Did you ever think you'd see the day when people would actually be pulling for the Yankees
By Jerry Crasnick
The Boston Red Sox have brought hope to a baseball-crazed region with their shaved heads, aggressive style of play and the ever-popular slogan, "Cowboy Up!"
But what resonates with Sid from Saugus doesn't always fly with the competition. Some people in the business would prefer the Red Sox stow the cowboy hats and, rather than Cowboy-ing up, just shut up and play.
The Red Sox's exuberance, irrational or otherwise, is lending a strange twist to the American League Championship Series: They're prompting some baseball executives to actually contemplate rooting for the Yankees.
ESPN Insider interviewed two American League general managers, an assistant GM and a National League scout, and they placed the bulk of the blame for Saturday's ALCS brawl on Boston. In the estimation of one observer, that was no surprise.
"The Red Sox haven't handled themselves well as a group," said one American League GM. "When they clinched the wild card, they acted like they won the World Series. Then they beat Oakland and you've got (Derek) Lowe throwing his arm in the air and gesturing at his Johnson. I'm tired of the hugging and tired of their act, to be honest with you. It's like they don't know how to win, and they don't know how to lose."
As with most urban legends, some of the animosity is rooted in fact and some in hearsay. Lowe, replays show, smacked his thigh in celebration after recording the final out of the Division Series against Oakland. It was hardly excessive and a far cry from obscene, regardless of what Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada thought he saw.
After the Red Sox won the wild card, they partied like crazy on the field. Then Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, Gabe Kapler, Lou Merloni and Lowe showed up at a tavern down the street from Fenway, pouring cold drafts and mingling with Norm Petersons and Cliff Clavins by the score.
Over the top? Perhaps. But the fans sure loved it. And if we're going to rip today's players for being aloof, should we criticize them for excessive interaction with the people who pay their salaries?
Pedro Martinez yells at Karim Garcia after hitting him with a pitch Saturday.
Spraying champagne and dispensing high-fives in abundance is one thing. But anti-Red Sox sentiment was ratcheted up a notch on Saturday thanks to the hijinks of Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez.
Martinez was barely getting by and looking to establish his fastball when he threw a pitch at Karim Garcia's head in the fourth inning. Nasty? For sure. But of all the people in the world to be moralizing about it, the Yankees, who employ Roger Clemens, rank near the back of the pack.
It's also tough to fault Martinez for acting instinctively and pulling Don Zimmer to the ground during the bench-clearing brawl. It's not often you look up and see a 72-year-old man charging at you with fists-a-flying.
"I saw that and had flashbacks of Curly on the Three Stooges," said the same A.L. GM.
Martinez's worst transgression, baseball insiders agree, came between those two incidents, when he pointed his finger at his head and gestured threateningly at Yankees catcher Jorge Posada that he was next on the hit list. Martinez's intent was clear, no matter how he's spinning it now.
"What Pedro did there, I lost a lot of respect for him," said a second A.L. general manager. "It's one thing to be thinking something. When he went beyond the verbal and used body language, that was dangerous. He opened it up for everything that took place after that."
Martinez is an intriguing character. He's funny, thoughtful and engaging, and simultaneously thin-skinned, petulant and a born provocateur. When he was breaking in as Ramon Martinez's 160-pound little brother, he cultivated a reputation as a headhunter to make hitters step lightly in the box.
Now that Martinez has lost 4-5 mph off his fastball, it's almost as if he's regressed to his youth. Maybe he's frustrated that he's nearing the end of a huge contract and, with every mile-per-hour lost, the prospect of another long-term deal is dwindling. You can only imagine how testy things will get next year, when the innings pile up and Martinez approaches free agency with no new deal. They're calling him "Diva Pedro" in Boston right now. Lord knows what they'll be saying in 2004.
Ramirez is another story. Bring up his childish antics in a press box, dugout or clubhouse, and they typically elicit a shrug and the comment "That's just Manny being Manny." Manny was certainly being Manny when he stood and watched his Game 5 homer off Barry Zito in the Division Series and pointed to his teammates in the dugout.
But even Ramirez's fellow Red Sox seemed embarrassed that he precipitated a brawl Saturday on a pitch that missed him by at least a foot.
"If that were a regular season game instead of the playoffs, Clemens would have smoked him," said our second A.L GM.
"He showed fear," said the N.L. scout. "You have to wonder if teams won't start pitching him like that more often now."
Some of the anti-Red Sox sentiment is directed toward Theo Epstein, baseball's youngest GM. There's an element of jealousy among older front-office officials who believe Epstein rose too far, too fast, to achieve a position of such prominence. That's their problem, not his.
But Epstein got off to a rough start last winter when he claimed Millar on release waivers and interfered with a Florida Marlins deal to send Millar to Japan.
"There's a tacit message that you don't claim players in that situation," said the assistant GM to whom we spoke. "Theo burned some bridges with the Millar thing."
The Red Sox aren't popular with the scouting fraternity because they're in the Billy Beane "Moneyball" camp. The difference is the Red Sox, unlike the Athletics, actually have money. While the John Henry-Tom Werner-Larry Lucchino ownership group has won points locally for its efforts to reach out to fans, the Sox owners are viewed as smug, know-it-all types in some quarters.
That's in contrast to George Steinbrenner, who has spent decades and worked extremely hard to establish himself as baseball's premier blowhard.
Perception, of course, is largely a product of the images the media helps create. The Yankees, with the exception of David Wells, don't have any free spirits on the roster. They're professional, businesslike and boring.
Nomar Garciaparra, who's professional, businesslike and boring, would make a great Yankee. Conversely, if you put Jason Giambi in a Red Sox uniform and gave him the freedom to grow his hair and wear a beard, he'd "cowboy up" with the best of them.
In Saturday's fiasco at Fenway, five people wearing uniforms had cause to be embarrassed. Our assistant GM pointed out that the three Yankees were an aging setup man (Jeff Nelson), a spare outfielder (Garcia) and a septuagenarian coach who couldn't remember if he was on the set of "Raging Bull" or "On Golden Pond." Support players, all.
The Boston players who overreacted made a combined $33 million this year and have been to 13 All-Star Games. Some example. "I didn't see Bernie Williams or Derek Jeter getting in any trouble," said the assistant GM. "They know how to carry themselves."
The Dwight Evans-Jim Rice Red Sox were never accused of over-the-top behavior. Then again, the Red Sox of old were always accused of lacking camaraderie.
These new Red Sox are passionate and colorful enough to make their fans embrace them. But they're playing to mixed reviews in the baseball world.
"The Yankees have this quiet class and professionalism," said the second GM. "The Red Sox are different. They're a bunch of grinders. They have beards, baggy pants and a mystique that puts them in a different category. In my mind, it's sort of judgmental to say, 'You can't.'