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This Week In Base-baaaaall

Andrew C. Thomas

OPINION EDITOR

It’s starting to get ugly in the late innings for the Beantown loyal.

The yearlong problem of a weak bullpen is haunting the Boston Red Sox. In the last week, dramatic collapses have plagued Grady Little and his club, mostly because of Brandon Lyon, their now-demoted closer, who has blown three save opportunities -- two against the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and one last week against the even-par Florida Marlins. Newly acquired Byung-Hyun “B.K.” Kim has now assumed the closer’s position, where he made his record-setting mark with the Diamondbacks in 2001. Sox fans can rest assured that the young sidearmer has learned well since then, recording his first save during their Wednesday victory over the Rays.

The Marlins’ collapse was even more dramatic, as the bullpen collectively blew a seven-run lead in the late innings, from dominating 9-2 after seven to losing a heartbreaker 10-9. The game could have been salvaged if not for a brilliant diving catch from Marlins’ CF Juan Pierre, and the subsequent doubling off of hustling catcher Jason Varitek.

Varitek, though, has been a powerhouse of late, playing an integral part of the Sox’ four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers and their 25-8 woodshedding of the Marlins on Friday the 27th. Varitek, who has been moved all over the lineup, seemed perfectly comfortable to hit at the bottom of the league’s most potent offense. “They’re gonna pitch me the same way no matter where I am in the lineup” except leadoff, Varitek remarked after the game. After making two plate appearances in the first inning of the Friday game, though, the bottom of the order doesn’t seem that far from the top to me.

The number 42 is on display at every major league ballpark, retired in honor of Jackie Robinson’s barrier-breaking appearance.

After all, some barriers were meant to be broken, and even the thought of their reappearance makes fans of the game apoplectic.

Recently, controversy brewed when a report by the Toronto Star observed a declining number of black ballplayers in the major leagues, which also observed that the home town Blue Jays carried the smallest number of minority ballplayers of any team in the majors. (As several people have mentioned to me upon hearing the story, though, someone has to come in last.)

Readers were furious. The Jays’ roster was furious. As letters indicated, it was likely not the meat of the story that irked, but the teaser headline, “The White Jays?” which ran across the top of the front page. Sensationalism was the outcry of the week, and feathers were ruffled.

But even within the accusation and whether intended or not, it was an accusation that came with mitigating factors. The loss of a key Latin American scout, Epy Guerrero, in the 1990s has hindered the team’s historically excellent ability to find young talent from that neighborhood. The Jays’ opening day roster had three “African-American” players, well in line with the league average. And their continued salary dump, needed as average attendance has plummeted from 50,000 in the early ’90s to 20,000 now, is bringing in talented rookies as opposed to established players.

At the focus of the controversy is GM J. P. Ricciardi, who according to the report has brought in 36 white players during his tenure out of a total of 39. This figure certainly merits suspicion, though if you want a quick fix, blame it on Oakland.

The Athletics, Ricciardi’s former employer, have explored a philosophy of patience at the plate and caution on the basepaths. Ricciardi has bought into this philosophy himself, and it’s evident from watching Jays batters run up the opposition’s pitch count. The fact that the Jays and A’s have two of the lowest stolen base totals in the league only backs this up.

This may win games, but it’s boring to watch a slugger foul off ball after ball waiting for his pitch. As I watch today’s games, I yearn for the speed of the early ’90s and the dreaded WAMCO lineup. The lethal speed of Devon White, Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter -- yes, even he stole bases, when he wasn’t hitting dingers -- was beautifully twinned with the clutch hitting of John Olerud and Paul Molitor, not to mention the other three. It only got better when all-time stolen bases champ Rickey Henderson joined the team as a rent-a-player for the championship run of 1993.

No one makes this kind of noise about hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs, or Boston Bruins, who are tied at zero for the least number of black players on their team. That’s probably because there have been a few (cough) token players, like Carolina goalie Kevin Weekes, Philadelphia thug Donald Brashear, and Calgary star Jarome Iginla, who are demonstrating that the numbers of minorities are increasing. Latinos are getting into the game too, in the person of Scott Gomez and Manny Fernandez, each clutch members of the Devils and Wild respectively.

Maybe it’s baseball’s fans, increasingly disenchanted with a game that echoed the national consciousness, that are just angry in general, crying foul whenever the opportunity comes. When the All-Star Game comes next week to Chicago, the fans will undoubtedly find something to complain about. Last year’s infamous game might have ended in a tie, but fans still got 11 innings of quality baseball from the world’s purported best. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before (other) hockey and basketball fans become as hopeless and disenfranchised as those who mourn the state of the game of Ruth, Gehrig and Robinson.