Permit me a brief, if not unexpected, digression. Believe me, I’ll get to Pirlo in a second.
On the last day of the trading deadline in 2004, the Boston Red Sox orchestrated a four-team deal that sent beloved icon Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs, and netted them, among other things, Colombian shortstop Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos.
The fans, the press, and many players thought that the 30-year old GM Theo Epstein had doomed the team to another season of heartbreak.
Instead, they won their first World Series in 86 years.
And while there were a lot of contributing factors, one particular aspect of this trade bears deeply on what happened in Yankee Stadium on July 25th. And that is the fact that Cabrera was, at the time, a Gold Glove shortstop.
Which means he actually made Boston’s pitching staff better.
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t been in as many All-Star games as Nomar – or that he’d never been in in All-Star game. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t hit as well as Nomar (though he uncharacteristically hit really well during the playoffs that year). It didn’t matter that he’d never been in a pennant race before.
What mattered is that his particular ability would make his teammates more valuable, and thus make the entire team more successful
Now, back to Sunday, and the arrival of the Maestro on the pitch in the 53rd minute.
Because from that moment on the entire game – and potentially the entire season for NYCFC – changed.
Not because Pirlo has a set of skills that the rest of us humans don’t have – although clearly he does. Not because he can see the game in ways that the rest of us can’t – although that’s true as well. Not even because he clearly has an understanding of the game that far surpasses that of all but a handful of people on the planet – although, yes, there’s that too.
But because he actually made his teammates better. Every single person on the pitch played differently when il Metronomo subbed in for Mehdi Balouchy in the 53rd minute.
The midfield, which NYCFC had been struggling to control, opened up. David Villa – who has spent all season with at least two opposing players on his back – suddenly found himself in acres of space. Indeed, so much space that I swear, the second time it happened, he looked at the referee, and then the assistant referee, to make sure there hadn’t been a whistle.
McNamara, who had been drifting back into the midfield to defend (much to Villa’s anger), suddenly was free to roam up top where he should have been all along – creating further space for Villa. Jacobson, who in past games has found himself bringing the ball up from the backline, was able to stay deep and effectively take Kaka out of the second half. And Poku was not only able to stay in an attacking role, he was able to work more closely with Villa (and, not coincidentally, resulting in three assists).
Pirlo made Angelino better by unleashing his speed and slashing runs. He made Iraola better by keeping him from drifting into the attack. He made Calle better, by helping him get his first MLS goal. He made Saunders better by telling him where Kaka’s free kick was going.
Hell, even Mix Diskerud who came in minutes after Pirlo and who NYCFC faithful have been worried about was, as old Kremlin-watchers would say, “rehabilitated”; now that he didn’t have to bring the ball up himself, he was free to do what he’s sort of best at – use his endless energy and insane fitness to run all over the pitch, creating chances, overloading coverages, and scoring completely unmarked goals.
None of this diminishes the fact that, of course, Pirlo is a man of unusual genius. He’s one of the sport’s great players, and great players operate by an entirely different set of physics than other players, let alone the rest of us on the planet. Time and light and gravity bend and swerve about them in ways the rest of us cannot fathom – indeed, in ways most people can not even perceive, let alone engage. These people do not simply see the world differently; the world actually functions differently around them. There’s a different science.
But success is a science too; if you have the conditions, you get the result. Finally, with the addition of Pirlo, we had the conditions.
Conditions that showed that his true greatness is measured in the success of his teammates.
Not a bad measure for the rest of us mere mortals either, actually.
Main Photo Courtesy of Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports