Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots

It may seem silly for me to contend that I saw this short exit by Boston in the postseason coming given I picked Boston to win the whole shebang in 7, but… I’m not in the least bit surprised by what happened.

I think part of the reason why I didn’t really talk about it and hedged in person about the Sox’s chances is because I didn’t particularly want to admit it.

Oh, make no mistake: This was a World Series-caliber team, and I’m singing a different tune this morning if Jonathan Papelbon had any clue that you can’t just throw a fastball and expect to get away with it.

But this was also a team that could exit stage-left rather quickly. The bats went cold, the starting pitching was decent enough, and the bullpen was solid — but nowhere the fearsome combo it was earlier in the season.

The big thing, for me, though? What really got me is the lack of energy I saw with the team. And I’m not talking that unquantifiable energy that people like to trot out when the offense is being silenced by a good pitcher — that’s not a lack of energy, that’s a good pitcher dominating an offense that just can’t get it together. I’m talking energy in the dugout, with teammates.

I’m talking pointing to the dugout and having the dugout go wild, like the Angels. I’m talking pies in the faces. Can you believe the Yankees do this? The starched, straight-laced Yankees?

I can. Because they aren’t starched and straight-laced anymore. Importing Johnny Damon was only the first step. CC Sabathia, Nick Swisher, AJ Burnett and the youth infusion of players like Joba Chamberlain and Robinson Cano along with the fiery Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter… these guys all like each other and relish playing in games.

Part of why I always disliked the Yankees is because they played like it was a business. It’s no surprise — teams generally take on the identity of general managers and managers. It’s only natural — you acquire what you like, and unless you have self-esteem problems, you like yourself. You naturally gravitate to people you click with. You naturally gravitate to people with reputations you like. Theo Epstein didn’t like that Orlando Cabrera went out at night to party. So what happened? He was gone.

Brian Cashman tried for years to fit his personality with a winning team. He brought in solid, business-like players and then when the cracks showed after 2001, tried bringing in more. Then he compounded it by bringing in bad attitude players. He cleaned house of those, then started over with Johnny Damon.

Theo Epstein is in the same boat. Epstein, by all accounts, is reserved, private, thoughtful… and business-like. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing to have in a general manager. I have no problems with Epstein nor do I have problems with his personality.

But those traits do not make a World Series team. The lasting image of the 2007 championship is not J.D. Drew’s calm demeanor (although that grand slam was awesome). The lasting image is Papelbon doing an irish jig.

I remember, through the 2003-2004 Cowboys and Idiots hearing either Epstein or someone attribute a comment to Epstein (sorry it’s unsubstantiated, so take from it what you will) that Theo wanted to change the culture of the team to be more reserved, quiet, professional … in other words, change the team to be more like himself.

Don’t get me wrong — the Sox have very fiery people on this team. Dustin Pedroia. Jonathan Papelbon. But the cohesiveness and looseness is gone.

THAT is what made me privately worried about the Sox’s chances.

I tried to communicate this somewhat during my writings — while I contended that Boston had a great chance to win the World Series (which, by the way, they did) I also tried to hedge by talking about their weaknesses and other team’s strengths. For example, I called Boston and the Angels an overall push except for Boston’s bullpen. What put it over the edge was the Angels’ energy. It may be a simplistic explanation, and maybe the answer is that it was simply Boston’s offense. But I don’t think it was.

I’m reminded of a phrase by the great Branch Rickey that I think applies to the Sox.

“I don’t understand a man that won’t practice, who is satisfied, perfectly happy with being mediocre – when he might be great. He goes to his grave with the label on his coffin: dumb. But he wasn’t dumb; he just had no great energy, no great purpose. He was satisfied to be mediocre. It’s too bad, whether it’s a student in college or in a man’s business; it’s just too bad.”

The Sox certainly aren’t happy with being mediocre, obviously. But what jumped out at me was this: “[They] had no great energy, no great purpose.”

The teams with the energy and the purpose are the Angels and Yankees. Twins, too, but the Yankees also were better on the field. I’m not advocating that energy and cohesiveness are the end-all, be-all, but they’re a big part — especially in October. Out of the four AL playoff teams, I can honestly say the Sox were the least energized.