But it’s the crackdown on amphetamines, or greenies, that really begins to affect play in 2006. Forced to function on adrenaline alone, the average starter now tosses an average of 75 pitches a game before requiring relief. Stolen bases decrease by 50 percent (who has the energy?) and the Detroit Tigers actually forfeit a game when the players vote not to play the second half of a rainout make-up double-header. Meanwhile, baseball is forced to consider a midnight curfew for games when Players Association boss Don Fehr complains that his union members “need their beauty sleep.”
The balance of power continues to shift in the American League. The Red Sox, forced to go with Tony Graffanino at shortstop and Bubba Crosby (a preseason pick-up from New York) in centerfield, win only 87 games and fail to make the playoffs. The Yankees’ luck sours when Damon injures himself during a Vanity Fair photo shoot and is replaced in center by an aging Bernie Williams. A perennial fan favorite, Williams surprisingly leads American League outfielders in fielding percentage. Unfortunately, that’s because he manages to get his glove on only one fly ball all year. The Yanks sink to third place.
So who wins it all? The newly revamped Los Angeles Dodgers, of course, who defeat the Cleveland Indians in a seven-game series. Derek Lowe wins three games in the Fall Classic, Billy Mueller knocks in the winning run in Game Seven, and Nomar is named both National League Comeback Player of the Year and MVP. But the real story behind the Dodgers is manager Grady Little’s skillful use of his bullpen. Now quick to remove any starter at the first sign of trouble, Little reprises Sparky Anderson’s old nickname of “Captain Hook.”
“Why can’t we get someone like Little to run the Red Sox?” bellows NESN studio analyst Kevin Millar, as the Dodgers enjoy their ticker-tape parade along Rodeo Drive.
Another Super Bowl
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the rejuvenated and now healthy Pats make it to Super Box XL (that’s 40), and face the defensively stingy Chicago Bears in a rematch of the infamous 46-10 1986 drubbing. The Bears make it tough on Tom Brady and company, holding them to 220 total yards and only 17 points. But unfortunately for the Monsters of the Midway, the Rex Grossman–Kyle Orton quarterback combo manages to amass only 37 total yards and 0 points. The single biggest offensive play for the Bears is a five-yard encroachment penalty against Willie McGinest in the fourth quarter.
After the game, the players and owner Bob Kraft are ecstatic about their fourth Lombardi trophy in five years. But amid the champagne and celebrating, Coach Bill Belichick is noticeably subdued. When asked what’s on his mind, the coach admits he’s preoccupied with the 2006-2007 exhibition season-opening game against the Detroit Lions. “They’ll be a much improved team and we better not take them for granted,” he warns somberly.
Unfortunately, the Patriots’ Super Bowl win is knocked off the next day’s front page in the Globe and Herald by a hastily called Larry Lucchino press conference announcing that the Red Sox have just hired two new interns in their ticket-sales office.