ-thingamabob. No, what I mean is something more Wizard of Oz-ish – ‘Heart’ in this sense is the mental courage, the strength. It is something that is hard to quantify and not everybody has it in the right mix at the right time. Which is ok in a team because it is contagious – You can thrive off another’s heart.

Please note Roger Clemons that I said ‘heart’, not ‘hormones’.

And this is why it wasn’t a problem May through August. Because for those months you can get by on individual brilliance and talent, deriving strength from good results, from momentum that has less resistance against it. In September though when the 1st pebbles start to roll down a slope that gets a little steeper, you need something that is more than just big swinging bravado to stop them. Having 3 of your starting pitchers with their isotonic @#$%, their Darfur conscience and their wasabi snails not hanging in the trenches? Yeah that’s not heart. And soon those pebbles gather other stones and it’s an avalanche.

The Red Sox need some heart back for 2012 and this means they need to approach their list like they are pruning a tree hard. Tito has gone – He felt like he wasn’t good for the tree no more. Likewise Theo is as good as out, Cubs negotiations notwithstanding – He’d chosen to add some grafts that just did not take. As for the rest? Fight for Pedroia and the rest need to make their case. Some, like Ellsbury, Aceves and Gonzalez will bring good form to the table. Others not so much and the question is whether they have the heart for this club and this Nation. Even Tim Wakefield and Big Papi, and I love those guys for what they have done, should be on notice.

Which brings me back to the trees I pruned yesterday, of which 1 was a lemon tree. I’ve never liked the old saying about life giving you lemons and therefore you should make lemonade. It’s too pat. So as I stood on a shaky ladder with a handsaw and lemons raining down I thought up a new variation:

If life gives you lemons then stand there and see if you can’t throw em back with interest. And for @#$% sake do it as a team.

It’s A Cold And It’s A Broken Hallelujah

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