No Reason

We can't know everything. Some people find this frustrating. I find this frustrating, anyway; I'm the kind of person who wants to know as much as he can about everything, whether the subject is quantum physics or old commercials. But the sad fact is, there are many things we'll never know. The truth may be lost to the sands of time. The answers may not be comprehensible to our human brains. Or maybe some events simply don't have one, true cause.

That last concept is the hardest to wrap our brains around. Because we can always hope that some historic artifact will reveal the truth about, say, who was Jack the Ripper, or who really shot JFK. And we can always hope science will advance to the point where we can learn and do things we never could before. But the idea that things just happen, from all standpoints--evolutionary, philosophical, theological--this thought just bugs us.

And so we look for causes where there may not be any because there have to be some, right? Otherwise nothing makes sense. That is why the Boston Globe dedicated many precious column inches to an exhaustive article by Bob Hohler on the subject of why the Red Sox collapsed in September. It reads less like investigative journalism and more like a wounded spouse's litany of all the horrible things their significant other did to them over the years.

As a Mets fan, I am deeply familiar with collapses, with teams that shoulda woulda coulda and didn't. And I understand the impulse to go over it all with a fine-tooth comb, Sherlock style, and figure out exactly what happened. So I'm handing out this advice to Sox fans and the writers who serve them, with the full knowledge that no one will listen/care: Don't do it.

That's not to say the Sox' collapse wasn't baffling, because it was. The Mets of 2007-2008 had a lousy pitching staff up, down, and every which way. (Which naturally led to Carlos Beltran and David Wright being blamed for their failures.) The Sox, on the other hand, had at least two good starters purported to have grit and guts (Josh Beckett and Jon Lester), a few more that weren't too bad, and a bullpen that was solid, if overworked. Good pitching, more than anything else, is supposed to forestall calamities such as these. For Boston, it could not.

Beckett and Lester receive a fair amount of blame in the Globe article, as does John Lackey, because of their lackluster performances when the Sox needed them the most. But in Hohler's world, these poor outings are seen not as failure to get the job done, but a reflection of a lack of commitment on the part of the pitchers. As if they could have willed themselves to do better, if only they cared enough to do so. (Belief in an athlete's ability to do this is called Jeterism.)

How do we know Beckett, Lester, and Lackey didn't care? Because all three of them, along with Clay Buchholz, would often repair to the clubhouse on their off days to toss back a few beers, eat fried chicken, and play video games. Hohler posits the theory that "their body fat appeared to increase and pitching skills eroded." If this was a major factor in Boston's slide, I'm not sure why no intrepid reporter could have sniffed out the story before now. Think of the juicy headlines it could have produced: FINGER LICKIN' BAD: 7 HERBS AND SPICES CAUSE SOX TO GO 7-20 IN SEPTEMBER.

But it wasn't just this biscuit-loving quartet who was to blame. Tim Wakefield's lust for glory (BEHOLD, 200 WINS!) reflected a lack of character. David Ortiz undermined his manager with public suggestions on how to use the bullpen. Team captain Jason Varitek wasn't captain-y enough! Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez put up huge numbers but couldn't put up huge hearts!

Worst of all (on several levels), Terry Francona was distracted by a crumbling marriage, worries over two sons fighting in Afghanistan, and implied painkiller abuse. Or misuse. Or improper handling. Hohler's article doesn't make a definitive call; it just raises that last issue and leaves the reader to connect the dots as they see fit, a move that would make William Randolph Hearst smile.

"In the end, only Pedroia and a few other players appeared to remain fully committed to winning," Hohler insists, though it goes unsaid exactly how the pint-sized second baseman demonstrated this commitment in ways his colleagues didn't. Perhaps because he was one of Hohler's "sources close to the team"? That's pure speculation on my part, but then again, this entire article is nothing but speculation disguised as reportage.

Aside from the needless detailing of Francona's painkiller use (which, as Buster Olney pointed out, is extremely hard to prove had any effect on his managing and is nobody's business anyway), the article is more sad than damaging or hurtful. It is a desperate lunge for both the writer and reader to gain some sort of meaning out of this event. The conclusion that everyone comes up with (including some of the accused) is that some of the Sox simply didn't care enough.

I found this line from Francona particularly heartbreaking: "I worked harder and spent more time at the ballpark this year than I ever did." I cared as much and worked as hard as I possibly could. How could this happen?

This all sounds eerily familiar. Circa 2007, we were all told the Mets collapsed because they were complacent. Because they were arrogant. Because some of them danced too much. Because some of them just didn't care. Never mentioned: cosmically bad pitching, an old, injury-prone lineup, and just plain dumb luck. Something more ephemeral must have been at work. Chemistry. Team spirit. Caring. Look, those Phillies knew how to win when it counted. Why couldn't the Mets do that? Because they were weak, that's why. (Ironically, you don't have to dig too deep to find Phillies writers/fans who feel the same way about their own team now that a historically great pitching staff couldn't prevent a first-round exit.)

The same day that Hohler's WHY?! piece hit the stands, Bob Klapisch penned something for the Bergen Record not all that different on the subject of the Yankees. They lost the division series to the Tigers, which in Yankee-Land is almost as unthinkable as the kind of collapse the Sox suffered. Klapisch's piece is less an article and more of a verbalized sneer. He somehow equates the rise of Moneyball with the Yankees' lack of grission, comparing them unfavorably to the Dynasty of 1996-2000, saying those teams would never stand for Joe Girardi's insistence that luck plays a big part in short series.

Klapisch is kind enough to note that Girardi actually played for those gut-rich teams. However, he forgets that even those Yankees got bounced in the first round of the playoffs (1997, against the Indians). He also forgets--as does almost everyone--that many of those same teams were frequently blasted by sportswriters (himself included) for lacking fire, for sleepwalking through the regular season like the playoffs were their god-given right. Check out what Jack Curry of the Times wrote of this unstoppable, heart-filled juggernaut late in the 2000 season:

...the Yankees have not looked like the Yankees usually do as this season grinds through a revealing September to a merciless conclusion. The Yankees have been complacent, a team plodding toward the postseason while the regular season unfolds and they unravel. Did anyone ever speculate that Joe Torre would want to switch places with Bobby Valentine in late September? Yesterday afternoon, Torre would have....

They are the Yankees. But, this season, being the Yankees might be the reason for their incredible plunge. Being the Yankees, these Yankees, might be the reason they do not win a third straight championship. Because they are the Yankees, these flawed Yankees.

Any team can lack fire if we expect them to burn.

Trust me, I know this hurts, and I know the impulse to make sense of it, to turn back time and wonder what went wrong, and who's responsible, and how they can be punished. No one hates the "Blame Beltran" meme more than I, and yet I still often lie awake at night wondering, What if he swung? I wonder what would have happened if Tom Glavine hadn't turned into Agent Glavine on the last day of the 2007 season. I wonder what might have happened if Ryan Church's fly ball had gone just five feet deeper in 2008. In all of these cases, why did the Mets fail?

When these wonderings pop up, I remind myself of this sad and simple fact: Why doesn't matter.

Let's say we could even figure out the Why to explain the Mets, or the Sox, or any other team who went through such a thing. Let's say we could point to one event or person or even a combination of events and people and say THIS IS THE CULPRIT. What would it change? Nothing. Would it make anybody feel better? No. Would it just open up old wounds? Probably. These things are calamities, like accidents or disease diagnoses. Why they happened is far, far less important than how you deal with their aftermath.

There are things we can't know. Come to accept that, and the winter will feel a little less cold.

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