Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Dice-K wins, but everyone else loses

The pitching matchup Wednesday night was not fair. We all can see that.

Daisuke Matsuzaka making a rehab start for the Salem Red Sox in the Carolina League playoffs is a little like Michael Phelps shaking off rust in the VHSL Group AA swim meet, with officials counting his points toward Hidden Valley's tally. Or Walter Ray Williams Jr. showing up to bowl for Joe's Plumbing when the roll-offs hit.

Dice-K finished fourth in the American League Cy Young voting last year. He's been the MVP of both World Baseball Classics.

That officially qualifies him as a ringer, shoulder ailment or not.

Not that I don't understand the position of the Boston brass. They hold a slender AL wild-card lead, and they need their Japanese right-hander to help them keep it. Dice-K required a place to pitch Wednesday. Salem was playing. There's a reason we call minor league baseball affiliates "farm clubs" -- they exist to serve their parent organizations, nothing more, and the big-league franchises can till the soil however they please.

So what the Red Sox did Wednesday wasn't wrong. It wasn't evil or conniving.

But it still stinks.

Dice-K tossed 6 23 strong innings in Salem's 7-2 victory over Winston-Salem in Game 1 on Wednesday, but it stinks no matter how he would have pitched. Had he gotten shelled, the Salem players would have been left wondering where the series would have stood had one of their own guys toed the rubber. Because he dominated, Winston-Salem has a legitimate beef that overqualified players are deciding the champion of a Class A league.

But the Red Sox players got cheated here, too. If they win the best-of-five series, they'll have to explain how their Game 1 victory isn't tainted.

Good luck to them.

For years, I've argued that minor-league pennant races and playoff games don't really matter, that player development was everything at this level. And for years, the players of the old Avalanche seemed to reinforce that position. Oh, they said the right things about wanting to win. But I distinctly remember the final day of the 2005 regular season, when the Avs needed a victory or a Potomac loss to have a chance at the playoffs.

Several players moved out of their apartment the night before, figuring they'd get a hotel if they won and had to stick around. Many of the cars in the players' parking lot were packed with household items, primed to go.

And after the Avs lost, Potomac was still engaged in a tight game. Salem still had a chance. But a grand total of three players actually went to the dugout to hear the piped-in radio feed. The rest lounged in the clubhouse, waiting for word on whether they were done.

I got the feeling many of them were disappointed when they found out they weren't.

But I don't get that feeling this year. You see those pictures in this week's papers of the Red Sox players sprinting out of the dugout and dousing each other with beer, and you can tell it matters. You read that quote from 28-year-old outfielder Brad Correll, the one talking about how much a title would mean to him considering his playing days might soon end, and you can feel the desire. You read about shaving cream pies, hopping dugouts and individual sacrifices, and you can tell the Red Sox care.

Does Dice-K? Why would he? He hasn't been a part of this run. But there he was pitching in Game 1 instead of somebody else who had been.

And that's not fair to anyone.

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