Welcome Back to the Bad Old Days

Last weekend I saw "Moneyball." It's a fun movie chronicling the story of Billy Beane, and his challenge of Baseball's Old Guard. A former pro athlete, Beane sought victory for the impoverished Oakland A's through then-unconventional means, and in the process found himself up against aging scouts and naysayers with years of useless received wisdom (ex. ugly girlfriend = no confidence = bad pitcher). Beane faced years of censure and condemnation, but his success showed what really mattered - hard, measurable data, not the mystical BS spouted by baseball's traditionalists.

The end of the movie teased Red Sox fans, bringing Beane to Fenway Park, circa 2002, where he was wooed with a job offer from John Henry. (Fans of alternate history can speculate how the '03 postseason would have played out under a Beane-led team.) Boston got its own unorthodox general manager with the ascent of Theo Epstein in 2003.

Theo Epstein made his mark, in Moneyball fashion, by exploiting a market inefficiency - the undervaluing of on-base ability and certain skillsets. He rolled the dice on Ortiz (who the Twins cut for not hitting to the opposite field), Mueller, Millar, and others, traded a star (Nomar) for players the team needed. When the team won the World Series in '04, Theo had no problem blowing it up over the next two years, producing superior draft picks that turned into superb players (Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury).

But Moneyball is dead. What was revelatory in '03, '04, even '05 is now just another part of the game. Every team understands the power of deep farm systems, the strength of an OBP-driven line-up. Everyone is fighting over the same skills. The low-hanging fruit of other teams' stupidity has been plucked.

Where is the market inefficiency now? It's out there, undoubtedly, but the certitude that our skilled management will find it is no longer present. Instead we clamor or brace for the next "Big" Signing.

Meanwhile the Yankees waltz into the playoffs, as usual. Funny how their aged starters suddenly spit thunder and hurl lightning, huh? (Looking at you, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.)

Meanwhile the Rays eat our lunches, growing aces in their farm system. Look there, a 22-year-old fireballer starting game 1 of the playoffs, after barely playing at all this season. And if they need a player right now, just find some rich / stupid team's talented cast-off... Remember Dan Johnson? Remember Carlos Pena? Remember Casey Kotchman? Funny how these scrubs magically transform into stars in the soft spotlight of an empty Tropicana Field. Much will be said and done over the next six months to attempt to make it better. The obvious scapegoat (Terry Francona) is already gone. Of course, the hyenas of the Boston sports media are just starting to dig into the corpse of this team. Maybe they'll extract further pounds of flesh (Theo or Curt Young) before the offseason is done.

This team has lost its way. Maybe it got complacent while the competition got serious, maybe it fell apart because of poor strategic decisions or an incompetent medical staff, maybe lack of clubhouse chemistry or player motivation had a part. Regardless, Boston cannot claim that two straight years of horrid injuries and shockingly lackluster performances is just bad luck.

And so we experience them again. That sinking feeling after a horrendous end to the season. That despairing knowledge that things may not get any better next year. That desire to bury the entire roster alive, or to foreswear the sport entirely. These miseries are the historical hallmarks of being a Sox fan, not the excitement and exuberance of recent years.

In the gloom of September 2011, you can't see the Octobers of 2004 or 2007. It feels an awful lot like 2002, but there's no Billy Beane or Theo Epstein walking in to save us now. We can only close our eyes, and steel our hearts, and hope that things turn out better, somehow. There's always next year.

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