I spent much of the winter explaining two things to my bridge partner, a dear man who grew up watching the Philadelphia Athletics: don’t lead away from honors, and Mike Napoli would be good for the Red Sox.
He was skeptical about Napoli (he conceded the point about leading away from honors, although like a hitter unable to lay off the two-strike breaking pitch in the dirt, he still did it on occasion).
But he looked at Napoli’s .227 2012 batting average and 125 strikeouts and wondered why the Red Sox would pay him $13 million a year (Napoli’s original contract was three years for $39 million). When my bridge partner grew up, first baseman were men like the A’s’ Ferris Fain, who led the American League in batting in 1952 and walked as often as Napoli strikes out. And did it for thousands, not millions.
(It is interesting to note that Fain played nine years, walked 100 times or more in five of those, and retired with 904 walks vs, 261 strikeouts. His career batting average was .290, but he hit just 48 homers, which is a year-and-a-two-thirds for Napoli. Unless Mike Scioscia is managing him, in which case it could be half a decade.)
Times change, I explained to partner. When Fain led the AL in batting, bridge players opened with four-card majors. Now, that would be as big a faux pas as letting David Ortiz hit against a right-handed pitcher when a lefty is ready.
Napoli does three things, I told him: homer, walk or strike out. Two of them are good. What’s not to like? You would have preferred they kept James Loney?
Partner looked perplexed, as if he didn’t understand my bid. What’s to like about .227? Or 125 strikeouts? Or Napoli’s hip, which probably was in worse shape than his own, even at a youthful 83. He didn’t like my answer either.
And he didn’t like that the Red Sox paid millions to Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, traded them, and then spent millions on Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew.
What’s the point of saving money, he said, if you’re just going to spend it, memories of Mike Aviles fresh in his head? Oh, and Napoli strikes out too much and hit .227 in 2012. Why would you give a player like that millions?
I shook my head and went back to lecturing on leading away from honors. The Sox took a look at X-rays of Napoli’s hip, which looked as bad as a dummy with no trump support. The parties settled on one year for $5 million, which I thought a discount; my partner said it was too much for a .227 hitter.
I emailed him (my bridge partner, not Napoli) the night Napoli’s home run beat the Yankees on a Sunday in July in the 11th inning; partner conceded Napoli’s value as if he were a chess player conceding the game while looking at a losing position. Napoli was worth $5 million if he only beat the Yankees.
But that victory was tame compared to Friday night’s 12-8 victory — perhaps the most exhilarating for a Sox fan since 2004’s Game 7. This one turned the new Yankee Stadium into the baseball version of Fort Apache, The Bronx.
Napoli spurred it, too, with a grand-slam home run that was the shortest of the year, estimated at just 335 feet, the kind of just-long-enough fly ball the Yankees always hit for home runs while Red Sox outfielders flailed helplessly with backs to the wall.
For $5 million, Napoli — 55 extra-base hits, 59 walks, a .258 average in line with his .258 career average — is a bargain. Even if it’s not enough money for him to afford a razor.
But here’s the confession I have for partner: I didn’t much like the Victorino signing. Three years, $39 million for a player for whom a quarter of his value was defense, and then not to play him in the defensive position which made him valuable?
It made no more sense than the Napoli signing did to my partner.
But I’ve evolved. Victorino has brought center field defense to right field, stolen 20 bases in 23 attempts and had one of his best offensive seasons (.294/.351/.449). His WAR is a career-best 5.6, and there’s been no better example of it than this weekend’s four-game series with the Yankees.
Thursday Victorino, apparently abetted by umpire Joe West’s missed appeal on a checked-swing third strike, singled in the game-winning run in the 10th. That dodged the kind of dispiriting loss the Yankees suffered Friday, when Victorino won the game, again, in the eighth inning with a home run.
(If the Yankees miss the playoffs, manager Joe Girardi will spend the offseason answering why he turned a tie game over to Joba Chamberlain on Thursday, why he allowed lefty Boone Logan to face Napoli Friday, why he used recently demoted Phil Hughes at all, and why he used Chamberlain again. With an expanded roster, it can’t all be because of Shawn Kelley’s injury. Editor’s note: Additional injuries to David Robertson and Logan might explain Girardi’s approach.)
Both game-winning hits came with Victorino, a switch-hitter, batting right-handed against right-handed pitchers, a position he assumed upon returning from injury.
In this most unusual of years for the Red Sox, even the injuries have advantages.
I only hope this lack of orthodoxy doesn’t encourage partner to lead away from honors.