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It should be easy to hate the Red Sox. They've got it all -- baseball's most ambient ballpark, rich and aggressive owners, a savvy front office, a storied fan base that includes an appreciative old guard and the entitled new guard, and two World Series sweeps in four years.
Hank Steinbrenner had it wrong -- there is a Red Sox Nation, and it is a super power. The Sox have surpassed the Yankees as the dominant franchise in baseball, having replaced the Evil Empire with an Erudite Empire that looks to be gaining strength as the pinstripes age and blur.
It should be easy to hate a franchise that has it all, but when you watch the Sox up close, you can't help but like the way they play. Sunday night, they lost to the Twins 9-8 when knuckleballer Tim Wakefield temporarily ended the Twins' power outage, but Boston, down 7-1 in the third, made it a grind. After the game, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he and pitching coach Rick Anderson debated after every inning "which three pitchers to get up, even though we only have two mounds" in the bullpen.
This is already the Twins' most impressive series of the season -- taking two of the first three of a four-game series from what might be the best team in baseball. The Sox have stayed on top by avoiding the mistakes and excesses of the new millennium Yankees, blending the fruits of a productive farm system with the key members of their championship teams, retaining pop while adding youth, speed and fielding excellence.
They have separated themselves from their rivals by becoming more like the Jeter-Rivera-Pettitte Yankees of 1996 and less like the Giambi-Mussina-Damon Yankees of 2007. While the Yankees made a grave mistake by failing to trade for Johan Santana -- old $200 million teams have no choice but to go for it -- the Red Sox look smart for deciding they didn't need baseball's best lefthander.
What makes this Sox team unique is its speed and youth. Jacoby Ellsbury is a fine player with excellent range who can play anywhere in the outfield, as he showed with a remarkable diving catch to rob Joe Mauer of a double Sunday.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia reminds old Twins heads of Chuck Knoblauch at his best, a compact and multi-talented second baseman whose savvy equals his skills.
Kevin Youkilis has evolved into a complete hitter who batted in Ramirez's customary cleanup spot on Sunday night against the Twins, as Manny Ramirez rested a sore hamstring. Two Twins veterans told me that Youkilis is Boston's toughest out.
Jed Lowrie, the infield prospect rumored to be part of a prospective Santana trade package, would be a regular for the Twins; the Sox sent him back to Pawtucket on Sunday.
What makes the Sox a pleasure to watch is a unique blend of disciplined hitting, gamesmanship in the field and excellent baserunning. The Sox set a franchise record with 22 consecutive successful steals before Mauer threw out J.D. Drew this weekend. The Sox not only have hit twice as many homers (40) as the small-ball Twins (20), they have only two fewer steals and a higher success rate on attempts.
What grabbed Gardenhire's attention this weekend was the play of Pedroia and Youkilis, the first baseman. In the seventh inning Friday night, Twins speedster Carlos Gomez pushed a pretty good bunt toward first, a bunt he has beaten out a few times this year.
Gardenhire noticed that, before the bunt, Youkilis and Pedroia signaled each other that Youkilis would charge and Pedroia would cover first. That sounds routine, but it's not.
"Youkilis is like a shortstop playing first base," Gardenhire said. "He's unbelievable. That reminded me of Knoblauch and Kent Hrbek -- they'd talk during the game like that. You like to see the game played that way.
"They're very professional, a lot of gamers. I think that right side of the infield is as good as any two guys who play together. That's fun to watch."
Gardenhire smiled and said what baseball fans everywhere should be saying about The Nation. "I mean, I hate watching them," he said. "But that's pretty good baseball."
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. firstname.lastname@example.org