They say baseball is a game of inches, but it’s really a game of millimeters and milliseconds: the paper-thin difference in the angle of a bat that distinguishes a long out from a homerun; that bang-bang play at first that even after half-a-dozen replays looks too close to call.
The beauty of the game is in it the balance between the tasks of offense and defense. The time it takes for a fastball to travel 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to the plate is so close to the time it takes for a batter to see the ball, make a decision and swing the bat that only the best can stroke it for a hit three tries out of 10. The time it takes for a ball to be pitched, caught, hurled to second and tagged on a base-runner is so close to the time it takes to run from first to second that most runners don’t even try, while the best – hello, Jacoby Ellsbury – can steal that bag again and again.
Such fine balances, along with quirks of rules, ballparks and situations developed over more than a century, mean on any day you can still see something you haven’t seen before: an outfielder following a homerun head-over-teakettle into the bullpen; a World Series game decided on a last-play interference call; a player escaping a run-down between first and second.
Baseball is physics, history and statistics. The wealth of data produced each season gave birth to “sabermetrics,” practiced by geeks who have tried, with some success, to put grandparents’ pastime into a spreadsheet.
But a team with great numbers can turn into a team of losers, as Red Sox fans witnessed in horror in September 2011, when a solid team with a comfortable lead for a postseason slot blew it all in depressing fashion. The next year things got even worse, as the Sox compiled their worst season in 47 years.
Even thoroughly modern baseball professionals – hello, Ben Cherington and John Farrell – know there are some things that don’t show up in the stats. Among all the razor-thin tolerances built into the sport hide variables that cannot be measured. There is room for luck, for karma, for heart and inspiration. Amid the physics, there is team chemistry, and sometimes the right mix of elements can turn a collection of misfits into a team of champions.
The heart of the 2013 Red Sox was in the heart of the batting order – Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, whose love of the game couldn’t be stopped by a losing season. Cherington built on that foundation. He did some addition by subtraction, exiling a handful of players with big salaries and bad attitudes, and replaced them with players known for their character as well as their stats: Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross and the irrepressible Jonny Gomes.
As Gomes said amid the championship celebration at Fenway Wednesday night, character and chemistry can only take you so far. After that, you’ve got to play good baseball. And that they did, from April through October. There were thrilling moments, to be sure, but unlike some teams we could name – hello, 2013 Patriots – it always felt like this Sox team deserved to win. Sox fans have seen their share of heart-attack closers, for instance, who clinch a win by stranding the tying run on third base. This year’s accidental closer, Koji Uehara, has a different style: He just throws strikes and almost always ends the game with the bases empty, as he did again to end the last game of this season of redemption.
Uehara explodes with enthusiasm after every appearance, and this time he had had a packed Fenway, an ecstatic Red Sox Nation and most of the country high-fiving along with him.
The last have come in first. Chemistry has overcome history. Every season that ends with a trip to the World Series is memorable. Because of what team and fans endured last year, and because it came as such a surprise, this one is extra special. Bring on the duckboats!