Rooting interest in some old rivals
Yankees-Red Sox, Yankees-Red Sox, Yankees-Red Sox, Yankees-Red Sox, Yankees-Red Sox, Yankees-Red Sox, Yankees-Red Sox. Enough is enough.
Since 1998, that's been the order of finish in the American League East. It's been the Filthy Rich Guys, followed by the Just Plain Rich Guys, with everyone else cashing welfare checks. You know what? It hasn't done us any good. What this Yankee-Red Sox thing has done is bring out all our worst qualities. We've become distressingly smug and condescending. We've developed an unbecoming arrogance. We act as if the Yankees and Red Sox constitute the only rivalry in baseball, as if the Cubs and Cardinals, Dodgers and Giants, and A's and Angels don't exist. Are you aware of how we look to the outside world? Well, in case you didn't know . . .
They hate us.
Yup, they hate us. They are sick of us, sick of the Yankees and Red Sox, sick of their unfair financial advantage, and, in case you don't believe me, just wait to see what the baseball world's reaction will be if September rolls around and there are three, possibly even four teams battling it out for the AL East. No one outside of this little sliver of the Northeast will be rooting for either the Filthy Rich Guys or the Just Plain Rich Guys. The rest of the world will be rooting for the Orioles and the Blue Jays.
A lot of the Yankee-obsessed members of the local baseball community might be surprised to learn that not so long ago the Orioles, not the Yankees, were the chief Red Sox rival. While the Yankees were finishing out of the money from 1965 through 1975, the Orioles were the gold standard team in the American League, winning the pennant in 1966, 1969, 1970, and 1971, and winning the AL East in 1973 and 1974. They also won the pennant in 1979 and the World Series in 1983. With the exceptions of 1966 and 1983 (Hank Bauer and Joe Altobelli), the common thread was the one and only Earl Weaver, who made pennant races fun all by himself.
There was something different about the times. We seemed to have a better, more reasonable grip on things. We could root against someone without hating and without everything having to be placed in the context of blame. In those days, local hockey fans secretly admired the Canadiens and local baseball fans secretly admired the Orioles. I'm trying to conjure up a scenario in which a guy calls up the ''The Big Show" to say, ''I root for the Red Sox, but, by golly, I do like watching Derek Jeter play." But if there had been a Big Show in 1973, I promise you someone would have felt comfortable expressing fidelity for the Red Sox and admiration for Brooks Robinson. Where did we go wrong?
Anyway, the Orioles are in first place, and I'm happy to welcome back a cherished old rival, all the more so because one of the key members of their brain trust is not only one of the hallowed Orioles of old, but is also a born and bred New Englander. Say hello to Manchester, N.H.'s, and our own State U's Mike Flanagan, a.k.a. the Orioles vice president of baseball operations.
Flanagan says perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised to see his team where it is. While we were, as usual, thinking only about Us and, you know, Them, the Orioles were closing out the 2004 season in style.
''We played very well in September [21-13 from Aug. 29 on]," he points out. ''We really started to come together. We had one of those situations where we did not want the season to end.
''On the last day, we were really sad."
One need not possess a PhD in Diamondology to understand the reason the Orioles are doing well. If you can really, really hit, if your pitching is much better than people on the outside realize, and if you don't have two many four-out innings, you will win games.
With a lineup that includes Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Melvin Mora, and Sammy Sosa, the Orioles were going to hit. What we didn't know was that second baseman Brian Roberts would be the six-week MVP, a hitting machine in the top five of just about every meaningful offensive category. And what Flanagan didn't know was just how much Roberts would benefit from not having to fight Jerry Hairston for playing time.
''That has obviously helped," says Flanagan. ''The other thing is that Brian said he wore down last season, and he worked very hard in the winter to get in better shape."
As far as the pitching is concerned, I give you one name: Ray Miller. The man who presided over the Golden Era of Oriole pitching (Palmer, Cuellar, Flanagan, McGregor, Stone, Boddicker, etc.) is back where he started, and whether he's teaching career journeyman Bruce Chen a killer changeup, spotting a tiny flaw in someone's mechanics, or putting across his pitching A-B-Cs (''work fast, throw strikes, change speed"), he's having a dramatic effect on the Orioles staff. ''He's as important as any hire we've made," Flanagan asserts.
Flanagan isn't getting cocky. ''We don't mind watching them (i.e. New York and the Sawx) slug it out," he says. ''We just want to improve under the radar."
And how about those Blue Jays? There was a time not so very long ago when they were the big Sox rivals, from, say, '84 or so right through '93, when they peaked with a second consecutive World Series title and a record baseball attendance of 4,483,350. That's a long way from the 1,900,041 the Blue Jays drew last year, when they were supposed to make a run at the Big Boys.
''Two years ago we won 86 games, and we thought we were ready," says Worcester's J.P. Ricciardi, the (take a deep breath) senior vice president, baseball operations & general manager. ''I still think we're a year away from really, really contending, but I think we can put pressure on those teams."
Ricciardi, like Flanagan (and his immediate superior, Jim Beattie), has had to do what he's done in a different economic climate than the ones in New York and Boston. ''It's like going into the Big East with only two full scholarships," says the longtime hoops coach at Holy Name High in Worcester. ''You're trying to find a way to split those two fulls into four."
For the record, Ricciardi does not begrudge the Yankees and Red Sox their little thing. ''The game itself thrives on that rivalry," he maintains. ''It's like the way the NBA benefited from the Celtics and Lakers in the '80s."
He's not sitting around worrying about the Yankees and Sawx, at any rate. His job is to put together a team that can compete with them to some degree, and one of the ways is restock the farm system so he can unleash a prospect such as lefthanded pitcher Gustavo Chacin on the world while bringing in helpful additions such as Shea Hillenbrand and Corey Koskie, who, he says, ''have been exactly what our clubhouse needed." Throw in the addition-by-subtraction deletion of Carlos Delgado, who was a financial burden and a set-in-his-ways veteran, and you have the 2005 Toronto Blue Jays, a very competitive team.
Competition. Finally, we have competition. Finally, we'll have division games other than the ones with You-Know-Who we can savor. It's about time, too. I'm officially Yankeed out.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.