posted: Sep. 13, 2005  |  Feedback

With rookie Jon Papelbon standing on the mound during a tie Red Sox game Monday night, I called my buddy Hench just to tell him, "This is the single biggest moment of the season."

Strange prediction, since they were playing the Blue Jays, but here was my logic: Boston's bullpen, as presently constituted, cannot win three straight playoff series. It's impossible. You know how they always use the saying "lights-out" for an effective reliever? Well, Boston's bullpen has been lights-on for five months and counting.

Historically, no team in the modern baseball era has captured a World Series with a group of relievers this statistically inept. As it stands right now, the Red Sox have one decent reliever (Mike Timlin) who's not even that good ... and he's the closer. Former closer Keith Foulke pushed his body too far last October and hasn't been remotely the same since -- I wish people would remember this when they decide to rip him, but that's a whole other story. Last year's lefty stopper (Alan Embree) pitches for the Yankees, where he's helped the Red Sox more in the past month than he did in the previous four. Nobody else really matters. In October, "Brandon" (that's what announcers have been calling him) Arroyo moves to the pen as a set-up guy, giving the Sox another decent arm (although he's the ultimate hit-or-miss guy).

Here's what was missing: A young stud who could come in, throw some heat and make batters swing and miss. And the only guy who fit the bill was Papelbon. Long considered one of the organization's top prospects, he came up in July and pitched a couple of decent starts (Varitek went out of his way to rave about him), went back to the minors, returned to throw a beauty in Anaheim (6.2 shutout innings), then moved to the bullpen (where he pitched in college). And the makeup is there -- Papelbon throws between 93 and 95 with a kick (his fastball hops up), and he struck out the side against the Devil Rays two weeks ago. He also carries himself like Seagal in "Under Siege" -- quiet, confident, doesn't seem fazed by anything. So you knew we were reaching the "All right, this kid is either going to be a factor or not" point with him.

Monday night? It happened. Arroyo self-destructed in the seventh, blowing a five-run lead with help from Foulke (downright sad to watch) and Francona's goofy, Jamesian decision to bring in Timlin (who promptly gave up a game-tying bomb). After Timlin threw 24 pitches through the eighth, Francona didn't have a choice -- we had to find out about Papelbon once and for all. So the kid comes out for the ninth, throws two hitless innings, gets the obligatory go-ahead homer from Big Papi in the top of the 11th -- seriously, this is getting ridiculous, he's like the Dominican Roy Hobbs at this point -- then effortlessly retires the side in the bottom of the 11th for the win. Forty-five pitches, no hits, one baserunner, one strikeout.

And here's what we found out: In October, when everything slows down, when the tension mounts, when weaker players fold and stronger players thrive, only a handful of relievers can handle the shift in pressure. We didn't know if Papelbon was one of them; now we know that he has it in him. There's also a precedent here, because Calvin Schiraldi came out of nowhere during the '86 season and helped propel that team in the playoffs (everyone forgets this now because of what happened in October, but he was superb in the regular season before the Schiraldi Face made its debut in the Angels series). And as recently as 2002, the Angels wouldn't have won the World Series without K-Rod giving them a boost in September.

Can it happen with Papelbon? After watching Monday's game, I say yes.

And as strange as this sounds, the 2005 Red Sox can't win the World Series without him.

One more baseball note: I was reading Peter Gammons' column Monday when he casually mentioned that St. Louis' Chris Carpenter was the best starter in baseball right now. Thinking it was a typo, I checked out his stats ... I mean, he's on pace for an $11 million season right now! Who knew? Then I looked at his career stats and noticed two things. First, he's 30. Second, he's never even come close to approaching this. Other than Mike Scott's ungodly 1986 season, has there ever been another situation like this before?

So I e-mailed Holy Cross grad Dan McLaughlin, who used to write the "Baseball Crank" column for my old Web site and continues to write for Here was Dan's response (and please note that it took him over an hour, he's clearly slipping in his old age):

"Well, Scott is the obvious parallel. There's a bunch of examples of less dramatic turnarounds by guys who were inconsistent or injury-prone in their 20s (Mike McCormick, Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling, Mike Cuellar, Bob Tewksbury), were previously relievers (Wilbur Wood, Hank Aguirre), pitched OK and got huge run support (Steve Stone) or just didn't get a shot in the majors until they were past 30 (Dazzy Vance, Spud Chandler, Sal Maglie). Carpenter's just 30 and was 15-5 last year with a 121 ERA+ [3.46 actual ERA] and 7.52 K/9, so he did build up to this a bit, although I don't think anyone predicted this after he broke down (yet again) at the end of last year (me, I've been arguing for years that he should be converted to a closer due to his fragility). But there are a few other, similar examples besides Scott (I could be forgetting someone -- I didn't exactly do a systematic study -- but I don't think so):

1. If you look at the top 10 most similar pitchers to Carpenter entering 2005 on, you'd find Jason Schmidt at No. 9. Schmidt's career-bests through age 29 were 13 wins, a 3.45 ERA and 196 K, all set or matched at age 29 (his age-29 season is quite similar to Carpenter's). At 30, Schmidt went 17-5, 2.34 ERA, 208 K, pitching comparably to Carpenter, if winning a few less games and throwing a few less innings. Other than Scott, he's probably the most similar one.

2. Bucky Walters, through age 29, had career bests of 15 wins (at age 29) and a 4.17 ERA. At 30, he went 27-11 with a 2.29 ERA and won the MVP Award for the '39 Reds; other than Scott, he's probably the most similar case.

3. John Tudor's career bests were 13 wins and a 3.27 ERA, until at age 31 he posted the 1.93 ERA in 275 innings and won 21 games for the '85 Cards. Getting out of Fenway and getting Ozzie behind him had a lot to do with that.

4. Dave Stewart's career high in wins through age 29 was 10, and he'd never tossed 200 innings before. Stewart at 30 started the string of four consecutive 20-win seasons, although he didn't instantly dominate the league."

So there you go. In case you didn't realize it before, I am very, very, very, very secretly a baseball stat dork but have successfully weaned 98 percent of that habit out of my body. The other two percent is still fascinated by this stuff. Anyway, thanks to the Crank.

One note from Monday night's Eagles-Falcons game: How could it take John Madden until the final drive of the fourth quarter to wonder if that hellacious hit on Donovan McNabb in the first quarter was still affecting him? Jeez, you think so? What tipped you off, the 10-12 passes that were way off the mark, the fumble, the interception and horrendous screen pass that became a backwards lateral fumble, the fact that he didn't scramble the entire game, or the fact that he looked like he had just eaten some bad seafood for three straight hours?

Look, I think Madden is the best football announcer of all-time, and unlike some other aging announcers who mangle names and don't do their homework anymore -- yes, I'm dying to drop one person's name here, but they won't let me (although I left a clue earlier in this posting) -- Madden isn't guilty of either of those things. But how can you not comment on something that basic? And where was Michaels on this? McNabb is banged up to the point that Michaels said one of the most horrifying sentences in gambling history ("Koy Detmer is warming up for the Eagles") and comes back into the game at the last minute ... and the whole sequence is never mentioned again until the Eagles' final drive, despite mounting evidence that McNabb was off his game?

(Note: In the playoff game against the Falcons last year, McNabb scrambled 10 times for 32 yards. Last night? One scramble, no yards. Nobody mentioned this, either.)

Finally, today's sports book recommendation...

A few weeks ago, you may remember how I poked fun at the "Best American Sports Writing" series and its increasingly sappy direction. Here's what I wrote:

"It's like how the Oscars nominates the same types of dramas every year and ignores anything else that's successful. That used to be a fantastic book -- not only did I look forward to it every year, I own every version since the late-1970s -- and now reading that thing is like attending a film festival where they show a Holocaust movie, followed by a Depression movie, followed by a civil-rights movie, and so on. Many of the stories don't even have anything to do with the major sports anymore; for instance, if you're a blind, club-footed, diabetic, hemophiliac long-distance runner in Cambodia, and somebody did a piece on you in a major magazine, and you didn't end up in this book, you really need to reevaluate things. But that's a whole other story."

The next day, editor Glenn Stout was nice enough to e-mail me, and we had a lively exchange about what I wrote (to his credit, Glenn didn't take it personally). According to Glenn, he narrows the field down to 75-80 potential picks every year, then sends those pieces to the guest editor, who ends up making the final choices on what ends up in the book. Fair enough. Glenn also sent me an advance copy of the 2005 book by guest editor Mike Lupica, who chose 29 pieces in all. And you would think these pieces would offer some common reflection over the sports year as a whole, right?

Of course not. The first three choices are weighty pieces about an embattled Mexican high school track team, an embattled Compton football team and Ken Caminiti's death. So we're off to a happy start. As it turns out, probably two-thirds of the book is ultra-serious and depressing (rape, steroids, Pat Tillman, you name it), with some other bizarre choices that speak for themselves (including four fishing pieces and two about Howard Cosell). Astoundingly, nothing from or ESPN The Magazine made the book -- I'm glad future generations will think the ESPN empire took the year off from publishing a single worthwhile piece -- although Sports Illustrated was represented five times. Even more astoundingly, Chris Jones' jaw-dropping Ricky Williams profile in Esquire -- which was the most entertaining piece I read last year, hands down, with nothing else coming close -- didn't even make honorable mention. How is that possible?

(Note: You would think somebody had to have written a worthy piece at some point during the Red Sox-Yankees series, which finished with one of the most memorable four-day stretches in the history of sports, right? Nothing made the cut. For instance, I made honorable mention for my piece about Game 5 of the ALCS, which was nice of them ... but if that piece was the best thing anyone wrote about the ALCS, it should have made the book. If somebody else topped it, he should have made the book. Seriously, how can you not have one piece about the ALCS in a book about the best sportswriting in 2004? Lupica even spends a page in his introduction remembering the Dave Roberts game, which he calls "the biggest comeback story in the history of sports" and adds, "Columnists live for a moment like that." I agree. So you're telling me that there wasn't a single writer in the country who wrote anything memorable about that game or the next three?)

Not every choice was bad, obviously -- I was happy to see Tom Verducci's excellent SI piece about Red Sox fans make the cut, as well as Jon Wertheim's well-reported feature about Roscoe Tanner's scummy life (count me among the growing number of Wertheim fans, his tennis stuff is truly superb, and I don't even like tennis), and I even enjoyed the piece about Mexican runners (if only because Gary Smith wrote it). Even David Shields' Cosell piece was excellent (and far superior to the other Cosell piece that was inexplicably chosen for the book). This stuff is subjective to a degree, so you might like some of these choices more than I did. But overall? It's the sappiest "BASW" yet. In fact, I think that's how they should promote these books: "If you thought last year's book was sappy, think again -- this is the sappiest 'BASW' book yet!"

Do I recommend it? Yes. I always recommend "BASW" for anyone who cares about sportswriting, no matter how inexplicable the choices are, and it's certainly the only book of its kind. There will always be five or six pieces worth your time. If there's a flaw in the system that Glenn currently uses, it's that he gives the guest editor waaaaaaaaaay too much power (after all, everyone likes different things) and opens the door to some obvious conflicts of interest (just about every guest editor manages to include pieces from some of their friends and/or favorite colleagues, which demeans the process). I also think they should pick the top 10 sports stories of each year and run the best column or feature about each of them, just so there's some cohesive perspective on the year that just passed.

Anyway, if you want to buy the 2005 book, go ahead. But for this week's "best sports book" recommendation, I'm selecting the 1994 edition of the "BASW," which was edited by Thomas Boswell and features a murderer's row of pieces, including five transcendent ones that rank among the most memorable of the last 25 years: Bruce Bushel's hatchet job of Lenny Dykstra playing at a baccarat table in Vegas; Gary Smith's unforgettable piece on a dying Jim Valvano; John Ed Bradley's piece on Buster Douglas' post-Tyson fall; Davis Miller's essay about meeting Muhammad Ali (which was so good, he was able to extend it into a book); and Charlie Pierce's profile of Magic Johnson, post-AIDS (my favorite Pierce piece ever, and he's written some good ones). All five of those pieces are twice as good as anything in this year's book, and they're about sports figures that people actually know. At least 8-10 other pieces are worth your time, including Susan Orlean's 25-page profile of schoolboy hotshot Felipe Lopez (much funnier to read now that we know how his career turned out). It's a true reflection of that sports year in every sense.

Sadly, there are only a few copies available online, although I'm sure every relevant used bookstore or library carries them. But the book is worth your time if you can find it.

Until tomorrow.

September 2005