In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands Wednesday— senior writer Tom Verducci writes about how 2013 World Series MVP David Ortiz, one of the greatest postseason sluggers ever, used leadership and resilience to carry the Red Sox and the city of Boston to their third Series title in eight years. Ortiz, who had a .688 BA with 11 hits and two home runs in the six- game Series against the Cardinals, shares this week’s cover with Boston police officers Javier Pagan and Rachel McGuire and detective Kevin McGill –all three appeared on SI’s April 22, 2013 cover as the issue reported on the Marathon bombings.
Writes Verducci, “If any one person were to lead the Red Sox and—given the team’s cultural importance in New England—by extension Bostonians through a terrible time, it was a man with an outsized capacity for resilience. The grind of a 162-game season played in a 182-day window, followed by the wilds of postseason play, would test even Lewis and Clark. But among baseball’s 109 world champions there has never been a story of resilience quite like this one. No team—not the 1969 Mets, not the ’91 Twins—has won the World Series in the year after being as bad as the Red Sox were in 2012 (.426 winning percentage). And only six months before the Series—just a half mile east on the same street where Ortiz was applauded—two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, wounding 264 others and terrorizing hundreds of thousands. Four days later the citizenry was ordered to “shelter in place” during a daylong citywide lockdown, while a manhunt for the bombers proceeded. The pleasant routines of life, including baseball, were put on hold.” (Page 32)
Things were not always easy for Ortiz in Boston. Since arriving in Boston in ‘03 Big Papi has battled through injuries, steroid allegations, batting slumps and criticism from an ex-manager who claimed Ortiz quit on the team. Still, Big Papi remained ebullient and ready to lead by example.
Writes Verducci, “Ortiz is the team’s leader in every imaginable way, a man of imposing size (6′ 4″, 250 pounds) yet easy accessibility. He delivers the right words and mood for a club as reliably as he does big hits. He is a baseball -philosopher—thoughtful, colorful, -profane—and his well-scarred career and outsized personality serve him well in big situations that can rattle others. “You can be the real deal today and s— tomorrow,” he says. “That’s how the game goes. On the day you feel your best, you can go 0 for 5. You go home and say, ‘I feel like Superman, and I went 0 for 5.’ That tells you how tough this game is: On your best day you had a bad day.” (Page 32)
This fall, the 2013 World Series has been the greatest show on Earth. In this week’s sports illustrated–on newsstands now–senior writer Tom Verducci explains how the Cardinals and the Red Sox both brought the weird in the 109th fall classic—from whacky beards to foul-ups, bleeps and blunders—in a series full of tense games and never-seen-before endings. But look past the drama and the two evenly matched teams, and you see a sport in need of change. Think the DH was funky? Make way for the bonus at bat.
Writes Verducci, “The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—-intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” (Page 34)
Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in the majors this season. Only twice during the Wild Card Era — in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves — has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. However, the paths each team took to this year’s Fall Classic were drastically different. While the Boston’s pitching staff was middle-of-the pack all year, the Cardinals’ rode to glory on the arms of their flamethrowers, especially during the postseason.
Writes Verducci, “The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today’s game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis’s innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.” (Page 34)
In contrast, the Red Sox relied on patience at the plate—long pitch counts and late rallies (plus a late season surge from DH David Ortiz)—to get wins. “The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent counter-tacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for “grinding out at bats” to “run up pitch counts,” the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers’ Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey’s Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to “grinders” when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.” (Page 34)
Stylistically, the Red Sox–Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. As an alternative, Verducci suggests that baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting time. Call it, The Bonus At Bat.
In his new TV role as a commentator for TBS during baseball’s playoffs, Pedro Martinez has shown that he still can colorfully change speeds and bring piercing heat. The future baseball hall of famer sat down with senior writer Tom Verducci for a Q&A in this week’s SI to discuss why he tried TV, his transition away from the game, the return of the Red Sox to the American League Championship Series, beanballs and assorted other topics, including Derek Jeter’s impromptu, face-to-face pitch to become a Yankee.
On television: “I had too much time not doing anything at home,” Martinez says. “It was uncomfortable sitting at home and my wife questioning me, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s also a good opportunity to explore something different, because I really want to expand on what I learned in baseball. Some of the guys, like Kevin Millar, Barry Larkin, Manny Acta, they all know the knowledge in my head about the game and they all thought that as loose as I am, I would be a person that could do this.” (PAGE 47)
On missing the game: “I would get really cranky because I wasn’t going to seven hours to a gym and then to play a game,” Martinez says. “I was just a lazy cat at home.” (PAGE 47)
On moving guys off the plate: “You commit to that pitch,” Martinez says. “You go into that pitch saying, I am making a statement here. If you don’t move back, you’re getting hit.” (PAGE 48)
Martinez tested the free agent market after the 2004 season. The Yankees had him in for a meeting before he signed with the Mets. While talking with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Martinez says, “Jeter walks by. He peeks in and sees me and says, ‘What are you doing here? Oh, Boss, please sign him.’” (PAGE 52)
On who the last person he wants to see in the batter’s box late in a close game: “Jeter,” Martinez says.
Why Jeter? “He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t get excited. He’s cold, like an icebox. You make a good pitch, and it seems like he bloops it all the time. You make a great pitch, and somehow he finds some area on the bat. I don’t know if he’s not strong enough to break the bat or the ball does not hit an area to break it. . . . And if you make a mistake, he will take you deep. It’s impossible to make him change his approach or his demeanor. The program that he has to approach you doesn’t change. He knew I would come after him. And I don’t think Jeter ever thought I would hit him in the head or put him in jeopardy. The most I could do was hit him in the ribs or something like that—and only in retaliation because I have a huge amount of respect for Jeter.” (PAGE 52)
The MLB postseason is under way, and in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—on newsstands now—senior writer Tom Verducci says it’s all about which team gets hot, because the playoffs are more random and chaotic than ever. Verducci writes, “With parity across the sport, no dominant team among 10 postseason entrants and four rounds of playoffs, welcome to Anybody’s October, a two-fortnight roll of the dice.” (PAGE 36)
SI’s Ben Reiter wonders if brothers B.J. and Justin Upton can get hot and power the Atlanta Braves to a World Series title. The Upton’s, along with SI Swimsuit model Kate Upton appear on the cover of this week’s issue. Kate Upton makes history as the first swimsuit model on the SI cover for a non-Swimsuit issue and joins celebrities such as Bob Hope, Brad Pitt, Stephen Colbert and Mark Wahlberg who have appeared on the cover.
As for the Bravess World Series chances, Reiter acknowledges that they do strike out a lot and have been devastated by injuries, and their highest paid player (B.J. Upton) had a really bad debut season. However, in October that may not matter, since Atlanta demonstrated for extended stretches this season that the team can get as hot as any club in baseball. “No team has demonstrated the potential to get hotter than the as-whole-as-they’re-going-to-get Braves, their beleaguered centerfielder included,” says Reiter. “It will all come down to the timing.” (PAGE 46)
As baseball’s best teams duke it out for a World Series title, SI senior writer Tom Verducci says the MLB postseason is more random and chaotic than ever. Verducci writes, “With parity across the sport, no dominant team among 10 postseason entrants and four rounds of playoffs, welcome to Anybody’s October, a two-fortnight roll of the dice.” (PAGE 36)
A’s GM Billy Beane meticulously builds and runs his team through statistical analysis, but he too surrenders October to chance. The notoriously nervous GM can comfortably watch the A’s in October. “Like a 14-year-old Labrador in front of the fireplace,” Beane says. “It’s the one time I can sit with my wife and just watch.” (PAGE 36)
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, whose team won the NL West by the largest margin in baseball (11 games) and boasts the one-two pitching punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, says: “There is no clear-cut favorite. It’s not like you can say, ‘Well, jeez, this team won 106 games’ or ‘This team has two No. 1 starters and four guys with 30-plus home runs.’ An upset probably doesn’t exist. You shouldn’t be surprised if anybody from the pool of 10 teams winds up on top.” (PAGE 36)
One trend may suggest who the favorites should be this October: the importance of putting the ball in play. Baseball set a record for strikeouts per game this season for the seventh consecutive year and teams that avoid strikeouts have won more in the postseason as of late.
Verducci notes the offenses of the past eight teams to reach the World Series each ranked ninth or lower in league strikeouts and the four most recent champions ranked 15th, 16th, 12th and 13th. Conversely, in that same span, teams that ranked among the top five in strikeouts lost nine of 11 series. This would appear bad for the Braves (second in the NL in strikeouts), Pirates (third), Reds (fifth) and Red Sox (fourth in the AL), and good news for the Cardinals (14th in the NL), Dodgers (12th), Tigers (13th in AL) and A’s (ninth).
“That is a small trend,” Beane says. “You’re never going to predict anything with small sample sizes. You’ve got to be careful about drawing conclusions.” (PAGE 38)