Joe Garagiola, the late catcher and broadcaster, submitted that “Baseball is a Funny Game” in his book of the same name in 1960. He also described why it is arguably the scariest.
“Baseball gives you every chance to be great,” Garagiola wrote. “Then it puts pressure on you to prove that you haven’t got what it takes. It never takes away the chance, and it never eases up on the pressure.”
No team in the century-plus history of the Boston Red Sox two-stepped with greatness from April to September like this year’s edition. October is the flip side of that two-edged sword, of course. No previous Fenway nine has entered the only month that matters bearing so much weight on its shoulders.
That’s worrisome on multiple fronts.
Not many harvest moons ago there was no means of comparison. Today, every adult Sox sympathizer, at least, can leaf through the memory bank and find three unforgettable scripts for how this movie is supposed to play out.
There was zero pressure in 2004. Eighty-six years of star-crossed, seventh-game swoons ensured that. The Yankees were “daddy,” and the dynasty du jour after a two-decade lull of their own that paled by comparison.
It was they who carried the 101 wins, the 10 1/2-game lead in mid-August and the three-games-to-nil advantage in mid-October. In other professional sports, that stuff’s mystique. In baseball, it’s baggage. From hot stove season to trade deadline, the 2004 Sox front office buttressed the previous season’s band of self-proclaimed idiots who had nothing to lose with consummate pros who wouldn’t let them.
Boston’s 2007 encore was the team most reminiscent of this year’s club. With 95 wins, it was essentially the wire-to-wire leader in a period of far greater parity than this one.
There were starting pitching questions: Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield started every fifth day, all season long. There were bullpen questions: Kyle Snyder, Javier Lopez and 88-year-old Mike Timlin were in charge of setting up Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon. And the lineup lived off nickels and dimes in a dollar-bill world: Only David Ortiz hit more than 21 home runs.
Then again, nobody of the current Cubs’ and Dodgers’ caliber awaited on the other side. Hard to recall a modern championship-round participant in any of the four major team sports weaker than that year’s Colorado Rockies and their anti-gravity, baseball storage humidor.
Round three was the kind of title lesser teams used to win at the Red Sox’ expense. It was simply a collection of yawn-inspiring, not-even-a-little-sexy acquisitions (Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia) that somehow meshed. Oh, and Ortiz. Much in the same way if this team is fortunate enough to win one for the pinkie, we’ll say, “Oh, and J.D. and Mookie.”
Those synopses (as if you’d forgotten) should serve as both an encouraging reminder and frightening cautionary tale that all World Series champions are flawed. Because baseball is merely a game of timely successes tucked inside a cocoon of consistent failures.
For all their blemishes — and they’re surprisingly easy to find on the face of this team that could win 110 games, depending upon how many it chooses to tank this week — the Sox have earned the title of favorite to win at all.
When healthy, Chris Sale has the most electrifying arm in baseball, and Alex Cora was better at kid-gloving the lanky lefty than the ex-pitcher and ex-manager who should have known better, John Farrell.
As for the lineup, either the Sox will have two of the top three finishers in the American League MVP tally, or a whole bunch of people should have their voting privileges revoked.
Each of the three preceding championship teams had arguably the best closer in baseball that year, and Craig Kimbrel follows the footsteps of Keith Foulke, Papelbon and Uehara in that parade.
And finally, in this area of analytics, it comes down to sheer math. Eleven wins and eight losses are good enough to win the title. A winning percentage of .579 seems attainable for a team that’s floating along at .677.
Then again, the Yankees and Astros both have a shot at triple-digit triumphs, while the aforementioned big dogs of the NL each played at that clip after sleepwalking through the first half.
And let’s not forget last year’s Cleveland Indians, who won 102 games but were ousted by the Yankees in the Division Series. Or that eight of the other 15 teams to hit the century club since the turn of the century failed to survive that best-of-five round.
The funniest of games creates the largest sample, then rolls out a postseason format designed to render it meaningless.
Enjoy watching that meter for one more week, Sox fans. Celebrate wherever it lands. Admire it before it resets a day later and is apropos of nothing.
Whether we remember ’18 as a great season or simply a really, really good one gets measured on a completely different scale.
— Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun-Journal sports department. He has been sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic since July 2016. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.