This weekend was another one of those weekends when sports fans feel overwhelmed. The weekend started early, with Rutgers beating South Florida, which had been college football’s Cinderella team for a week. In other college football games, LSU beat Auburn on a touchdown pass with half a second to go. USC beat Notre Dame. But then, this year, everyone seems to be doing that. Ohio State and Boston College remained so far undefeated. Ohio State defeated Michigan State. BC didn’t play, which, in this lunatic season, is the only safe strategy.
In professional football, New England’s Tom Brady threw for seven touchdown passes in a win that didn’t quite prove the Patriots can beat anybody since they were playing the Dolphins, a team that has no wins, to date. The Broncos hung on Sunday night to beat the Steelers. This gave the people of Colorado further reason to celebrate, something to add to the jubilation over the Rockies having won the National League pennant earlier in the week, and setting up the possibility of a World Series game played in a snowstorm.
And speaking of baseball, on Sunday night, the Boston baseball team won the American League pennant. The Red Sox were once a loveable team with a history of futility just about unmatched in sports. Then they brought off the most remarkable comeback in the history of baseball. The details have been replayed so many times that it seems only charitable to spare readers one more rerun of David Ortiz swinging the bat and Curt Schilling bleeding into his sock. With their World Series win in 2004, the Sox were embraced by fans from sea to shining sea. There was something Oprah-esque about their journey on a long road of frustration that led, ultimately, to glory.
But that now seems long, long ago. The Sox are the over-dogs, now, and they almost play like it. They ran out ahead of the pack before the All-Star game then cruised home to a division championship. But if you watched them play in August and September, you saw more nonchalance than fire. In the off-season, they had spent lavishly for a pitcher from Japan who didn’t live up to his dollars and for an outfielder, J. D. Drew, whose middle name might have been “disappointment.” Still, Boston made it to the American League Championship Series. If they took four games, the pennant was theirs and it was on the Series.
Against Cleveland — a team that has been a long time wandering in the Wilderness and plays hungry — the Sox got behind 3 games to 1 and it looked like a fitting end to a season of complacency. But Josh Beckett pitched them to a win in game 5. J.D. Drew earned some of this money by hitting a grand slam in game 6. And the Daisuke Matsuzaka gave the Sox a few shaky innings while Dustin Pedroia, a rookie who plays with fire, got the crucial hits. The Red Sox are going back to the series, leaving the sports world to face the unpleasant possibility of Boston teams winning the World Series, the Super Bowl, and finishing as the top college football team in the land. Boston, of all places, does not deserve this. May the Rockies prevail in the thin Colorado air.
Meanwhile, in a jurisdiction a little south of Boston, another baseball team was making headlines. Not by playing baseball, mind you. Most years, the Yankees front office makes more news than the starting nine, and this off-season they are keeping that tradition vigorously alive. The Yankees lost their bid for the pennant when Cleveland took them out in six games. The stadium sweepers were still at work when the rumors started about how this could cost manager Joe Torre his job. Actually, when the Yanks fell behind to Cleveland, the Yankee Supremo, George Steinbrenner, was quoted in a newspaper story as saying that if Torre didn’t turn it around and get to the series, it would be a firing offense. Big George likes to fire people, especially managers, and he isn’t shy about it.
But simply the announcement that Torre would not be offered a new contract on the day after the loss to Cleveland would have generated only a day or two of headlines. If you are the marquee sports franchise in New York, headlines are as important as wins. Perhaps even more important.
So the Yankee brain trust deliberated, studied, and conferenced. One almost expected to hear that Henry Kissinger had been called in to testify. Finally, Torre was offered a one-year contract. The money was nice. Five million to walk out to the mound two or three times a week and signal for Mariano Rivera. And, if Mariano had his good stuff on most nights, and the Yankees won the pennant and got to the Series — even won it — then there were all sorts of incentive clauses that kicked in and could amount to another three million. Nice work if you can get it. The downside being that you would have to put up with Steinbrenner.
Torre turned down the contract which produced volumes of media noise. For once, it seems like it genuinely “wasn’t about the money.” Torre had just finished up on a three-year, $19.2 million contract that earned him $7.5 million. He called the new contract, “An insult.”
Incentives? Did they not think he was trying to win every night? Did he not agonize whenever it began to look like time to shuffle out to the mound and signal for Rivera? A man has his pride. And he had taken the Yankees to the post-season in each of his 12 season as managers. Four times, his team had won the World Series.
Some new Steinbrenner — who is, presumably, young enough that he will be around, firing managers and providing the press with material for a long time to come — insisted that the Yankees hadn’t meant the contract as an insult at all and that they really, really wanted Joe back, and blah, blah, blah. Then he added some stuff about how Torre had been nowhere and a nobody before his daddy hired him, implying that Torre needed to demonstrate a little gratitude.
All in all, not the tawdriest sports story of the season. Just sad. While the Colorado Rockies, the year’s Cinderella team, are going to the World Series on a remarkable run of 21 victories in their last 22 games, the Yankees are sniping at each and doing their usual best to take the fun out of baseball. Wouldn’t it be nice, the old-fashioned fan thinks, if those guys would just shut up about the money and play some baseball. But they won’t have the opportunity to play for quite awhile. Because, of course, they lost.
AUTHOR’S CORRECTION: That was six touchdown passes for Brady. There were so many, and so many replays, that one lost count.
— Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.