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Elman Swings
by Peter Elman

It Could Be Worse… - 08/19/2004

Reflections on a Birthday, by Pete Elman

“When I woke up this morning…” And with those words from the gone but not forgotten Los Gatos group, We Five, I entered my 54th year. Birthdays are supposed to be joyous and festive, but this one is sort of lying there, waiting for a revelation to grab hold of the psyche and turn loose torrents of inspiration. Having just returned from our annual summer pilgrimage to Cape Cod, now is as good time as any to jot down my thoughts about the East Coast, the Athletics, and, of course, the annual passion play—I mean Greek tragedy--commonly known as the Boston Red Sox.

Being back East is always fun. If nothing else it is a wake-up call for us pampered and complaining expatriates, reminding us how good we have it in northern California. As soon as you steer the rent-a-car out of Logan Airport onto Route 3, the first thing you notice is your hands clamming up on the wheel, because some local in a giant SUV is glued to your tail while you’re going 70 in the fast lane. It is not for nothing that Bay Staters have the reputation as the worst drivers in the world. But then you stop for lobster roll and clam chowder, and all is forgiven. And of course there are the trees—miles and miles of green, a nice change for us Californians.

The feeling I get going over the Cape Cod Canal is special, the sea smell recalling those wonderful Augusts I spent there as a youth. Last week my son and I took in a Cape Cod (minor) League game under the lights in the town of Orleans. It was like something out of “The Natural”, small-town hardball on a summer night, watching college kids (mainly from the South) playing with wooden bats for the first time. The games are predictably low-scoring affairs, and the hometown fans—especially the teenage girls--love it, supporting their boys of summer, very few of whom will ever play above this level.

After an idyllic ten days of seafood and surf we took off for New York City, and found ourselves driving right into the northern edge of Hurricane Charley. I forgot how hard it rains back there. After a grueling six hours on I-95, and with the help of my son’s back road navigating, we staggered into the little burg of Hastings-on-Hudson, home of my sister-in-law. As we regrouped on her living room floor I looked out the picture window and beheld the mighty Hudson in all its glory. What a sight! I closed my eyes and imagined Natty Bumpo and his band of Mohicans canoeing up the river, with Washington Irving on the shore road, following Ichabod Crane up to Tarrytown where he would have his date with the Headless Horseman. No shortage of history there. like baseball. The next morning we took the train into Manhattan for our Big Apple fix and had a wonderful time, cramming as much as we could into two days. The highlight for me was old St. Paul’s Church, one block from Ground Zero, where George Washington prayed for the Union after his inauguration in 1789. The church, which miraculously withstood the damage on 9/11, is now a shrine to those souls who died and those who volunteered after that fateful day. Something about the juxtaposition of those two events in the same place was eerie and incredibly patriotic.

Weather, food, space, scenery and lifestyle—you could say we have the edge over the Easterners. But the biggest contrast seems to be the people, who are as different as night and day. An ungodly number of them smoke, and don’t be saying, “Hello, have a nice day”. After a couple of weeks back there I invariably ask myself the same question—why are so many of them rude and cold? We may be shallow granola eaters whose idea of architecture is a strip mall, but it could be worse—we could be fending off mosquitoes, hurricanes, ice storms, crazy motorists and foul-mouthed Yankee fans.

Back in Oakland and back to reality…my pre-season playoff prediction is still in the ballpark. It looks like it will come down to the Red Sox, the Angels and the A’s for the last two playoff spots. A quick look at today’s box scores confirms the hierarchy in the AL. In the Yankees come-from-ahead-then-behind 13-10 victory over the Twins, the closers’ lines read as follows: Cy Young candidate Joe Nathan, who had not allowed a run in 29 innings: 2/3 inning, four hits, one walk three runs and the loss. Mariano Rivera: one inning, no run, no hits, three K’s (on 10 pitches) and his 41st save. Enough said.

I continue to maintain (and cross my fingers) that the Rangers will wilt, either from the Texas heat, Buck’s hot-headedness or just plain ol’ karma. And what will it take for our beloved Oakland team to get over the hump? Well, let’s begin by cloning Durazo. And start thinking seriously about resting Jermaine Dye and his battery of chronic injuries, for another. And admit that Bobby Crosby, bless his heart, looks like he’s hit the wall and should be cut some rookie slack—after all, he is still flashing leather on a regular basis. For all of their problems, the A’s offense still functions, thanks to the lefties--Hatteberg, Kotsay, Chavez and Erubiel. They are not the Cardinals. The A’s have never, in the Beane era anyway, been known for their hitting.

It’s the pitching, stupid. The more things change, the more they stay the same. While Zito continues to struggle and Mulder shows signs of tiring (despite 16 wins), often-criticized Mark Redman and fast-improving Rich Harden continue to give the Athletics the best bottom of rotation in the league. And look who’s back--the Alabama bulldog, 160 pounds dripping wet, slinging splitters with a rebel-like vengeance, letting the world—and, more importantly, his teammates—know that whatever happens it will be over his dead body, or arm, or oblique. When Miggy left, it was Hudson who filled the leadership void, and who better? With Rhodes back in his comfortable setup role, Bradford coming off the DL, and Dotel settling down (at least temporarily), the bullpen is where it needs to be. And don’t forget about the underrated league-leading defense anchored by Miller and Kotsay. Beane, once again, has the A’s poised for the playoff run, and who knows, maybe this could be the year. Hey, it could be worse…(think 1993-1998)

And then there’s the Red Sox. There are 20 million New Englanders whose birthright is to suffer every year when the weather—and their hopes—gets warm, then hot, then cool, and finally ice-cold. Being in Massachusetts in August and experiencing their pain first-hand is not just intriguing—it’s entertaining. Whether it’s Dan Shaughnessy’s brilliant coverage in the Boston Globe or the antediluvian radio broadcasters on WBZ—where talk show fans blame the Red Sox struggles on personal hygiene, unmatched sock height and facial hair—it’s high drama. Their desperation has reached such depths that fans are suggesting that since Kapler’s first name rhymes with the Babe, somehow that is going to take them to the promised land. There is something unique about being there when the drama is unfolding.

When Nomar “Hamm” (as Jim Rome calls him) was dealt to the Cubbies it started a war which continues to rage, and if the Sox get shut out of the playoffs heads will roll. The team brass will join the Splendid Splinter in the freezer, the Charles River will run red, and the Salem witch trials will be resurrected with Theo Epstein as John Proctor. In the fresh aftermath of the trade that shook the faithful, everyone took sides—either you thought that young Epstein should be marched to the gallows or “Nomah” had shown his true California colors, acting like an ungrateful, jaking sourpuss, which is hard to believe given his godlike status there.

It wasn’t until two weeks ago that the real story surfaced, that Garciaparra had hurt his Achilles in a feverish game of winter soccer with his beloved Mia and didn’t have the courage or strength of character to confess to Epstein, Terry Francona and owner John Henry the truth. So he made up this tale about getting hit by an errant first-day-of-spring training batting practice line drive off the bat of nobody that nobody remembered hitting and nobody saw. And now Nomar, seemingly healthy and batting a tidy .328 with the Cubbies, is shortstop non grata in New England, and the Red Sox are in the middle of a nice little winning streak, courtesy of the fading-fast White Sox and the pathetic Blue Jays, both of whom will play the Bosox again this week. And then they get the Tigers—it’s fair to say that the Sox better make hay while the sun shines, because in September it will get rougher, with series against the A’s and Angels and a six-pack against the evil empire.

Mark my words, it will come down to the last weekend, and I think it will be the wild-card seeking Red Sox who will decide who goes on and who goes home. Either way, it doesn’t really matter, because whether it’s the playoffs, the division series, the ALCS or the World Series, the Red Sox will find a way to break hearts. Veteran Red Sox fans are resigned to the inevitable, and the possible scapegoats (Manny, Lowe, Nomar, Epstein?) are already being fitted for collars and tar-and-feather suits. What the Red Sox did to the A’s in the playoffs last fall was nothing compared to what the Yankees did to the Sox two weeks later. After our own October debacle at Fenway, people are saying that the A’s can’t get past the first round. But there’s a big difference—86 years worth. If the A’s lose, well it stinks, but it isn’t the end of the world (see baseball fans, Boston). I, for one, am glad I don’t have to live with that albatross around my neck.

As we head into the last quarter of yet another season, the fortunes of the A’s are yet again in the hands of the baseball gods, who may be somewhat distracted by a national election which some say is the most important of our lifetime. But in-between the accusations, debates and last-minute dirty tricks, we may see some magic on the diamond. As the Marlins can attest, once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. So, diehard fans of the green and gold, count your blessings and hope for the best.

I work out at the Berkeley YMCA, and this morning I ran into one of my fellow regulars, former East Bay legend and Red Sox infielder Pumpsie Green. We got to talking about how every August the Red Sox tease their fans, and Pumpsie, in his own inimitable stoic way—he oughta know—reminded me that, “It’s all right—they’re still the Red Sox.” Yes, A’s fans, it could be worse…

Willy Elman contributed to this column.

by Peter Elman


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