FORT MYERS, Fla. -- You can look at it like this: The Boston Red Sox have finished second to the New York Yankees for five consecutive seasons, so they've gotta bust through one of these years, don't they?
You can look at it like this: During this time of so-close-yet-so-far-away, the Red Sox have finished, combined, a whopping 52½ games behind the Yanks. So we're not exactly talking a swimsuit model-thin gap between the Red Sox and their tormentors.
Or, you can look at it like this:
|Will this be the year Nomar Garciaparra and the Red Sox catch the Yankees?(AP)|
During the past five years, the Red Sox have lost close (finishing only four games behind the Yankees in 1999 and just 2½ back in 2000).
They've lost not-so-close (finishing 22 games back in 1998 and 13½ games back in 2001).
And they've lost mid-range (finishing 10½ games back in 2002).
They've acquired pitching in their pursuit of the Yankees (adding Martinez before the 1998 season). They've acquired hitting to aid the chase (throwing millions of dollars at slugger Manny Ramirez before the 2001 season).
They've added bullpen help, swapped out managers, changed general managers and still ... nothing but a very good view of the backs of the Yankees uniforms.
It is one of the best rivalries in all of sports ... with one of the most predictable outcomes.
"I'm tired of it," catcher Jason Varitek said. "But it isn't just getting past the Yankees. We always play them pretty even head-to-head.
"We've got to find a way to take that same intensity into games against everybody else."
Will this be the year the Red Sox do that?
Are they talented enough?
"You know what? I can't even say yes or no," said Derek Lowe, still glowing from his 21-8, 2.58 ERA season in 2002. "If we had the formula, we'd have figured it out 80-some years ago. We're going a different route this year, the bullpen-by-committee, acquiring guys with high on-base percentages. That's good, because the way we've done it in the past hasn't worked.
"We've been absent from the playoffs three years in a row. That's tough to comprehend, with the talent we've had. Last year, we started off 30-11 and had the best record in baseball. Then, there we are in October, watching it on TV again.
|'If we had the formula, we'd have figured it out 80-some years ago,' Derek Lowe says.(AP)|
On the plus side for the Red Sox this season: Martinez is healthy and a year removed from coming back from a sore shoulder, Garciaparra's wrist problems appear to be a thing of the past, their lineup is still killer and Lowe's emergence last season helps lessen the load on The Great Pedro.
On the negative side: History and, I think, Ramirez's flakiness.
There's always some underlying current with the Sox and this spring is no different. While this camp is more placid than any in years (see: The Dan Duquette Regime), Ramirez isn't speaking with the media.
Actually, that's not quite an accurate picture.
Not only is he not speaking with the media, he mostly refuses to even make eye contact with the media.
Normally, this would be neither here nor there. But the reason Manny's mouth is not moving apparently stems back to that incident in Tampa Bay late last season when he didn't run out a ground ball. He didn't like the treatment he received from the critics, and he's been brooding about it ever since.
My question: If the media can get into this guy's head, exactly how loose are the screws up there? And as such, is this a guy who can be counted on to produce all season, and not just when he's happy and content?
I took a run at him Wednesday to find this out and was quickly rebuffed. It's not only the local Boston scribes he's shutting out, it's everybody.
"Nope," he told me.
Not even just a minute, Manny?
"Ain't got a minute," he said.
Apparently, even though it was only about 1 p.m. and he was showered, dressing and preparing to leave the training complex, the rest of his day was booked more tightly than Colin Powell over at the United Nations.
Look, whether or not Ramirez consents to answering a few silly questions isn't going to make or break his season. But how he handles certain things reveal the deeper man, and what I've seen over the past several seasons is this: He's one of the most feared bats in the game, yet he hasn't proven that he's a winner.
When Ramirez (owner of a .185 batting average in five divisional championship series with Cleveland and a .182 average in two World Series, by the way) broke his finger last season, the Sox began to wonder if he ever was coming back. It was one thing to give it time to heal, and the injury-rehabilitation trip to Triple-A Pawtucket certainly was to be expected.
But he became so comfortable in Pawtucket, hanging with friends, that the poor Red Sox were tempted to file a missing persons report. He wound up answering the call of "Play ball!" for just 120 games.
Then, of course, there was the earring incident, when he lost a diamond jewel sliding into third base on his rehab assignment. The game was stopped for several minutes while groundskeepers raked through the infield dirt looking for it.
I mean, hello, Manny, anybody home?
What, exactly, are our priorities here?
|Maybe much-hyped prospect Casey Fossum can break the Curse.(AP)|
Beyond that, with Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, Ramiro Mendoza, Chad Fox, and Bobby Howry, they really think this rebuilt bullpen is going to come together. And they like their rotation of Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe, John Burkett and the eagerly anticipated kid, Casey Fossum.
Manager Grady Little has penciled Lowe in the third spot in the rotation in order to slide Wakefield, the knuckleballer, between Lowe and Martinez.
"Which is great," Lowe said. "I think we've got a rotation with a group of guys who all pitch differently, and that will help. We've got a power guy in Pedro, a knuckleballer, a sinkerballer (Lowe), a finesse guy (Burkett) and a left-handed power arm (Fossum).
"Every single day, we'll give somebody a different look. If you have five guys with similar styles, the second or third guys might get killed. But we're not throwing the same style of guys twice in a row. And I think that helps, because it will make hitters adjust every day."
Or, as Martinez said: "I'll just throw in front of those guys and see what happens. I try to help as much as I can and don't worry about the rest. I let Grady do that. What I need is four more guys behind me. I don't care how they look. Just four guys."
And isn't this where we started -- that if the Red Sox are to get to where they want to go, they're going to need a little more than just those two old standbys, Pedro and Nomar?
Next stop: Cincinnati Reds camp in Sarasota