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Ballpark Figures for June
BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG
Observations culled from watching the town of Wrentham’s Memorial Day parade — all five minutes of it.
• Does anybody watch the Indianapolis 500 anymore? Or do sports fans in general still consider the Battle of the Brickyard must-see TV? I certainly haven’t kept up with auto racing, but I do remember being intrigued at a young age by the sport and its big names, including such icons as A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti, and Rick Mears. I can’t say that I made the Indy 500 appointment TV back in the day, but I always cared about who won. These days, it seems the race is continually won by virtual no-names, and Sunday’s event — which went to a guy named Buddy Rice — was just the latest in a long list of Indys won by drivers who are strangers to casual sports fans. Since Al Unser Jr.’s victory in 1994, this premier US event has been won by the likes of Jacques Villeneuve, Buddy Lazier, Arie Luyendyk, Eddie Cheever Jr., Kenny Brack, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castoneves (twice), and Gil de Ferran. Now I know that the explosion of NASCAR has diluted the auto-racing scene somewhat (and a split between the sport’s major organizations, IRL and CART, in 1995, also demoted the race’s marquee value), and that I’m probably just displaying my ignorance of the sport and its featured characters, but I just have to ask: does the Indy 500 matter anymore?
• Parity is sometimes a good thing, and perhaps that’s a reason for the paucity of dominant Indy 500 champions. But parity is also showing up in the world of men’s professional tennis, and that may not be such a boon to the sport. The NFL loves parity, since it presumably gives every team entering the season a chance to win the Lombardi Trophy; the world of tennis, on the other hand, has found itself penalized for its lack of true dominant players ever since Pete Sampras ruled in the ’90s. In the ’80s, when I was a tennis fan, there were certifiable characters in the game who reached out of the TV screen to invite you to root for or against them. Those in the white hats included Björn Borg and Boris Becker, while the villains were led by the obnoxious likes of Jimmy Connors (who ultimately regained the US fandom’s affection in his later years), John McEnroe, and maybe even the robotic mystery of Czechoslovakia’s Ivan Lendl. Back then, Grand Slam events were a don’t-miss spectacle, often featuring on-court outbursts and fireworks that transcended the match itself. Then came the era of vanilla players like Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, before Americans Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, and Sampras reasserted Old Glory’s status on the world tennis stage. Since 2001, however, the men’s side has seen few domineering players — certainly none who incites passions like Mac the Brat did 20 years ago. And that makes for a lack of name recognition and intriguing personalities. Since Sampras won at Wimbledon four years ago, the Grand Slam–winners list includes Marat Safin, Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten, Goran Ivanisevic, Lleyton Hewitt, Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa, Hewitt, Sampras, Agassi, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, and Federer again. That’s 14 tournaments, 11 different winners. And with both Agassi and Roddick going down in the first two rounds of the French Open this year, the future of American tennis is starting to look as bleak as it’s been in a long time.
• The Red Sox’ Manny Ramirez has endeared himself to Sox fans this season, and it has little to do with his remarkable stats thus far (.349, 14 HRs, 37 RBIs). Despite nearly getting lost to waivers and then traded to Texas, Manny returned to the Sox this spring in a revitalized mood. The once-closed door to his soul has swung open, and he has been both forthcoming and delightful in his dealings with the media. Yet one wonders what kind of hot water Ramirez would have been in had his lackadaisical pursuit of Mariner Randy Winn’s sixth-inning flare — which broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game after 17 straight Seattle Mariners were retired on Sunday — marked the sole base-runner in a game ultimately won by Boston, 9-7, in 12 innings. Schilling eventually gave up four runs on five hits in seven and two-thirds and didn’t factor into the decision. But Winn’s Texas-leaguer seemed to be easily catchable, and probably would have been by an outfielder who was aware of the drama unfolding around him. Sadly, that has rarely been the case with Ramirez, even though he can’t miss the Green Monster scoreboard when he heads out each inning to take his position in left field. You’d think that all those zeroes placed in the inning slots on the manually operated scoreboard, plus the 0-0-0 on the side marked RUNS-HITS-ERRORS, would’ve jumped out at Manny, but apparently not. And if Schilling were able to carry a one-hitter into the ninth, a lot of glares would have been directed Ramirez’s way — not that he would have noticed those, either.
• It’s early, no question, but when two teams are going neck-and-neck all season as the Red Sox and Yankees are expected to do, then every impending match-up is important. And while the two teams are not surprisingly tied atop the AL East heading into this week’s action, it should be noted that Boston has played a much less balanced schedule than the Pinstripers have in terms of strength of opposition. For example, heading into Monday’s action, the Yankees were 15-5 against teams at or below .500, while the Red Sox were 23-15. I hear ya, Sox fans: 23-15, that’s not too bad. You’re right, it isn’t, but that’s not the figure to take note of. The primary piece of information here is that the Bronx Bombers have played just 20 games against inferior competition, while Boston has played nearly twice as many. And you know what that means: that while Boston is just beginning to play the iron of its schedule, the Empire Staters will be taking it easy in the coming months. Let’s give concrete examples: the Sox are 7-1 against NY, 0-3 against Texas, and 2-1 against Oakland; that’s the extent of Boston’s competition against winning teams. The Yanks are 4-3 against the first-place White Sox, 4-2 against the first-place Angels, 1-2 against the surprising Rangers, and 5-1 against the A’s. And guess what? New York has only three games left with each of the AL West teams, and hasn’t even begun to play rapidly sinking Toronto in the East or its seven-game series with bottom-feeders Cleveland or Detroit. Meanwhile, going into Tuesday, Boston has yet to play even Anaheim, Chicago, or Minnesota, and those three teams — along with the Yankees — pose the most formidable competition for playoff spots come September. For Red Sox Nation, there’s even worse news: while their beloved Crimson Hose play Minnesota, Philadelphia, the Yanks, Atlanta, Oakland, Texas, Anaheim, and Seattle during a critical stretch from June 22 through July 20, the 26-time world champs face the likes of the Orioles, Mets (twice), the Sox, the Tigers (twice), and the Devil Rays (twice).
The X factor will be the Blue Jays, who still must face the Yankees 19 times but have only six left with Boston. If the Jays continue their free fall and deal their remaining talent at the trading deadline, then August and September — which will see the Torontonians play Team Steinbrenner 10 times — will provide prime feeding ground for the Yankees to make up or extend ground on the Sox. Additionally, the September schedules for the two AL East archrivals used to be comparable; this season that’s far from the case, as the New Yorkers will face the Indians, O’s (twice), Rays, Royals, Sox (twice), Jays, and Twins, while Boston will take on the Angels, Rangers, A’s, Mariners, Rays (twice), Yanks (twice), and Orioles.
• Those hoping for a Red Sox–Cubs World(-ending) Series this fall thus far see the two teams riding parallel tracks: hanging on atop their respective divisions while overcoming brutal injuries. The Cubs have survived despite injuries to two starting pitchers (Kerry Wood and Mark Prior), plus their All-Star right fielder (Sammy Sosa) and two middle infielders (Mark Grudzielanek and Alex Gonzalez). Meanwhile, the Sox have lost their fifth starter (Byung-Hyun Kim), their right fielder (Trot Nixon), two infielders (Nomar and Bill Mueller), and two relievers (Scott Williamson and Ramiro Mendoza) to the DL, although they’ve flourished reasonably well with patchwork components like Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Youklis, David McCarty, Cesar Crespo, and Lenny Dinardo. Should these two teams get their walking wounded back in due time and have the injury bug even out among their divisional mates, we might well see the match-up that the baseball world prays for on a nightly basis.
• The Revolution, New England’s pro-soccer entity, are making it tough for budding local soccer fans to latch on to their squad. The Revs have scored but one goal over the course of their last four games, and currently occupy last place in the Eastern Division of soccer’s 10-team major league. At 1-4-3, New England is already seven points behind first-place Chicago. The Revs would be in even worse shape had they not received a generous penalty-kick call late in their May 1 clash with the LA Galaxy. Without that call and the subsequent victory, the team would likely be 0-4-4, with leading scorer Taylor Twellman again on the shelf due to injury (hamstring). Even with that disputed win, however, the franchise is giving one of US soccer’s most fervent fan bases yet another awful start to its season, and Steve Nicol’s crew can’t expect to make up ground over the latter part of the season as it has the past two seasons en route to post-season berths.
• And the Lakers prevail in the West. Did you really ever doubt it would be thus? Banner 15 is dead ahead.
"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung[a]phx.com.The Game On archive.