Nate’s take on Red Sox Nation’s reaction to Eric Gagne’s recent performances is spot on, but I want to extend the notion to the entirety of Red Sox fandom. This team had its playoff spot locked up three months ago, has run its business over the last three weeks with that in mind, and for some reason, there’s a notion afoot that their not winning the division would be some kind of disaster. It wouldn’t be. In fact, it wouldn’t matter at all, and if there’s any organization or fan base that should understand this, it’s the Red Sox.
Everywhere you turn, there are comparisons to 1978, which has about as much relevance to this season as the Lincoln/Douglas debates do to the current election cycle. In 1978, the Red Sox were caught by the Yankees for a division title and a postseason spot, back when the two were one and the same. That those two are not the same in 2007, and in fact, that the latter is more important than the former, should be obvious, but is being obscured by the wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. No, in the eight-team-playoff era, it really doesn’t matter how you get in the tournament, just that you do. The 2006 World Series was contested by teams that went 12-17 after August 31, one of which blew its division–but not its playoff spot–on the last three days of the season by being swept at home by the worst team in the league. The 2005 White Sox disappeared for six weeks in August and September before winning their title. The 2000 Yankees closed 13-20 before making their World Championship run. Seven of the last ten World Series teams started the postseason as a #3 or #4 seed in their leagues.
Then there was the 2004 Red Sox. If you’re one of the people up in arms about the possibility that the Sox might not win the division, let me ask you: does a division title mean more than a World Championship? Or for that matter, does a division title mean more than a victory in a best-of-seven series against the team that beat you over 162 games? I ask because, and it’s possible I missed this chapter in Mind Game, I don’t recall Red Sox fans walking around with hangdog looks in late October of ‘04, unable to enjoy the World Series victory because they’d advanced to the playoffs as the wild card. Perhaps the crushing disappointment of missing out on an AL East championship tainted all that came after, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many New Englanders. Perhaps Murph and Sully have closets full of T-shirts that read, “2004 World Champions* *(but we know we didn’t belong)”.
Or maybe not.
Think about 2004 for a second. I saw, read or heard any number of people, over the last couple of days, talk about the “psychological damage” that would result if the Red Sox didn’t win the division. There may have been one guy who looked like Freida from “Peanuts” involved.
I call bull****. What is more relevant to the guys in the Red Sox clubhouse? The experience of winning the World Series as the wild-card team in 2004, or the experience of a team 29 years ago, when many members of that clubhouse weren’t even born? I mean, really…walk into the Red Sox clubhouse, ask every player who Mike Torrez is and count the ones who know. I’ll set the line at 7 1/2 and bet the under all day. As fans, and certainly as bored media desperate for a story, we create this idea that organizational history matters to the players on the field. In fact, it doesn’t. David Ortiz isn’t going about his business sweating because the guys who occupied that clubhouse almost 30 years ago blew a big lead. Curt Schilling, whatever you may think of him, is smart enough to know that the 1978 Red Sox don’t mean a thing to the 2007 Red Sox. What, you think Manny Ramirez is somehow affected by all of this?
The Red Sox regular-season record matters for another ten days. After that, they and seven other teams will start a new season at 0-0, and all that will matter is winning three games before losing three. I didn’t build this system, and I certainly wouldn’t have if given the power, but that’s the way it works now. The regular season is the truest test of a team’s strength. Winning a division title should mean more than it does. Since 1995, however, baseball’s caretakers, baseball’s media and baseball’s fans have emphasized the postseason to a far greater extent than before, and because of that, I can say in no uncertain terms that winning a division title versus making the postseason as a wild card is a meaningless distinction.
So like I said….shut the hell up. You’re in, and your next relevant game will be October 3 or October 4 or November 16 or whenever the hell they pushed the Division Series back to for TV. Everything between now and then is an extended exhibition, and the Red Sox are acting accordingly.