Thursday, May 10, 2007

Will this be 'our year'?

In 2003, as it turns out, the team just wasn't good enough; they were overwhelmed in the final by a superior Brockton side. They made their way to the final that year by overachieving, and riding the heroic pitching performances of John Kelly and the rest of the rotation. They pulled off a number of miraculous wins with their dynamic and speedy offense. And although they never overwhelmed anyone with their talent, their penchant for coming up big and playing as a team made us believe they could win the title. But it was not to be.

The 2004 Spirit were eerily reminiscent of the 2003 Red Sox: they had a prolific lineup led by MVP-caliber slugger Vic Davilla, meaning that they were never out of any game [game 1 of the 2004 playoffs springs to mind instantly, in which the Spirit came back from down 5-0 in the 5th inning to beat Quebec]. But they also had an achilles heel: the bullpen. They couldn't close teams out down the stretch - as was displayed in that frustrating 7 game losing streak to end the regular season in which it seemed like Bicondoa was blowing a save every night.

But the Spirit showed the same heart and resilience in the playoff series with Quebec that served them well in 2003. After a dramatic and at times ugly 5-game playoff victory over Les Caps and a 2-0 lead against New Jersey, victory seemed in the cards. But just like in all of those games down the stretch, the Spirit could not hold the lead. Not only did they allow the Jackals to come back from an 0-2 deficit, they let them do so despite being down to their last 5 outs in game 3 and their last 3 outs in game 4. When Game 5 was played on that chilly and mostly empty Monday night at Fraser Field we all kind of knew what the end result would be - more disappointment. Once again, it was not to be.

2005 was a much different story. Theirs was a story of an underachieving team - a team with arguably the best talent in the league, but one that hit a horrible cold streak at the worst time during the 1st half pennant chase. They put together a remarkable run in the last week of the half but came short of the pennant. They remained hot in the 2nd half but the Rox were hotter. Despite having the league's 2nd best record (and it could have been the #1 best record, if not for basically tanking it once they were eliminated) the Spirit were shut out of the playoffs - victims of their own underachieving in the first half and of the Can Am League's quirky playoff format. Spirit fans lamented the fact that 2005's pitching staff -- particularly with the addition of Alex Herrera -- was the best one yet. In fact, it was hard to argue that that year's Spirit team wasn't the most talented of the 3. But there would be no playoffs in Lynn that season.

Last year, it seemed like the Spirit were finally destined to win the title. They dominated the league so completely that some speculated that the Spirit were the best independent baseball team in the entire country. I'm still convinced that at their peak they could have given any AA team a run for their money. The rotation was chugging along, the bullpen - led by Robinson and Fitzgerald - was unstoppable, and the lineup was solid enough to pick up W's for the pitchers. BJ Weed and the late return of Rob Fischer provided amazing hustle and outfield defense. The Spirit also had their share of magical moments, such as the 12-hour long doubleheader against Sussex to nail down the first half title.

But the Spirit lineup hit the skids at the worst possible time. In what could only be described as a colossal meltdown and a major disappointment, the Spirit coughed up series leads of 1-0 and 2-1 in Quebec as the rent-boy cheating Capitales finally managed to get use out of their magical 2nd half acquisitions, upsetting the Spirit before beating out the Rox in a classic championship series. Adding to the frustration that night during Game 5 was having to listen to the game En Francais and listen to their annoying announcer go nuts because our broadcast was on tape delay. Despite demonstrating their strength and dominance of the Can Am League all summer, the Spirit once again fell short in their quest to win the title.

There was also the specter hanging over everyone's head that 2006 would be the last season of Spirit baseball. After the last game ended, one got the depressing sense that it was the end of a fun 4-year run. But the Spirit made another 'last-second comeback,' and now are preparing for 2007.

On paper, this year's pitching staff looks even better than last year's. The line-up --- the weak spot of the Spirit during the playoffs, for sure --- is completely overhauled and patched together with numerous new pieces. Only time will tell if they can become the lineup that propels the Spirit to the Can Am League title. As we learned last year, you can't ONLY rely on the arms.

With a new manager, a completely new lineup, and continued questions about the team's future existence swirling around the franchise as it enters its 5th season, it should be interesting to see how the season develops. Here's hoping that this year's team is the one that gets it done.

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