“Blame it on the truth that ran us down”
Terry Francona held a town hall session at Playhouse Square this afternoon for a special that will air on SportsTime Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 24. A number of topics were addressed with regard to the future of the Indians. Nothing particularly newsworthy, but certainly an entertaining discussion that involved not only Francona but his father, Tito.
There was, however, one old wound that a fan brought up, and it’s worth bringing up here, too.
Francona was asked about Game 7 of the ALCS between the Indians and Red Sox, and, specifically, about third-base coach Joel Skinner’s decision to hold Kenny Lofton up at third with one out in the seventh, with the Indians trailing, 3-2.
I’ve asked our multimedia crew if it’s possible to chase down the video clip of this play. If they’re able to get it, I’ll post it here. (UPDATE: Here’s the video.)
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
In the seventh, Kenny Lofton was on second after a two-base error by shortstop Julio Lugo, and Lofton could have tried to score when Franklin Gutierrez ripped a single off Hideki Okajima down the third-base line. The ball ricocheted off the photographer’s pit and into shallow left field, and Skinner, fearing Manny Ramirez would gun Lofton down at the plate, held the runner up at third.
When Casey Blake hit into a double play to end the inning, that hold-up loomed large.
“It’s tough to read if it’s ricocheting back to the shortstop or to left-center,” manager Eric Wedge said of that play. “I think it was just a tough read for [Skinner].”
In the immediate aftermath and the time since, Skinner has often been vilified for that play. How do you hold up a speedster like Lofton and not test the mercurial Manny? (That such a pivotal play so prominently involved two members of the Tribe’s so-called glory years is the sort of cosmic kick-in-the-gut that Clevelanders know too well.)
Well, here’s what I’ve said any time the topic has come up in the last five years: Skinner was flying blind. He was at an awful angle to make that read, to know if the ball would bounce away from or directly at Ramirez, and so I find it awfully difficult to give him the goat label.
Here’s what Francona said:
“To be really honest about this, being a third-base coach in Boston is probably the most unfair job in the world, because you’re making a split-second decision, and you’re the only one in the ballpark who can’t see the whole field. Because you get that blind spot down the left-field line, and the ball caroms off the wall like it did in that instance. I think what you have to hope for is you have to make that split-second decision and what we used to tell our runners was keep your head up, like on a swivel, so you can be your own coach. Because that happens more often than people realize… If the runner keeps his head up, then he can score on his own and you don’t run into that problem, because the third-base coach is in a real bind there.”
Maybe, when you think of it in that light, this was one of those moments in which the notion of home-field advantage is rather real. Maybe the Indians, as a whole, should have been better prepared for such a scenario. Maybe we ought to consider the possibility that Lofton could have/should have acted on his own and ran right through the stop sign (it’s not the boldest suggestion in the world, given that Lofton played 63 regular-season games at Fenway in his career and was, therefore, well-versed in its quirks… to say nothing of Manny’s quirks). And maybe we shouldn’t forget that Blake grounded into the ensuing double play on the first freaking pitch (not that Indians fans ever had much trouble picking on Blake over the years).
This, then, was a sequence with no shortage of blame to go around. And it undeniably altered the complexion of that game. Teams that advance in the MLB postseason have to have a little bit of luck on their side, and they have to have the talent to capitalize on that luck. The Red Sox did just that, as they went on to stomp the Tribe, 11-2, that night, before sweeping the Rockies in the World Series.
Indians fans, meanwhile, were left to bemoan that seventh-inning sequence, and pointing the finger at Skinner has always been the easiest coping mechanism available to them.
You know, this is as good a time as any to bring up another element in this that I’ve thought about often. Prevailing wisdom in these parts — and I’ve heard it uttered from many a neighboring barstool — is that the Indians would have make short work of the Rockies in the World Series, if only they would have gotten past Boston.
Admit it: You’ve thought or uttered that belief at some point, have you not?
My counter to that contention is simple: Who could be certain of such a thing? Did you watch the way CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona pitched in that LCS? Were you supremely confident in Joe Borowski in the ninth inning? More to the point, are you at all familiar with Cleveland sports? Don’t you think it’s even the slightest bit possible that there might have been some other disaster waiting around the corner?
No, all we know is what we know. We know the Indians lost Game 7, and they haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Maybe Francona will get them there again. But in the meantime, let’s back off the belief that Joel Skinner and his magical stop sign were the only things standing between the Indians and World Series championship glory. It’s never that simple, really.
PS: Just showed this post to my dad. He read it, he liked it. But he still blames Skinner.