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Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Miracle at Fenway" excerpt: Fenway Fights and Flights

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

My latest book, "Miracle at Fenway: The Inside Story of the Boston Red Sox 2004 Championship Season" is now available nationwide. This excerpt details the backstory behind one of the biggest turning points of the '04 regular season.

It had rained all night and into the morning, leaving the Fenway Park outfield so damp that even an umpire who really was blind would have been tempted to call the game on account of squishiness.


This, however, wasn't just any game.

The Red Sox had fallen to the Yankees, 8-7, the night before. All losses to New York were tough, but this one really hurt, with ace Curt Schilling inexplicably blowing an early 4-1 lead and normally reliable Keith Foulke coughing up the winning run in the ninth on an Alex Rodriguez RBI single. Boston had gone 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and a three-homer game by Kevin Millar had been wasted. Worst of all, the Sox were now a season-high nine and a half games behind Joe Torre's pinstriped crew.

With the other three AL East teams all under .500, it was looking more and more likely that the Sox would finish second to the Yanks for a seventh straight excruciating year. Even with a division title all but an impossibility, Boston still needed every win it could get in a supertight Wild Card race – and every opportunity  to gain confidence against New York in anticipation of a possible postseason encounter. After winning six of seven April games against their rivals, the Sox had lost three straight at the Stadium a few weeks before, including the “Nomar-Jeter” game when Garciaparra sat out with a lingering knee injury and watched his Yankeecounterpart wrap himself in bloody glory. Last night made it four straight losses to the Evil Empire.
Jeter goes all out. (Newsday)

It wasn't just the Red Sox who had a big stake in this game, however. FOX had it scheduled as a nationally-telecast, marquee matchup – with a 3:15 Saturday afternoon starting time. Boston-New York games always got strong ratings, and this year they had been through the roof both locally on NESN and nationally on FOX and ESPN. The intensity and intrigue established during the previous year's playoffs and built up during the winter-long A-Rod saga made for must-see TV. Sox-Yanks was like a soap opera and reality show rolled into one.     

Those affiliated with the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to get under way a few days later at Boston's FleetCenter, were also eager to see the game go off as planned. Everybody from delegates to corporate sponsors to fund-raising groups to politicians themselves had been seeking out tickets to the Sox-Yanks contests, along with trying to nab access to other Fenway specialties like batting practice, private tours, or reserved space in one of the ballpark's function rooms overlooking the field, which would remain open once the team headed out on the road after Sunday's series finale.

Nothing, however, trumped player safety. A group including managers Francona and Torre, Red Sox chief operating officer Mike Dee, and Fenway groundskeeper Dave Mellor all walked the field, and after feeling the soft, squishy grass and viewing the wide assortment of puddles, decided that the game should be canceled.

Out on Yawkey Way, Sox VP and event maestro Dr. Charles Steinberg was biting into a Rem-Dog from Jerry Remy's, waiting for the gates to open and the crowds to come pouring in, when his cell phone rang. It was Mike Dee.
Dr. Charles recalls it all. (Boston Globe)

“Hey, chief, where are you?'” asked Dee (he called everybody chief).

On Yawkey Way.”

“Listen, you've got to get an announcement out – we're banging the game.”

"Banging? What does that mean?"

"We're postponing the game."

“I was suspicious,” explains Steinberg of what he was hearing. “It's not raining.  It's gray and it's raw with billowy clouds and yes, it rained overnight, but, man, you've got 30,000 people pouring in to eat hot dogs and drink and hang out for two hours before the game is even scheduled to start.“

So I said, "Why?"

"The field took a real beating last night, and they're not going to be able to play."    

"Where are you?"

"I'm in Tito's office."

"I'll meet you there."

As Steinberg rushed across the street into Fenway and down toward the manager's office, he made calls to three more ballpark insiders: public relations director Glenn Geffner in the press box, talking through a press release and passing on the edict to “not release it until I tell  you”; to video/scoreboard production manager Danny Kischel in the control room, giving him a public address announcement and a similar request to "not read it until I tell you"; and to the scoreboard operator, with an announcement to "not show anyone until I tell you."

“All three systems were ready to go as soon as we called them back and said, 'Yes, go ahead.  Postpone this game,'” recalls Steinberg. “We didn't know if there could be a doubleheader the next day, because the teams already had the ESPN Sunday night game scheduled.”
Francona needed convincing.

Something felt strange to Steinberg. When he got to Francona's tiny corner office in the bowels of the ballpark, he found  Dee, Tito, Mellor, Larry Lucchino, Theo Epstein, and special assistant Jonathan Gilula, all crowded around Francona's desk.

Someone reiterated what Dee had told Steinberg about the field “taking a beating” the previous night, and Steinberg asked outright if a cancellation was absolutely necessary.

“I was worried that there was something dangerous going on,” says Steinberg, looking back. “We're not that far removed from 9/11, we've got the Democratic National Convention coming up, so I asked, 'Is there more to the story than you're telling me?'" Someone, maybe Larry, said, 'No, this is baseball driven all the way.'"

Realizing the kinds of questions they would be getting from writers as the ballpark filled up and the skies cleared, Steinberg continued pressing for more details he could pass on.

“Look, it's our [cancellation] call to make, not the umpires, if the game hasn't started yet,” Lucchino said. "But Tito, go out with Joe Torre and the umpires and Dave Mellor and see if they also see what we see. It's our call, and they don't need to agree, but see if they all understand.”

Lucchino's thinking was that if they could get more buy-in from some other key folks – Torre, the umpires – it would be easier to justify their decision to cancel such an important game when the writers started asking.

“So out to shallow left field walked that group, Terry Francona and Joe Torre and the four umpires and Dave Mellor,” says Steinberg. “Mike Dee and I trailed behind, walking along the warning track.  And humorously, they were stomping on the outfield grass in a way that splashed and elicited water reminiscent of Lucy [Ball] stomping on the grapes [on a classic I love Lucy episode]. This made it clear to everyone what we were dealing with here.”

Francona came back to where Dee and Steinberg were standing. He explained that Torre had acknowledged that it was the Red Sox' call to make, and that they could do so whenever they wanted. The understanding was that the game would be canceled, so Torre was now presumably telling this to his team in the visitor's clubhouse.

“As we were walking, Mike Dee took a call in his ear, and Tito and I heard half of the conversation,” recalls Steinberg.

"Hey, chief, what? 

“We're walking on the warning track.”

“How many guys? A mutiny?  Where?”

“All right, we're on our way there. "

Then Dee turned to Francona.

“That was Jonathan Gilula, Tito. He says a bunch of players are in your office, threatening a mutiny if we don't play this game.”

Without skipping a beat, Francona replied, "Well, it's the first sign of life I've seen from them in weeks.”

The trio returned to Francona's office, where the same people from before were now reassembled and joined by four more: Jason Varitek, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez, and Kevin Millar. All were in uniform except Varitek, who had on a red T-shirt and a stern look. Steinberg doesn't recall whether it was Francona or someone else who started talking with Varitek, but he still remembers the words.

“We wanna play,” said Varitek.

"Guys, I know that, but the field took a real beating last night."

"We wanna play."

"Right, I understand that, but it would take a super-human effort to get the field ready."

"Then do a super-blanking-human effort, we wanna play. "
Tek wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Yeah, we wanna play, yeah!” That was Millar.

"Yeah, we're not afraid of these guys, I'll come in from the bullpen if I have to!” That was Pedro.

“Then we heard this thunderous thud of a door closing,” says Steinberg. “There in the doorway is David Ortiz. 'What's going on?' he bellows. Somebody, I don't know if it was Millar or Varitek, tells him, 'They don't want us to play,' to which Papi says something like 'We want their asses! We want these guys! We want to play!'”


Millar says that at the time, the players in Francona's office thought that “the people upstairs” were behind the possible cancellation because they didn't like the pitching matchup: 3-7 Bronson Arroyo of the Red Sox against New York's Tanyon Sturtze (3-2), who had won the Nomar-Jeter game back on July 1 in relief. Boston players, however, wanted their crack at Sturtze, who came in sporting a 5.05 ERA.

"At that point, it’s almost like the movie Rudy,” says Millar. “We took our jerseys off and said “We’re playing.” Bronson Arroyo was probably the most underrated guy on that team, and we just wanted to get out there and do it.”

It was now 2 p.m., and it was clear the players were not going to back down. Lucchino instructed Mellor to work on the field for an hour and see what progress he could make; if he was making progress, then the team would consider delaying but not postponing the game. If it looked hopeless, they would cancel.

“So we start to disperse, and then poor Tito's phone rings,” says Steinberg. “It's Joe Torre, and I get to hear another one-sided conversation.”

"Yeah, I know.  I know.”

“I know I told you that.”

“No, we're going to try to play.”

"Joe, we all have bosses." That was Lucchino, chiming in.
Torre was not happy.

Mellor and his crew went to work on the field. After an hour they had indeed made progress, so they kept going and the crowd was told the starting time was being delayed an hour until 4:20.

Veteran cameraman Kevin Vahey was working the game for FOX. “The truck had told us the game was called, and then five minutes later they called back and said, 'Wait a minute, don’t take anything down yet!' Vahey explains. “I actually heard that someone at the FOX network office called [baseball commissioner Bud] Selig and said, 'The Red Sox can’t call this game, the weather is going to clear and all our people are there.'”

The subplot to all this is that while the field was being cleaned up, it was also being set up with a stage and equipment for a short pregame concert. The Dropkick Murphys, the Boston-based Irish rock band whose trademark song, “Tessie,” had become a hit at Fenway when it was played over the loudspeakers after Red Sox home wins, was planning to perform the piece live at the ballpark for the first time.

“Tessie” had originally been written at the turn of the 20th century for a Broadway musical, and was a favorite of the first Red Sox fan club known as the Royal Rooters. The Rooters changed the words to make fun of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and heckled them with the song all through the 1903 World Series. Pirates players placed some of the blame for their series loss to the Sox (then the Boston Americans) on “Tessie,” and the song became an official battle cry for the renamed Red Sox through four more World Series titles in 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918.
Magic Music (Library of Congress)

Then the Sox sold Babe Ruth, fell into the American League basement, and the Rooters disbanded. “Tessie” was played only occasionally at Fenway during the '20s, and never after 1930. The story of the song and its connection to the team might have ended there, were it not for the curiosity of Steinberg. Ever a student of history, he kept reading in books on the Red Sox about the magic of this song he had never heard. In October 2003, with Boston and the Yankees squaring off in the ALCS, he found a scratchy audio recording of “Tessie” from 1903 online. If the Sox beat New York, he planned to clean up and play it during the World Series  – 100 years after its first use as a talisman for victory. Perhaps it could be a good-luck charm once again.

That didn't happen, of course, but over the winter a new plan emerged. Epstein, the general manager/guitarist, was holding his annual “Hot Stove, Cool Music” fund-raiser at which local bands performed as a sort of pre-spring training celebration. Would-be rock stars from the baseball world like Epstein, ESPN analyst Peter Gammons (also a guitarist), and even ballplayers with musical talent like Arroyo joined in on the fun. Held in one of the bars across the street from Fenway, it was becoming a widely popular show that resulted in a CD that raised even more for charity.

At the January 2004 event, Boston Herald sportswriter Jeff Horrigan suggested that Steinberg talk to frontman Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys about redoing “Tessie” for a modern audience. Casey went for the idea, Horrigan helped rewrite the lyrics to make them relevant to the '04 Sox, and the Dropkicks recorded it with Arroyo and Damon singing backup vocals. The revamped “Tessie” had been playing at Fenway all summer.

But never live. Until the game the players saved, and history recorded.
Setting the tone. (Dropkickmurphys.com)

First the Dropkicks did their thing, banging out their hit at full throttle from center field while young Red Sox employee Colleen Riley, dressed as “Tessie,” danced onstage. Steinberg, watching the whole thing from the Red Sox dugout, looked over at Arroyo and thought how cool it was that the young pitcher, who had helped with the recording, was now getting the chance to see its live debut.

“Who's going for us today?,” Steinberg asked, and Arroyo replied by giving him a crooked little smile. Realizing that he had been so consumed by everything going on that he had forgotten, Steinberg laughed and said, “Of course, it's you!”
Arroyo got the start (Matthew Lee/Boston Globe)

Once the game finally started, before a full house loaded up on emotion, beers, and the 54-minute delay, the Yankees sought to make all the lobbying efforts and lucky songs inconsequential. They had jumped out to a 3-0 lead by the third inning, helped in part by a Millar error at first base, when Rodriguez stepped in against Arroyo. Few in the ballpark knew it, but this pair had first faced each other as high school players in southern Florida. Rodriguez, pumped about his game-winning hit the night before, crouched over the plate – leaving him little time to escape an Arroyo sinker pitch that got away and hit him near the left elbow. A-Rod stepped out of the box, leered out at his adversary as he took afew steps toward the mound, and started shouting at Arroyo.

In looking back at the incident, Arroyo said he never meant to hit Rodriguez, but did want to pitch him inside due to the results of their last face-off. Back in April, at Yankee Stadium, A-Rod had hit an outside pitch from Arroyo about 500 feet for a mammoth home run, but it had been quickly forgotten in the aftermath of Boston's 3-2, 13-inning win and subsequent three-game sweep

Exactly who said what during this latest encounter varies depending on the source. In watching the replay, and talking to several folks near the incident, it appeared to go something like this:

A-Rod spun around after being hit, dropped his bat, and as he walked toward first yelled at Arroyo that he should “throw the f--king ball over the plate.” Varitek stepped over and in front of A-Rod to keep him from doing anything physical to Arroyo, telling him to “just take your base.” The two quickly exchanged “f--k yous,” and then A-Rod bumped Tek and motioned with his finger – the universal language for “You want a piece of me? Come and get me!”

Tek did just that, shoving his glove into A-Rod's face and then grabbing him as both benches emptied. At first players sprinted over to break up the fight, but within a few seconds they had also started some new ones along the first base line in front of the Red Sox dugout. The biggest subplot was when Sturtze, who had grown up a Red Sox fan in Worcester, made the poor decision of grabbing Kapler from behind. The strongest guy on the team, Big Gabe soon had his attacker on the ground with an unnecessary (but appreciated) assist from teammates Ortiz and Nixon.
All hell breaks loose. 

“I think the first-base dugout had the best angle, but from center field [where he had his camera] you could tell something was happening,” says Vahey. “Whether or not Varitek said, “We don’t throw at .260 hitters!' I don’t know." 

Down in Florida, Joe and Donna Varitek were watching the Red Sox at home like they always did. When they saw their son and A-Rod starting to go at it, they were not surprised. “He was doing his job, protecting his pitcher,” reflects Donna Varitek today, the exact same response that Jason had given in interviews right after the incident. Joe remembers being afraid that using Jason's old football instincts might backfire on him. “I got a little worried after the push incident; Jason went into his driving tackle thing and drove A-Rod to the ground. He could have really hurt himself.”

Another guy who almost got hurt wasn't even on the field.
A close call for Pesky. (CBS Boston)

“That was the day I thought I killed Johnny Pesky,” says closer Keith Foulke with a nervous laugh, speaking of the 85-year-old former Red Sox shortstop, coach, and manager who was still with the team that summer as a sort of legend-in-residence. “It was the fourth inning, so I was in the clubhouse, dressed and ready to go out to the bullpen. I’m sitting there watching it on TV, and you kind of see it [the fight] starting to go. When Jason stood up, and they started jawing at each other, I took off my pullover, headed for the door, and was just about to turn and run down the stairs [to the dugout and field] when I ran into Johnny. He fell back, and I caught him.”

Another not-quite-so-old-timer was taking in one of the more unique views of the action in a suite high above the Red Sox dugout. Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley was interviewing former All-Star outfielder Fred Lynn for a book he was writing entitled Red Sox: Where Have You Gone?, and at the precise moment Lynn was describing for Buckley a three-homer game he had in Detroit as a rookie back in 1975, Arroyo hit Rodriguez – and sent Lynn, who had done some TV work since his retirement, into play-by-play mode. Lynn had been part of some pretty good Red Sox-Yankees fights himself back in the '70s, and this melee seemed to take him back.

“If you listen to the tape, it's really funny,” says Buckley. “One minute he's telling me about his big day in Detroit, and then he suddenly gets real intense and starts in like, 'Oh boy, he looks pissed! It looks like they're going to go! They're going to go!'”
Lynn: a bird's eye view. (Answers.com)

By the time everyone on the field had been separated, New York starter Sturtze was bleeding from his left ear, the result of his one-on-three tussle; Rodriguez, Varitek, Kapler, and New York outfielder Kenny Lofton had all been ejected; and the Red Sox had a new infusion of energy to ride out the season.

“It was one of those brawls where you get to see what kind of people your teammates are,” Damon said later. “In our case, we got to see great things – great camaraderie, great togetherness.”

This first manifest itself in the late stages of that afternoon's game. The Red Sox were down 3-0, up 4-3, down 9-4 (after a six-run Yankee sixth and another ejection, this time Francona), down 9-8 (after getting four back in the bottom of the sixth), and down 10-8 heading into the last of the ninth. Rivera was on to pitch for New York, which with a two-run lead was money in the bank.

Not this time. Garciaparra – who, unbeknownst to most, had been talking money that very morning – led off the frame with a double. He went to third on a deep fly to right by Nixon, and then scored when Millar (4-for-5 on the day) lined a single to center. Bill Mueller was up next, and after working Rivera to a 3-and-1 count, he struck a shot into the Red Sox bullpen to cap the three-hour, 54-minute marathon and an 11-10 Boston win.The entire team greeted Mueller at home plate; and Francona quickly realized he needed to pay extra-close attention to where (and near whom) he was celebrating. In rushing out from the clubhouse (where he had been banished by the umpires), the manager had forgotten to put on his shoes.
Mueller ended what Tek had started.

Afterwards, Francona and Epstein both had a sense of just how important the moment had been.

"It's a huge win for us, and will be bigger if we make it bigger,” Francona said. “If we have this catapult us and we do something with, that's what will really make it big.”

Added Epstein: “If we go on to play like this, this will go down as one of the most important victories we had. Today was not about stats or box scores, it was about emotions.”

The normally stoic Varitek chided himself for not keeping his own emotions under control with regards to A-Rod, and in the months and years to come would refuse to autograph any of the countless photos depicting the day's iconic moment – he and Rodriguez, face-to-glove-in-face – that would wind up on the walls of rec rooms and bars across New England.

When Charles Steinberg approached Tek in the clubhouse and told him “You won us the game today,” the catcher vehemently denied it. “He thought I meant the fight, but I didn't,” explains Steinberg. “I told him 'That game was postponed until you said your words.'” 

What did  A-Rod think of all this? "I think it's going to take this rivalry to a new level,” Rodriguez said. “The intensity is something I've never really seen before."

Although it was only July, it was indeed beginning to feel like the postseason around Fenway Park. The Red Sox won the Sunday night game against New York as well, 9-6, but the true impact of “The Fight” could not be focused on right away because another significant event was looming less than a week away: the July 31 trade deadline. ■



Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Miracle at Fenway" Excerpt: Running Man

Roberts in the moment. 

My latest book, "Miracle at Fenway: The Inside Story of the Boston Red Sox 2004 Championship Season" will be available nationwide on July 15 (and can currently be pre-ordered online). In advance of its release, I will be running excerpts here over the next several weeks.


The first thing he thought about was Maury Wills. 

In this, the biggest moment of his baseball life, Dave Roberts was trying to focus on the topic at hand. It was the ninth inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox trailed, 4-3, and Roberts stood on first base representing the tying run. 

If the Sox lost, their season was over; the Yankees led the best-of-seven series three games to none, and were set to celebrate on the Fenway Park grass after just three more outs. They had the right man on the mound to get those outs in Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of his or any generation.

The home fans were abuzz, urging on a Boston rally, but Roberts could not hear them. Inserted into the game moments earlier as a pinch runner for Kevin Millar, whose leadoff walk against Rivera had raised the masses to their feet, Roberts knew it was his feet that everybody in the ballpark and millions of TV viewers were now watching. 
Mo in October: usually automatic. (New York Post)

He was a reserve outfielder who had not played in a week, and he had been put in here for one reason: to steal second base and give the Red Sox a chance to tie the game on a single. The crowd knew it, the TV and radio analysts were pontificating on it, and the cameras were bracing for it -- zoomed in and ready to capture the moment.

Roberts could feel the sense of urgency, could anticipate the eyes upon him. Still, poised on the grandest of stages, he had the clarity to think back 10 months to moments in a near-empty ballpark 3,000 miles away. Moments spent with Maury Wills.

Wills was a baserunning instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he had once set the major league record with 104 stolen bases in a single season. Now in his 70s, slower afoot but richer in experience, he had worked with Roberts at Dodgers Stadium over the previous winter on the art of the perfect steal.

There will come a time, Wills had imparted, when you will be called upon to swipe a bag without the art of surprise in your arsenal. A quartet of defenders will be poised to stop you. The pitcher, sure you’ll be running, will be keeping you close. The catcher will be ready to take the pitch and whip it to second. The shortstop will be moving to second with the pitch, ready to receive the throw from the catcher and apply the tag. And the first baseman will be tight on the bag, in case you stray too far and there is a chance for the pitcher to gun the ball over and pick you off. 

Wills in '62: Advice from an expert

In such a situation, Wills told his protégé, you’ll need to first get a big lead, and then rely on everything you’ve learned about the pitcher’s tendencies: his windup, his release point, and any moves he might make to warn you he’s ready to spin and make a pickoff throw. Roberts followed the advice. He watched video of all the Yankee pitchers, studied many of them live, and in the case of Rivera and New York catcher Jorge Posada already had some firsthand success to build on. A few weeks before, in the waning days of the regular season, Roberts had stolen second against this All-Star battery and scored the tying run in an eventual Red Sox win.

The big difference, of course, was that this was the playoffs, and an elimination game at that. If Posada gunned Roberts down here, or, worse yet, if Roberts guessed wrong on his initial jump toward second and was picked off, it could mean Boston’s season. Roberts felt his anxiety level rising, but then he remembered something else Wills had told him: You can’t be afraid to steal that base.

I might not be afraid, Roberts remembers thinking to himself, but I am most definitely nervous.

“The game felt like it was going very fast; my mind was racing,” Roberts recalls nearly a decade later. “I've got a big lead, but to just go out there and steal, it’s pretty tough. I know what Mariano is going to do; I’ve got the information. I’m getting as loose as I possibly can, but this is October, and it’s cold.”
Bill Mueller: the ultimate dirt dog

The next batter, Bill Mueller, stepped into the box. Rivera set, and then, just before starting his windup, quickly spun and threw over to first baseman Tony Clark in a pickoff attempt. Roberts dove back to the bag just before Clark slapped him with his glove. In that moment, and the one that quickly followed it, the base runner felt a change come over him.

“I think you can actually see it in the footage,” says Roberts. “He throws over one time, and my nerves start to calm. The game starts to slow down. Then he throws over a second time, and he almost gets me, which is great because for me it slows the game down even more.  My focus started to get even better – at that point it felt like I was a part of the game.”

Roberts thought of something else as he dusted himself off a second time: maybe the pitcher was as nervous as him. Rivera possessed outstanding control; he almost never walked anyone, let alone the leadoff man in an inning. His ability to coolly put games to bed for the Yankees had earned him the nickname “Sandman” around the league, and while Rivera's cool exterior did not hint at it, Roberts hoped that Millar's base on balls might have rattled the unflappable pitcher just a bit.
Millar works a walk. (FOX TV)

There was also recent history to consider. In addition to the September victory in which Roberts had a key steal, the Red Sox had beaten Rivera in July as well on a walkoff home run at Fenway by the same man now at the plate – Bill Mueller. Roberts hoped all these things were on Rivera's mind; if they were, it might give him a bit more of an edge was he to try for second.

The only thing Roberts knew for sure was this: eventually Rivera was going to have to deliver a pitch to Mueller. The question was when. Throughout Fenway Park, and beyond, fans watching the game on NBC or listening to the play-by-play of Red Sox broadcasters Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano wondered as well.  Joe Morgan, the former Red Sox manager who had lived and died with the team for his entire 74 years, leaned forward in his basement sofa and stared at the TV – trying like Roberts to read Rivera’s mind. 

So did Fenway vendor Rob Barry, a former Northeastern University pitcher who had achieved his own bit of glory as the ballpark’s premier peanut-bag tosser. From his current spot in the box seats just behind Boston’s dugout, Barry had a perfect view of both Roberts in profile and the broad back of the right-handed Rivera -- with its familiar black 42 first made famous by fellow legend Jackie Robinson.
Rob Barry: the perfect view

A moment later, the number blurred as Rivera spun once more and threw to first. Again Roberts lunged back, and as he got to his feet a third time he felt confidence surging through him.

“Now it felt like I had played all nine innings,” Roberts remembers with a smile. “My legs felt like they were ready to go, and I could fire to get a great jump. If he wanted to go to the plate, I had him. I knew I had him. If he had just thrown to the plate without throwing over, I don’t know if I could have felt [capable of getting] a great jump. But then, just from all the diving back, I felt like, 'I’ve got you now.'”

Just wait him out, Roberts said to himself. A moment later, as Rivera finally began his full windup – indicating he was going to throw home to Mueller – Roberts took off, head down and arms pumping, for second base.

The pitch was a fastball away, considered ideal for a catcher in terms of nabbing would-be base stealers.  Mueller didn’t swing, and as the ball slammed into Posada’s glove he was already leaping up to unleash his throw towards second. It was near-perfect, and a slightly crouching Jeter grabbed it just to the left of the bag and then in a fluid motion swept down his left arm into Roberts’ left shoulder as he dove in headfirst.

It was so close a play that for an instant nobody could tell whether Roberts had made it. Posada ripped off his mask and stared out at second base umpire Joe West, and Jeter and Roberts lifted their heads to do the same. Ron Barry, Joe Morgan, and everybody else watching live, in bars, or at home held their collective breaths – knowing that if Roberts was called out, the Red Sox would be all but out as well.

Then West spread his hands in the familiar motion known by every Little Leaguer.

Safe.

Making his move (Boston Red Sox)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Solution to Red Sox woes found in Massachusetts basement?

Ruth's bat: Magic for the taking? (TMZ)

As the Red Sox lineup continues to struggle, with five runs combined over the last three games, the solution to the team's offensive problems may be at hand.

A Massachusetts family going through a seemingly routine spring cleaning recently found a batch of old baseball bats from the 1910s packed away in the basement. One of them turned out to belong to a former Red Sox pitcher who could also hit a little: Babe Ruth. 

The Ruth model dates from approximately 1916-18,  a period when the Babe was one of the best left-handers in baseball and was also developing the power that would revolutionize the game. His 11 home runs in 1918 led the American League, and a year later he smashed a record 29 before his sale to the Yankees -- for whom he set another new mark with 54 homers in 1920.

The bat has been authenticated and is currently on auction with Goldin Auctions. The opening bid is set at $50,000. 
Too familiar a sight this year. (AP, Charles Krupa)

Other than David Ortiz, there is no current Red Sox player on pace for a 20-homer year. Perhaps the key to an offensive turnaround lays in the magic of the Bambino -- and John Henry could change Boston's fortunes by getting out his checkbook and outbidding the highest offer.

Boston enters play Tuesday with a team batting average well short of .250, and a modest total of 50 home runs. Maybe taking a few cuts with Ruth's 40.5-ounce stick could provide the boost needed to heat up with the weather.








Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fenway Fun under full moon for Red Sox on Friday the 13th

Nothing could cool off the Sox Friday

The Red Sox have already been dead and buried several times this season, only to be dug up each time they string together a few wins. Those seeking a true turnaround, however, have never been quite as encouraged as last night at Fenway Park.

As I arrived at the damp Fens with almost-10-year-old Rachel (the 2004 talisman), I took all the normal good-luck precautions. I bought a bag of unsalted peanuts from Nick Jacobs' cart at the entrance to Yawkey Way, made sure my lucky cap was on securely, and tapped a Jimmy Fund collection box as I headed to Section 17. We took a shot and settled in about 10 rows in front of our "real" seats, and although I warned Rachel we might get booted, it never happened. 

More positive karma came in the form of the ceremonial first pitch tossed out by Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. It was Fisk and former batterymate Luis Tiant who did the honors before Game 6 of last fall's World Series, and that night turned out OK. The starting pitcher was the same for Boston as in the Fall Classic finale too -- John Lackey.

This all pointed to a good night for the boys in red (FYI, I prefer the classic white home jerseys), but it was old pal Terry Francona's Indians who struck first. They got to Lackey for a couple runs in the second courtesy of a mammoth home run to right-field from Carlos Santana, which prompted this exchange: 
Santana's dinger quiets the crowd -- for now.
(Associated Press, Charles Krupa)

Dad: "Wow, that was a no-doubter."

Rachel: "Why do they call it a no-doubter?" 

Dad: "Well, there was never any doubt it would go out once it left the bat. But don't worry, it's still early."

Deep done I worried that the offensive doldrums that have haunted the Red Sox all year, especially with men on base, would continue under the foggy full moon. These fears were initially realized when a lumbering Ortiz was thrown out easily at the plate in the bottom of the second after a very poor decision by third-base coach Brian Butterfield to send him with nobody out and Cleveland starter Justin Masterson struggling to find the plate. 

The gaffe was magnified by a couple shots that rolled to the 420-mark in deepest center from A.J. Pierzynski (hitting more than .330 at Fenway!) and Jackie Bradley, Jr. Although they were good for a double and triple respectively that gave Boston the lead, it should have been 4-2 instead of 3-2 -- and with runs so hard to come by lately I worried we'd regret the one squandered. 
Lackey struggled early, finished strong.
(Associated Press, Charles Krupa)

It wound up not being a problem. Although the Indians did things in the third on back-to-back doubles from Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley, Lackey locked it in after that and would be near perfect until relieved with two out in the seventh. 

Masterson, however, was clearly off his game, and after allowing two walks to start the fourth (his third and fourth free passes of the night) was yanked by Francona. Young lefty Kyle Crockett didn't have much more luck, as a Mike Napoli double made it 5-2. This seemed worthy of a Dad and Daughter selfie, which we promptly placed on Facebook as a cyber-smile to the Reluctant Fan working at home.  

(A sidenote here; while last year Francona was routinely cheered each time he emerged from the Cleveland dugout at Fenway, last night there was almost no attention paid the former Sox skipper and folk hero during his many trips to the mound. I think this is a positive, for although fans here still remember the championships Tito helped bring to New England, this is a new era with new titles and new players -- save Big Papi.)

The middle innings were quiet offensively, but the Sox flashed some fine leather around including a leaping line-drive grab by Brock Holt in left field and a couple diving masterpieces from Dustin Pedroia on ground balls in the hole. It wasn't until later that I learned that Pedroia had gone to the game from the hospital after the birth of his third child earlier in the day.
Dad Petey plays some D.
(Associated Press)

Petey's early Father's Day got a bit happier in the seventh. He was one of nine Sox to bat in a four-run inning, with his double accounting for two of the runs and Napoli (single) and Daniel Nava (double) hits delivering the others. A moon shot off the left-field light tower by Xander Bogearts in the eighth finished the scoring, prompting a gasp from what was left of a rapidly-thinning crowd. 
Xander shakes the lights.

Cleveland was going through the last of its seven pitchers by the bottom of the eighth when Rachel suggested we move down. This seemed like a great idea, so we spent the top of the ninth watching in box seats by the Red Sox dugout as Burke Badenhop struck out the side to end it.

All in a all, it felt like the good old days of 2013. The Red Sox got strong starting pitching, excellent relief work, timely hitting, and contributions from up and down the lineup. Rookies Bogearts, Bradley, and Holt (now hitting .337, and near .400 when leading off) all looked terrific.
That Bradley kid sure can fly.

The winning streak was now at two, and last place comfortably in the rear-view mirror. Is it the start of a bigger turnaround? That remains to be seen, but Rachel and her dad will be back at Fenway Sunday to try to deliver some more good karma.
Rachel's good luck earns her new shades. 
(Note photo bomb by Twins employees)




Saturday, June 7, 2014

How I learned to love Don Zimmer (even in pinstripes)

Zim, how his players knew him. (Getty Images)

As children our thoughts and actions are largely influenced by the adults around us. For kids who grew up in New England during the late 1970s, Don Zimmer never really had a chance.

Everywhere we turned, the manager of the Red Sox was getting bashed as an incompetent boob. If we went to Fenway Park, we heard Zimmer booed from the moment he stuck his head out of the dugout. In April of '79 he even got booed at Fenway on Opening Day, an honor usually reserved for politicians -- not guys who led their team to 99 wins the year before. 

When we listened to The Sunday Night Sports Huddle on WHDH radio, a rite of passage into mature fandom, we heard Zimmer maligned each week by Eddie Andelman and his co-hosts for failing to make the playoffs with the likes of Fisk, Lynn, Rice, Yaz, and Dewey in his lineup. Callers who mentioned the manager's real name were immediately cut off; "Chiang Kai-shek" was how you had to identify the Boston skipper on The Huddle, and even if we didn't know who that was, we laughed right along with Eddie, Mark, and Jim.

Full Popeye mode. (Boston Red Sox)

Zimmer looked like a cross between two cartoon characters. His long, muscle-bulging forearms, pudgy, tobacco-filled cheeks, and squinty eyes made him a ringer for Popeye the Sailor Man, while his short, stout torso and legs were more a match for Popeye's hamburger-eating pal, Wimpy. Throw in the regrettable softball-style, V-necked tight nylon uniforms the Sox wore during this era, and it wasn't a pretty picture. 

This guy was a sports cartoonist's dream, and since the Boston Globe had one of the best in Larry Johnson we were treated to a steady diet of hilarious images. One of these adorned the office door of my summer camp's  head baseball coach for years, a yellowing reminder of just how silly Zimmer appeared to the world.

For us easily impressionable preteens, the member of the Sox to emulate was lefty pitcher Bill Lee, California cool with his long hair, sharp wit, and funny nickname of "The Spaceman." Zimmer was known around the game, logically, as Popeye, but Lee gave him the moniker most often used by kids and hecklers to describe the manager: "Gerbil." 

The anti-Zimmer brigade was often loudest at home, where my stepfather hurled a barrage of insults at the Zenith that he fully expected the skipper to hear. These reached a fever pitch in the summer of '78, when the Red Sox blew a 14-game lead in the AL East and the Yankees roared back to win a one-game playoff at Fenway behind Goose Gossage, Reggie 
Jackson, and Bucky "Bleeping" Dent. Today a 99-63 record almost surely gets a team into the playoffs as a Wild Card; back then all it got you was second place and a plane ticket home.
Zimmer in '78 -- when it all slipped away. (Topps)

Late in the 1980 season, with the injury-plagued Red Sox limping toward a fourth-place finish, Zimmer was fired. Grandfatherly Ralph Houk took his place, and while the Sox still didn't win anything, the manager-bashing and booing largely stopped. The human punching bag had left town. 

Then something happened. As I passed through into high school and college, and learned more about Zimmer's background and reputation around the game, my feelings started to change.  

The roly-poly guy who waddled like a Weeble on his trips to the mound had once been a nimble shortstop who stole 60 bases (including 10 thefts of home) his second year in pro ball. Zimmer was one of the best power hitters in the minors and on the fast track to make the venerable Brooklyn Dodgers before he was beaned in a 1953 game and suffered a fractured skull.

For two weeks Zimmer lay in a coma, and doctors had to drill holes in the sides of his head to relieve pressure on his brain. Against all odds he not only returned to baseball, he made the major leagues with the Dodgers a year later. (True to his '70s image, the only fact we knew about this scary incident as kids was that "blockhead" Zimmer had a steel plate in his head.)

He never achieved stardom with the Reese-Robinson-Snider-Campanella Dodgers, but was a valuable role player who had 15 home runs in 88 games at second, short, and third in 1955 to help Brooklyn to its only World Series title. He survived another serious beaning that cost him much of the '56 season, and won a second World Series with the Dodgers in '59 after their move to Los Angeles.
Zim, young and a Dodger. (CNN/SI)

Statistics don't always tell the whole story about a player, and they certainly did not with Zimmer. He hit just .235 with 91 homers over 12 major-league seasons, and upon being traded from the Dodgers suffered in purgatory with dismal clubs like the 1962 Mets and 1963-65 Senators. He lasted as long as he did because he was tough, played hard, and was very well-liked by his teammates. Versatility was another plus; he suited up at every position but first base and center field in the majors, and even caught 35 games with Washington.

After his playing days, Zimmer never left the game. He coached in Montreal, managed the talent-poor Padres in their early years (a job from which he resigned and was not fired, as he'd prove with a letter he carried in his wallet), and came to Boston as a coach under Darrell Johnson. Look closely at the reverie after Carlton Fisk's famous 1975 World Series home run, and you'll see Zim (coaching third) is the first person to congratulate Pudge as he heads to home plate.  

Speaking of home plate, Zimmer was married there -- honest. He wed his beloved Jean (nicknamed "Soot") at the dish before a minor league game in '51, and was still with her when he died. 
Wedding bells -- and bats 

Zimmer's post-Boston journey included a decent managerial stint with the Rangers and a fantastic job at the helm of the 1989 Cubs, capturing an NL East division title and Manager of the Year honors. Amazingly, he even came back to the scene of the crime -- coaching with the awful early 1990s Red Sox under his former Boston third baseman, Butch Hobson. That took guts, and perhaps knowing it, fans gave Zimmer a break from the booing (turning instead on Hobson).

Ironically, the revival of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry occurred with Zimmer in the opposing dugout as bench coach and consigliere to manager Joe Torre on the four-time World Series champion Yanks of 1996-2003. As Bostonians we hated the Yankees, but it was now impossible to hate Zimmer. Leaning over to whisper to Torre, or breaking into a grin and whacking Derek Jeter on the back after a good play, he looked more like a grandfatherly fan than a guy drawing a paycheck from Steinbrenner.


Zim and Torre (Torrie Keith, Daily News)

Then there was the moment when Zimmer, angered at Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez for throwing at Karim Garcia's head during the 2003 ALCS, charged across the Fenway diamond to go after the pitcher. A shocked Martinez pushed the 72-year-old coach to the ground, an act which while not malicious in intent left a bad impression on all who saw it. When Zim apologized during a press conference the next day, tearing up in the process, he was the furthest thing from a gerbil. He was more like a teddy bear.

Perhaps appropriately, Zimmer left the Yankees after that season, which meant he wasn't on The Dark Side when the Sox finally broke through in October 2004. He returned to his Florida home and took on various advisory roles with the Rays, changing his uniform number each spring to reflect his years in the pro game. This season it was 66.
The last of many uniforms.

Three titles in ten years mellowed Boston fans, and Zim claimed he always enjoyed coming back to Boston. We learned he had been listening to the talk shows all those years ago, and it had eaten him up, but that he felt fans had the right to boo him if they wanted. He even rented a house from Bucky Dent one year -- and loved to tell the story of how photos depicting Dent's '78 home run at Fenway hung in every room.

Hearing of his death, I felt like I had lost an old friend -- even though I never got closer to Zimmer than across a crowded room. The tributes came from every corner of the hardball universe. 

"I never met anyone was more pure baseball than Don Zimmer," Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote in a tribute

"He was, without a doubt, one of the most beloved players on the team," said Vin Scully, Dodgers broadcaster from Zim's days with the club until today. That says a lot, when you think about the guys on that Brooklyn/Los Angeles team.

Sure, he should have rested Fisk more in '78 and taken out Hobson when he had bone chips floating in his elbow. He should have pitched Lee against the Yanks in September (or in the playoff game), but while this may have driven the fans and talk show hosts nuts, his players on the Sox loved him. 

Sorry for the boos, Zim. We were just kids. We didn't know better.

Rest in Peace, Don. (Topps)