CD's Connect the Dots... Curses, Foiled Again

Webster's Dictionary defines a curse as an appeal for evil to befall someone or something. Baseball circa 2003 has once again been introduced to this word in the recent failures of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox to overcome the curses of the Billy Goat and the Bambino. Not only did both succumb to these mysterious curses but also the circumstances were so strangely similar as to be downright eerie!

As any fan of post-season baseball is now completely aware, a nation will once again be denied an opportunity to watch what would have been a very popular and highly entertaining Fall Classic. The fact that there were so many similar circumstances demands we take a second look at these continuing and well-documented "curses." In point of fact, both teams were merely five outs from World Series glory when their downfalls occurred. Both teams had three run leads when the collapses occurred, the Cubs leading 3-0 and the Red Sox with the hammer of a 5-2 advantage. Both teams had their ace hurlers on the mound, Mark Prior throwing an absolute gem in Chicago and Pedro Martinez twirling a workman-like performance in New York.

The similarities do not end there! Both pitchers had tossed seven stout innings with pitch counts that were becoming alarmingly high. Both teams had managers who replaced their starting pitchers a day late, and a dollar short, for reasons that we will discuss in depth. And, sadly, both teams continued their "cursed" traditions of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory at just the most inopportune times.

Were these defeats pre-ordained? Was the Cubs Curse of the Billy Goat, dating back to 1945 the reason for their latest failure? Was the Bambino looking out from the monuments at Yankee Stadium and determining that yet another outstanding Red Sox team would go home in abject failure? Or were there other reasons, some subtle, others widely apparent, that kept these two fan-friendly teams from participating in what undoubtedly would have been the most wildly popular Series ever played? Lets take a look at these questions.

In this writers opinion these teams were done in, not by Billy Goat's or Bambino's influences, but by problems that had actually surfaced during the season. In effect, the same forces that had appeared as minor problems during the season ultimately beat both teams. That they manifested themselves at the most crucial moments of the 2003 Playoffs was not entirely surprising.

The Chicago Cubs, managed by Dusty Baker, enjoyed a wild ride to the playoffs and appeared World Series bound after their impressive five game series win against the Atlanta Braves. Led by two of the top young hurlers in baseball, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, it seemed inconceivable that they could fail to win even one of the final two games at venerable Wrigley Field and advance to the World Series for the first time in 58 years.

Yet a very subtle force was at work here and any student of Cubs regular season games was well aware of one Dusty Baker trait. He routinely allowed both Prior and Wood to accumulate very high pitch counts during their regular season starts, often with favorable results.

There are few arguments more widely debated than the possible damage to a young arm when pitch counts exceed 100 pitches in a game. Prior and Wood actually led the major leagues in games pitched with over 115 pitches. It may have been successful during the season but when it mattered most, in those tense final two days of the Cubs post-season run, Prior and Wood came up empty when their pitch counts rose.

The Florida Marlins ability to fight off two strike pitches and work long counts proved remarkably effective, especially against Wood. Known as a power pitcher extraordinaire, he was continually frustrated by the Marlin's ability to fight off the two strike pitch and work long counts. When he finally left in the 6th inning, his pitch count was already well over 100 pitches. It is not a leap of faith to state that Wood's tank was empty after his wonderful performances against the Braves. Although he accused himself of "choking", it is apparent that he was much too hard on himself. Quite simply, Wood had no more to give in a season where he had already given far too much.

Mark Prior ended up losing for the same reason as Wood, but his situation was far more complex. Unlike Wood, he had full control of his game, and led 3-0 entering the eighth inning. This is when it began to unravel for him and, once again, his rising pitch count was the ultimate demon. There is little doubt that Baker allowed Prior to pitch to one too many hitters. In hindsight, Prior probably should have been removed after Pudge Rodriguez singled in the first run.

It is a solid rule of thumb that a bullpen must be allowed some rope when entering a game. By the time the Cubs bullpen swung into the action, the game was already lost. One thing was abundantly clear… the Mark Prior at 100 pitches was a far different hurler than the Prior at 110 pitches. Of such numbers are pennants won, or lost. In the end, it was not the Billy Goat that lost the series for the Cubs; it was the Silly Ghosts… the silly ghosts of a regular season both Prior and Wood had extended beyond their means.

The Red Sox were ultimately undone by a problem that they had seemingly overcome, their inability to produce a solid closer. Rather, they had adopted a Bullpen by Committee, consisting of such luminaries as Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson and Byung-Hyun Kim. This committee had produced varying results but seemed to have been solved by the emergence of Williamson during the playoffs.

Yet, when it mattered most, when a season hung in the balance, and a game won could become a game lost, star right-hander Pedro Martinez was allowed to pitch, with predictably disastrous results. Ironically, a committee of one, manager Grady Little, outvoted a bullpen by committee. It was he who decided to rest his team's season on the broad shoulders of Martinez, though he was clearly a tired warrior by the eighth inning.

This was a very sad and disappointing ending for a very solid team. Indeed, the Red Sox and Yankees set a Major League record in Game Seven by competing against each other for the 26th time in one season. That the Sox were five outs from ending the season with a 13-13 split tells one and all that clearly this was not a team intimidated by Yankee pinstripes.

Another irony to the whole Little fiasco was his use of star playoff hurler Tim Wakefield once the game was tied at five. It seems quite clear that if Wakefield was to be used, it should have been during the eventful eighth inning Yankee rally. It was then that the game was really lost. The knuckle-balling Wakefield would have been a welcome change after replacing the fire-balling Martinez.

Its seems quite apparent to the average fan that a Wakefield-Williamson combination in the eighth and ninth innings would have sent the Yankees home for the Winter and the Sox to the World Series. That Manager Little probably never even thought of this scenario showed the incredible contrast in management skills between the two teams.

In fact, a solid case could be made that both of these series were decided as much by the managerial buttons being pushed, as the wonderful skills on display by the players. Manager Jack McKeon clearly out managed Baker in Game Seven as he made solid use of ace righty Josh Beckett. This was probably the move that elevated the Marlins to NL Champs.

Likewise, Manager Joe Torre showed why he might be the best manager in the game as he masterfully used erstwhile starters Mike Mussina and David Wells to keep the game close for the typical late inning Yankee theatrics. The old saying of "managing like it's the seventh game" was clearly on display by wily veterans McKeon and Torre. While they made solid and ample use of the pitchers at their disposal, managers Baker and Little rolled the dice on tired hurlers, Prior, Wood and Martinez. The end results clearly show which choices were the wise ones.

Long after the final World Series pitch is thrown, and after either the Yankees or Marlins have been crowned as 2003 World Series Champions, the debate over the Curses of the Cubs and Red Sox will be discussed and magnified. The Billy Goat story will be told and retold and Babe Ruth will continue to stand in all his glory as a reminder of the passing of a championship torch when he was sold from the Sox to the Yankees.

Yet a true student of the game will scoff at all this curse nonsense and understand that the true curse of both of these teams was done not by a Goat or a Bambino. Rather, managers who failed to understand that decisions of the heart and not the head often lead to heartbreaking results did them both in. Because of this, both the Cubs and Red Sox would no doubt walk away dejectedly, thinking…"curses, foiled again."

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast


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