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Elman Swings
by Peter Elman

Communique from the Cape; All-Star Day, 2002 - 07/09/2002

"Dad, I'm afraid the Red Sox are gonna win the World Series."

Those 12 words, uttered by my son Willy upon hearing of Ted William's death, may be the dagger in the hearts of A's fans. In my previous column I mentioned that I was headed to New England where I would gauge up close the status of the Sox and their incredibly loyal, long-suffering fans.

Well, here I am, cloistered in a gorgeous out-of-the-way corner of old Cape Cod, and raising my finger to the wind it's clear that things are different now that the Splendid Splinter has passed on. Not since prodigal son JFK was shot down in Texas has there been such an outpouring of emotion in the papers here. Saturday's Boston Globe devoted two entire sections to the memory of the "Kid" as he was known around these parts.

Ted Williams was born in 1918, not coincidentally the last time the Sox won the title, behind the left arm of one George Herman Ruth, traded away to resolve a gambling debt. In his entire storied--and controversial--career with Boston Williams never tasted the champagne. Perhaps now that he's gone (but cryogenically preserved!) the curse can finally be lifted.

I never knew what a complex individual Williams was until I pored over the many articles by the fine Boston writers, many of whom knew him well. The passion that New Englanders felt for the skinny kid from San Diego was staggering, and their unrequited love, which was not ultimately acknowledged until the all-star game in 1999, is something to behold. He was not only the greatest hitter of all time, but a bona fide American hero as well.

I feel lucky that as a kid growing up in Washington D.C. I saw him play at old Griffith Stadium, and later watched him manage the hapless Senators their last year in DC and their first year in Texas--where, fittingly, they died as a team and became the Rangers. Like fellow Boston icon Bill Russell, Williams' frustration trying to coach players who were never as talented as himself took its toll, and he wisely retired.

A look at the American League standings at the break show a markedly different Red Sox squad than seasons past. For one, they have speed, in the person of Johnny Damon, who has been as good for the Sox as he was bad for us, stealing bases, scoring runs and hitting .308 as he sits in the all-star dugout, beaming with pride. And don't be fooled by Rickey's .238 average--his Hall of Fame presence on that team has made a difference.

The defense is far better than last year, and the lineup is potent. With Manny Ramirez back and Tony Clark coming around, there are no visible holes. Pedro is dealing again with a vengeance--inspired no doubt by his detractors--and Derek Lowe has triumphantly completed the transition from closer to all-star starter. Tim Wakefield continues to be a presence as a long man, but the rest of the bullpen is suspect. Rich Garces is struggling and Ugueth Urbina, despite tantalizing stuff, is not Mariano Rivera. This could be the Red Sox Achilles' heel on an otherwise healthy body.

However, if there is such a thing as poetic justice in baseball, then this year might be the Sox' best chance for redemption. When the leaves start to change color around these parts, the faithful become rabid, and the collective voice of 20,000,000 Red Sox diehards will be elevated to a fever pitch. Fenway should be fun in September, and maybe...October.

One team that doesn't seem to have any ailments is the Yankees, of course. In a typically brazen and guilt-free show of arrogance, Brian Cashman, (no doubt at the behest of King George, who needs to exorcise the memory of last October) secured Raul Mondesi and Jeff Weaver in one week, giving away nothing. (Bye-bye, Carlos Pena) The Bombers now have the six starters they need (insurance) for the stretch run and the five-tool underachieving rightfielder with something to prove. The rich get richer and the rest of the league grovels for the scraps.

So where do the Athletics fit in? Coming off a bizarre week that saw them play seven consecutive one-run games, the A's have stopped hitting. Hopefully they're just tired from their incredible June streak. If not, then we have some serious problems. The acquisition of Ted Lilly is Billy Beane's response to Cashman--six is better than five, unless Lidle gets traded.

Offensively, the stars--Tejada, Chavez and Dye--have slowed down while the bench has picked up the slack. Led by John Mabry (.397!!) the veteran core of subs continues to rip the ball and keep the team in games. The common belief that our pitching will take care of things will be challenged severely in August and September. Last year's run featured great balance, and with much stiffer competition to make the playoffs, a consistent offense is crucial to the A's chances.

Anaheim continues to be a pesky thorn, but the A's should be able to surpass them in the standings and set their sights on the wild card. Seattle, like Boston, has no real holes in their lineup, and their defense and bullpen are superior to the A's. Don't count on the Mariners to fold--after the last two years they are as hungry and determined as ever.

As noted above, the Yankees are as close to a lock as you're gonna get this early. So who's left? The Red Sox, of course. The A's are only three 1/2 games behind them, five in the loss column, in other words, no problem, right? I'm not so sure. When I predicted last month that the Sox would fold, Williams was alive. Last year the Yankees had some genuine motivation after 9/11, and this season Nomar would like nothing more than to make good on his promise to the dying Williams that he would lead the Sox to the promised land.

Will the curse ultimately prove too strong? Can Uncle Art get the shaky Athletics on solid footing for the stretch run? Unfortunately, these and other intriguing questions will have to wait, because all-star host Bud Selig and the players' union are, once again, holding the national pastime hostage, this time with the threat of another strike. Dave Anderson of the NY Times has aptly called this the "all-stall" break. If there is a work stoppage, the goodwill that baseball has accumulated since 1994 will disappear in one fell swoop. After all, how many times can we fans summon up sympathy for a death match between millionaires and bilionaires?

Me, I was still happy to see Benedict Giambi beat out Sammy Sosa for the homerun derby title last night and defend the honor of the American League--even if he is a damn Yankee...

Cape Cod, Mass, July 9th, 2002


by Peter Elman

 

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