I’ve been a little cranky all week, having returned to Cincinnati on Saturday from a week spent all along the beautiful, jagged coast of Maine.
Perhaps you can understand why. My mind is still reeling from now being 600 miles from the ocean when not long ago I was always in sight of the Atlantic.
During that week I remained blissfully unaware of news and current events, my mind preoccupied with drinking in as much of the coastal scenery as possible and finding the next lobster roll. That included baseball—most of Red Sox country has long since dismissed this iteration of their team, save Big Papi’s pursuit of 500 career homers and Joe Kelly, certified public accountant. Far away from the shrill din of the Brennamans, I could watch baseball without getting on edge about what it meant for next season.
Fortunately, Maine is far enough away from Boston to be shielded from their own extreme brand of hyperbolic reactions and worry. That buffer from the cacophony of WEEI at drive time is emblematic of Maine’s relation to the rest of the country—a lot of what is happening west of York County might as well be happening on the moon. What is there worth getting bent out of shape over when there are 3,478 miles of rocky harbors, coves, and coastline to breathe in and endless fresh seafood in every little hamlet situated on that coast?
But, there was a baseball lesson still to be drawn from this. I am a Red Sox fan first and foremost. And just as I drop my ‘r’s for ‘h’s and shorten my vowels when surrounded by my Down East Maine family, my adoration of Papi, Pedroia, and Fenway Park is revitalized whenever I step foot in New England again. And in the brief moments last week when I caught the Sox on TV while waiting for food or a beer, I got to thinking about the ephemeral nature of a “winning team”.
2013 is only two years behind us, but sports seasons have a sort of Fibonacci Sequence-like tendency to feel even more distant as they recede further into the past. As Boston stands on the precipice of its third last-place finish in four years, their World Series ring in the middle of that desert of losing baseball stands as a stark outlier.
Heading into the 2013 season, that club was largely ignored in preseason prognostications, with the best-case scenario seemingly a second-place finish in the AL East and maybe sneaking into a wild card spot. In retrospect, though they were incorrect in how Boston’s 2013 ended up, they weren’t exactly wrong about that team.
The Red Sox got great years out of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia to be sure, but that coincided with the best year of Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s career, Shane Victorino’s last good season, and, somehow, the perfect combination of Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, and Mike Carp manning left field. Mike Napoli somehow stayed healthy for 139 games. Another three-headed platoon (Will Middlebrooks, Stephen Drew, and Jose Iglesias) mostly took care of the left side of the infield and contributed 31 homers while batting .269.
Only in 2013 could a lineup often starting Drew, Saltalamacchia, and Nava win 97 games, lead baseball in runs scored (5.3 R/G), and go 11-5 in the postseason on the way to a championship. Seriously, look at their numbers:
That’s a microcosm of every MLB season right there. Something we writers will call “luck”, “good timing”, or “a perfect storm”. Something we can only learn with a couple years of hindsight. Every championship is won not just by the perennial MVP candidate or All-Star, but also the one, two, or three guys who play a couple degrees better than everyone expected of them. Without them you don’t pull 97 wins and a division title out of a hat. Sometimes, you can see those seasons coming with their improvement over the years prior. Often, though, they’re a slowly-revealed surprise, provoking articles investigating how these improvements came to be.
These landmark seasons don’t happen by luck; they are developed quietly in the dimly-lit batting cages or during early afternoon BP. Players tinker and learn in those still hours between games. Sometimes it just all comes together at once for a team. That’s when they take you by surprise and spin a magical season when everything works out just right.
Thinking about this, watching a mostly-full Fenway Park showing up for their last place team just to see Ortiz get closer to .500 and maybe check in on how the young guys are cutting it, I felt oddly comforted. We don’t know when that next great season will come around, both here in Cincinnati and up in Red Sox country. The waiting, while slogging through a series of disappointing seasons, is never fun. But you never quite see the magical season coming that way, you guard yourself against the best-case scenario and temper your expectations.
And that is the fun part. Because someday in late August—be it a year or two or three from now—you’ll glance at the standings and you won’t be able to stop yourself from grinning. It will all come together, it will surprise most of us, and it will be one heck of a ride.