Friday, September 30, 2011

PHANTOM COLUMN: The Greatest Sox Team EVER

Postseason tickets printed and un-used are called phantoms. Here is my "phantom" Chin Music column from the now unpublished postseason issue of "Boston Baseball." And remember, if you still want to celebrate a championship, or celebrate Fenway Park see my new book, Fenway 1912. They win in this one.

At this time of year it is sometimes helpful to look back at the optimistic, crayola tinged predictions of the spring. Entering into this season more than one prognosticator deemed the 2011 Red the “the greatest ever” and predicted season win total of 100, 105 even (and, I kid you not, 120 wins. Oh, and that World Series thing? The tiniest of hurdles.

Those observers who have witnessed more than just the most recent decade know that, historically, things are generally not quite that easy. The title of “greatest Sox team ever” currently resides where it has for the last 99 years, with Fenway Park’s first residents, the boys of 1912. They went 105-47 in the regular season, plus a hard fought and memorable victory over the hated New York Giants in the eight game 1912 World Series that netted them another four wins (plus one tie) for a final victory total of 109.

This team, for all its accomplishments, is not that team, although there are some interesting parallels.

For one, both the 1912 and 2011 Red Sox featured a emerging star in centerfield who put together an MVP worthy season. Tris Speaker played centerfield for the 1912 Sox, hit .383 and led the team in almost everything, just as Jacoby Ellsbury is doing this year, although major difference is that Speaker ended up in Cooperstown and Ellsbury seems destined for Seattle when his contract ends. Then again, Speaker was dealt to Cleveland a few years after his MVP season.

Both clubs also featured a new first baseman, and here the candidates are Adrian Gonzalez for the 2011’s versus Jake Stahl for the ‘12s. And while Gonzalez has had a wonderful year, he was not quite Jake Stahl, who in addition to providing a bump offensively was also the 11’s Terry Francona and Tom Werner, serving both as manager and as a minority owner.

Now the metaphor starts to stretch, although both clubs employed a catching tandem consisting of one crippled veteran and one raw recruit, Varitek and Saltalamachia versus Rough Bill Carrigan and Hick Cady. Each also had an infielder with a surprisingly potent bat (Dustin Pedroia and Larry Gardner), and a left fielder who inspired nickname. Duffy Lewis of the 1912’s had a cliff nicknamed after him in the new Fenway. So too, has Carl Crawford inspired a name or too. Unfortunately, they are unprintable. In right, Hall of Famer Harry Hooper patrolled the field for ‘12’s – J.D. Drew was paid like a Hall of Famer to do the same for the ‘11’s, although here the metaphor begins to strain beyond belief.

It thoroughly falls apart on the mound. Smoky Joe Wood was 34-5 for ‘12’s. There is, to some surprise, his equivalent on the 11’s. In fact there are four, if you add up the positive qualities and victories of Beckett, Lester, Bard and Papelbon and ignore their failures. That’s how good Wood was in 1912. Take the Sox top four pitchers this year cumulatively, overlooks each bad game and you begin to approach Smoky Joe Wood.

Enough of similarities. The difference lies in, well, the difference. And that is in the unpredictable nature of reality versus prognostication. Greatness is potential realized and to be great you have to remain on the field. The ‘12’s, with the medical assistance of a bottle of iodine and (perhaps) a bucket of Epsom salts, stayed free of serious injuries for most of the season, losing only a few players for a few weeks (Ray Collins, Hick Cady and Jake Stahl) to injuries of the knees and ankles, while everyone else managed to play through things like charlie horses, abscessed teeth and hangovers with nary an antibiotic, PED or a cortisone shot in sight.

Not so with the 11’s, for which hangnails have taken on the specter of gloom once reserved for the grippe. The supposed “greatest Sox team ever” has been neither healthy nor particularly resilient or gallant, while the ‘12’s, for what I’ve learned about them, probably stitched wounds up with barbed wire. Just before the end of the season, for example, Larry Gardner dislocated a finger, the bone popping though the skin. A little over a week later, he was back on the field. That’s the kind of injury that would put J.D. Drew in intensive care for a month.

That is where the lesson lies and that’s what is so great about the postseason. It is the time of no excuses and where predictions vaporize before reality. To win, you actually have to play the games, and for this team, once known as “greatest Sox team ever” that means staying on the field. It is there, and not the disabled list, where the possibility of redemption and glory reside. While it may be too late for the ‘11s to be the greatest Sox team ever, a successful run in October could keep them from being the most disappointing.

Glenn stout is the author of Fenway 1912. For more see Glenn’s website,

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