April 3, 2000: “Your cleanup guy has a big day at the plate and your staff ace takes a shutout into the seventh inning, so you figure this should be a winning Opening Day. Well, wait a New York minute. That’s not quite the case, as our Padres found out Monday.”
So begins a report in Father John’s Diary at the San Diego Padres’ website (www.padres.com) that recounts the team’s loss on opening day to the Mets, despite a sterling performance by Mr. Hitchcock and a homer by Phil Nevin in his first at bat of the season.
We’re talking baseball again.
Not that fans ever really stop. The off-season is a tricky time. Those of us who cheer for teams besides the Yankees need a respite from our unrequited love, but at the same time, the winter is about prospects. It’s about every connotation of the word: rookies, new acquisitions, rising averages, the meaning of last year’s late-season surge, dreaming about surveying those below you from the top of the field. First place. Winning. Winning the World Series.
I’m a Red Sox fan (more on this later), but I’ve always liked the Padres. In Little League, in Warren, Vermont, I played for the Warren Padres. Our rivals were the Dodgers and the Braves. For a rural team, our Padres had some talent. I suppose our pitchers were young enough to tie in Little League, but they didn’t look it. I never saw them during the school year, and when the season started, they came from the hills. Big tobacco-chewing kids who could throw some heat. We had a first baseman named Babe. Parents drank beer at the games. My point is. I’ve been studying the Padres’ prospects for this season, and they could use some mountain-boy pitching and a Babe. Given the opportunity, Trevor Hoffman will save a game, but without a winning pitcher, he’ll be lucky to get 50 chances. And Ryan Klesko? Nice goatee and chops, but his .208 career average against lefties is sad. Ben Davis, though, is promising. Any player who does manage to steal on him will have to consider the possibility of a collision at the plate. That’s a prospect.
In the end, though, the Padres have nothing to worry about. They may not get the pennant again for several years, but at least they aren’t one of the “Big Four.”
I, for one, spent my off season at A Haven for the Diehard Sox Fan (www.redsoxdiehard.com), which offers a kind of succor for the team’s long-suffering congregation. In an essay at the site, Joel P. Beck writes, “As any well-read baseball fan knows, the teams that have gone the longest without earning a single World Series trophy are, in order, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Boston Red Sox, and the Cleveland Indians. They are better known in some circles as, simply, ‘The Big Four.’ ”
I’ve written about the Red Sox in this column before. I noted that the team’s official website (www.redsox.com) was of particular interest to the historian because of its fanciful history. The site makes almost no mention of the team’s tragedies. When confronted with the hard-hitting facts (last won the series in 1918, traded the Babe, Game Six in 1986, etc.), the site’s managers opted to pitch out and face a softer version of the story — pennants won, Ted Williams, sepia-toned photographs of Fenway.
A Haven for the Diehard Sox Fan, by contrast, is powered by avowal. It begins with a prayer from Habakkuk 1:2-3: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Then the Lord answered me and said: For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”
But this site serves as a testament to fandom no matter your team allegiance because it doesn’t wallow in the misery. As frustrated as we are, all Sox fans know what the above prayer means. By waiting so long, we’ve guaranteed that a championship will be revelatory and epiphanic. What the site also demonstrates is how the unrewarded fan uses numbers. There is so much whirling mystification in baseball — curses, superstitions, and coincidences — that to stay grounded, fans turn to numbers and statistics, which — in theory, anyway — don’t lie. What the Sox need more than most is some concrete indication that the team is worth following for another year. So at this site, you’ll find just as many numbers as sorrowful narratives. Look, for instance, at the page on our ace pitcher Pedro Martinez, who had one of the best seasons in history last year. Sports Illustrated predicted in its March 27 issue that his talent, and especially his attitude, were going to bring the Red Sox a World Series title this year.
But the Pedro page here says almost nothing about the man’s disposition. Plenty of characters populate Sox lore, but what the team’s fans are talking about now are the numbers. According to the site, this is who Pedro Martinez is: “Only the third major leaguer to win the Cy Young award in both leagues.... The fourth American Leaguer to win the award unanimously.... [In] 1999, went 23-4, with a 2.07 ERA and a club record 313 strikeouts.... Struck out 15 or more batters six times, including 17 in a one-hitter against the Yankees on September 10
Allowed only 37 walks (the lowest total in history for a member of the 300-strikeout club!) and gave up only nine home runs, none of them with runners on base.... ERA of 2.07 was 1.37 points lower than the 3.44 of league runner-up David Cone of the Yankees, and 2.80 lower than the league average.... Opponents batted a league-low .205 against him, 70 points below the league average.... Averaged 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings...five more a game than runner-up Finley, and his 1.6 walks per nine innings were just behind Gil Heredia of Oakland (1.5).”
That’s another prospect.