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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hold the Panda: Red Sox should shoot for Lester, not Sandoval

Men in Demand. (Getty Images)

Now that the Red Sox have reportedly made offers to both Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval, I have some simple advice for John Henry and Ben Cherington:

Go for the old World Series hero, not the new one.

Jon Lester's achievements for the Red Sox have been well-documented here and elsewhere. The left-hander as dependable as I-93 traffic jams for all but one chicken-and-beer-addled season, a virtual lock for 15-18 wins, 200 innings, a 1.300 WHIP and a 3.50 ERA. The 2014 season was actually his best, with a career-best 2.46 ERA, 1.102 WHIP, and 219.2 innings for Boston and Oakland combined after his trade deadline swap to the A's with Jonny Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes.

As for the postseason, Lester was lights-out for Boston. He pitched best on the biggest stage, with a 0.43 ERA in 21 World Series innings as a key hurler on the 2007 and '13 champs and a 2.57 ERA overall in 14 postseason games (84 innings). He did stumble late in his "play-in" start for the A's this October, but I would still take him on the mound in October over just about anybody short of Madison Bumgarner.

Lester has proven he can play in Boston, the rumors are he still wants to play in Boston, and the Fenway fans love him. He has the makeup and strong, healthy body to keep winning for years to come. A sound investment.

What Lester doesn't have is a cute nickname that lends itself to marketing mania -- which brings us to Pablo Sandoval. The Panda is also a proven postseason standout, with a .344/.389/.545 slash line in 39 games that goes up to an absurd .426/.460/.702 in 12 World Series contests. He has helped the Giants to three world championships in five years, a feat even more impressive than Boston's three-in-ten run. He is a winner, no doubt about it, and fun to watch.

He is also, however, a guy who has not been an especially impressive regular season performer during his career. He has never had more than 25 homers or 90 RBI -- reaching both those high-water marks in 2009, his first full year -- and his OBP has has gone down each of the last four seasons. Last year it was .739, which placed him just sixth among National League third basemen and 40th in the NL overall.

Are those numbers deserving of the six-year, $120 million contract he is reportedly seeking? That's a stretch, and even if the Sox were inclined to take a leap of faith that Sandoval can reach another level, there is something else to consider:

His waistline.

Hope that is sugarless gum. 

There is a reason they call him Kung Fu Panda and not Pablo the Panther. Sandoval has a roly-poly body that screams quick decline. He can hit fastballs and field the hot corner with the best of them right now, but as we've seen from guys like Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard and Boston's own Mo Vaughn, the slide down from elite status can be early and fast for big-boned sluggers.

Sandoval is 28; he would be 34 at the end of a six-year deal. It's unrealistic to think he'll be hitting as well once he gets there. For that matter, even if you're banking on just the first three years of said deal, his average regular-season line of 14 homers, 72 RBI, and a .280 average from 2012-14 seems unworthy of such a long, lucrative commitment.

It's fun to imagine what Sandoval could do hitting in front of or behind David Ortiz in 2015, or having his personality to enjoy around the clubhouse and Fenway Park. Every Boston fan under 12 would want a little panda sporting a Red Sox home jersey. Yes, the team needs more offensive punch and a way to keep Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, but it also needs dirt dogs of the type who won it all in 2013.

Ready for this at Fenway?(New York Times)

Given his past numbers and body type, Sandoval is not a sound investment. We're not talking David Ortiz here; the Sox expect the Panda to be performing at third base every day. There is also no guarantee, even with his postseason success, that Sandoval will take well to the daily grind of playing in Boston with its uber-demanding fans and media. San Fransicans love their Giants no matter what they do; look at how they worshiped Barry Bonds.

Jon Lester is an elite-level performer in the regular season and the postseason. He doesn't sell stuffed animals but he eats quality innings and can be a great teacher/role model for all the young pitchers the Sox have coming up. Sandoval might shine in the playoffs as well, but first his team has to get there.

It's guys like Lester who will get Boston there.


Monday, November 10, 2014

How a gift from Red Sox fans gave Boston Mayor Tom Menino strength and support

A man and his cane. (Boston Globe)

In the last months of his life, after his retirement from office and before his death from cancer on Oct. 30, Boston Mayor Tom Menino was almost never seen in public without wielding a very distinctive-looking cane he was given exactly one year ago today.

It was fashioned from a genuine Louisville Slugger baseball bat, with Menino's name and the years of the last three Red Sox World Series championships emblazoned on its barrel. The mayor liked to point out with pride that the 2004, 2007, and 2013 titles were all won during his administration, and he had several Sox players autograph the bat -- including '04 pitching ace Pedro Martinez and various members of the '13 champs.

The "bat cane" went everywhere with Menino, including his stays at Brigham and Women's Hospital and his chemotherapy treatments next door at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. When mourners passed by his open casket at Faneuil Hall last week, they could see the unique walking stick lying beside him. Afterwards, the mayor's press secretary, Dot Joyce, was seen carrying it out of the hall.

"When they showed Angela [Menino's widow] on TV walking up the steps and into their home that night, you could see she was carrying the cane," says Lynne Smith, the Red Sox super-fan famous for her extraordinary outfits, including a Fenway Park hat with working lights and Citgo sign. "That was so hard for us to see. We knew how much he  cared about it."

That Smith noticed the cane during its brief TV appearance was no surprise. It was she and her husband, Gary, who had ordered the very special walking stick for Menino, and then presented it to their friend at a charity event last Nov. 10.

The Smiths and the Mayor -- friends and fans.

"We got the idea when we went to the [2013] Red Sox-Tigers ALDS games in Detroit, and saw an elderly man walking with a baseball bat cane at Comerica Park," says Smith. "Gary and I just looked at each other and said 'Menino' at the same time. We knew it was something the mayor would love, so we asked the man where he had gotten it."

It turns out there was a retired firefighter named Rick Just who made the Little-League-sized Louisville Slugger canes -- available at -- as a one-man operation out of his DeLand, Florida home. After the Red Sox won the World Series, the Smiths contacted Just with their request for a Menino model.

When they gave the cane to the mayor last November, "his eyes just lit up," recalls Lynne Smith. "You could tell he liked it."

John Henry views the cane. (Tom Fitzsimmons)

Menino had already been using a cane for a variety of health reasons, including a broken leg in April 2013 and his bone-weakening cancer treatment this year. He was not happy with the walking sticks he had, however, including one that had been used by the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy but was too long for the mayor. As a result, he wasn't going out as much. 

This changed once he got the bat cane. Suddenly this Red Sox fan who signified "Boston Strong" as well as anybody was proud to walk the streets with its assistance, and loved showing it off. 

A familiar sight during the last year. (Boston Globe)

"It was extremely important to him, and he would not leave the house without it," one of his Dana-Farber social workers explains. "It made having to use a cane feel like a source of strength, because it was connected to his Red Sox pride."

Probing reporters asked Menino where he got the bat cane, and at first he would only say it was "from friends." Finally he relented and told them, and when Lynne and Gary went on the record with Just's name, the firefighter-turned-craftsman was inundated with orders.

"He was so appreciative, he insisted on making a bat cane for me," says Lynne Smith. "Louisville Slugger gave him a pink one at my request, and he inscribed it to,  'Lynne Smith #1 Red Sox Fan.'" Like the mayor's version, it lists the 2004-07-13 championships, and is one of her most cherished Sox-themed objects in a home filled with them. 

 Lynne loves her pink bat.

While Menino's bat cane did not prove magical for the 2014 Red Sox, it was not for lack of effort. It went to spring training in Florida with the mayor, and on many trips to Fenway Park during the summer. It even made it to the White House when the mayor accompanied last year's title-winning Sox to a celebration with President Obama. Lynne Smith made sure to call Rick Just and tell him, "One of your bats is in the Oval Office."

The last time the mayor ever visited Fenway was with current Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, for the final game of Boston's dismal '14 season. As always, the cane was by his side. 

"Angela told us that the mayor just carried himself differently with the cane," says Lynne Smith. "Once he went to a school and a little boy took the cane and didn't want to give it back, and one time the airlines gave him a hard time and said it was a weapon. But he always got it back."

Menino's last Xmas tree lighting (Olga Khvan)

The Smiths got a deeper sense of how important their gift had been when several members of Menino's staff approached them at the mayor's funeral on Nov. 3 to say how much the cane had meant to him. 

"It was a random act of kindness," Lynne Smith says now. "We gave it with love, and just hoped he would have some fun with it.

"We had no idea it would take on a life of its own."

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ten years ago today, Cards and the Curse were both put to rest

Red Sox prove Al Gore right.

Excerpted from "Miracle at Fenway"

It is hard to imagine how winning a World Series could be anticlimactic for a team, especially a team that had not won one in 86 years. But that was absolutely the case for the 2004 Red Sox. They had completed the greatest turnaround in sports history and had exorcised the demons of their past all in one week, and nothing they did against the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals was going to top it.

Of course if they lost to the Cardinals, well, that might be another story. If they fell short again in the World Series, as they had in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986 – always in seven games – wouldn't Yankee fans still be able to taunt them about 1918? People still remembered the '67 Impossible Dream Red Sox fondly, as well as the '75 team led by rookie phenoms Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. But those teams hadn't gone all the way, so the Red Sox were still thought of as the franchise that couldn't win the big one.

If St. Louis won, this would be Hendu 2.0.

In the end, there would be no need to worry about such possibilities. The 2004 World Series was one of the most one-sided in history.

The Red Sox won four straight games and never trailed for a single inning. St. Louis had a 105-57 record during the regular season, the best in baseball, and had a Hall of Fame manager in Tony LaRussa. They had two 40-homer sluggers in Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, a deep starting pitching staff with four 15-game winners, and a strong bullpen anchored by closer Jason Isringhausen and his 47 saves. Three Cardinals – center fielder Edmonds, catcher Mike Matheny, and third baseman Scott Rolen (who also hit 34 homers) – won Gold Gloves for their fielding brilliance.

Against the Red Sox, this group looked like the 1962 Mets.

There were two times in four games that the Cardinals had an opportunity to make the 100th World Series a real contest. In Game 1 at Fenway Park, the Red Sox took a 4-0 lead in the first inning thanks to another David Ortiz home run, off Woody Williams, and by the end of the third inning had a 7-2 advantage Then St. Louis battled from way back, much as Boston had done in the ALCS opener at Yankee Stadium. They chased Boston starter Tim Wakefield with three fourth-inning runs, and in the sixth tied the game, 7-7, with two more against Bronson Arroyo.

A powerhouse club -- until it counted.

Boston went back ahead, 9-7, in the seventh on RBI singles by Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, but the Cards struck again in the eighth, getting two runs on a pair of errors by Ramirez in left field. They had men on first and second with only one out in a 9-9 game, and the heart of their order coming up in Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds. But just as Curt Schilling was brought to Boston to beat the Yankees, Keith Foulke now did what he had been acquired to do. After intentionally walking Pujols to load the bases, he got Rolen to pop out to third and struck out Edmonds.

In the bottom of the eighth, after an error by usually sure-handed shortstop Edgar Renteria, Mark Bellhorn stepped in – batting under .200 in the postseason, but with home runs in two straight games – and made it three in a row with a two-run blast off Julian Tavarez and the Pesky Pole in right. Foulke set St. Louis down in the ninth, and Boston had dodged a big bullet with an 11-9 win.

When Curt Schilling woke up at sevenon the morning of Game 2, he told reporters after the game, he couldn't walk or even move. “I honest to God didn't think I was going to take the ball today,” he said. “I didn't think I could.”

He did, and what he did with it further sealed his legend.

A champion's salute.

Jason Varitek, perhaps fueled by one of his regular visits to Trutony's Deli in Newton before heading into the ballpark, hit a 400-foot triple to deep center in the first inning to give Boston a 2-0 lead. Schilling made the advantage stand up, throwing six innings of four-hit baseball and allowing just one unearned run. The Sox showed patience at the plate, drawing six walks to go with eight hits, and won, 6-2, to take a 2-0 lead in the Series heading to Missouri for Game 3.

St. Louis was a much friendlier environment for Boston fans than New York. Folks could wear their Red Sox hats and shirts and jackets and not worry about being ridiculed or challenged to a fight. Lynne Smith, known back home as “The Fenway Hat Lady” because she literally wore the ballpark – or a miniature model of it, complete with Green Monster and lights – on her head, was asked numerous times by fans at Busch Stadium to take photos with them, and was happy to oblige.

Suppan's blunder was costly.

The third inning of Game 3 marked the second and last opportunity the Cardinals had to make this a competitive series, and once again they couldn't take advantage. Starter Pedro Martinez, making what would turn out to be his last appearance in a Red Sox uniform, got early support on a Manny Ramirez home run in the first inning, and had a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the third. Then St. Louis showed some life. Pitcher Jeff Suppan (yet another former Red Sox faced by Boston in the postseason) managed an infield single, and Edgar Renteria hit a ball to right field that Trot Nixon misplayed into a double.

With men on second and third, and nobody out, the Cardinals had a chance to do some major damage against Martinez, who had already endured some tough moments in the playoffs. When Larry Walker hit a ground ball to second base, Boston's strategy was to concede the run and get the sure out at first base. Bellhorn, playing deep at second for this reason, threw to first to get Walker.

But Suppan, seeming confused, stopped midway to home plate – and then tried to go back to third. David Ortiz, playing first base because of the lack of a designated hitter in the National League ballpark, spotted Suppan in no man's land and gunned the ball across to third baseman Bill Mueller, who tagged Suppan to complete the unusual double play. Pujols grounded out, and the game – and effectively, the series – was over. Martinez wound up pitching seven shutout innings, and Boston won, 4-1.

Pedro did his part...

Derek Lowe, like Martinez a free agent who was unsure if he would be with Boston in 2005, got the start in Game 4. This gave him the unique possibility of winning the deciding game of all three playoff rounds after being demoted from the starting rotation before the postseason. A victory would be the ultimate way of both proving his full worth to the coaching staff and setting himself up for a big payday.

Johnny Damon helped Lowe on his way by homering in the first inning, Boston's fourth straight game scoring in the opening frame. Trot Nixon added a two-run double in the third, one of his three doubles on the night, and the 3-0 lead stood up. Lowe wound up going seven three-hit innings (the exact line turned in by Martinez the day before), and Arroyo, Embree, and Foulke held St. Louis at bay the rest of the contest. did Lowe.

Back in Boston, fans watched or listened to the final innings in living rooms, bars, bedrooms, and anywhere else they could. Parents kept their kids up or woke them for the ninth inning, among them Ken and Shelley Leandre. Their son, Jordan, was the four-year-old cancer survivor who had delighted the crowd with his National Anthem rendition before Game 5 of the ALCS.

“I felt like Jordan had been a good-luck charm,” says Ken Leandre. “He used to sit in front of the TV and point at the screen and say he was 'throwing out magic' and the next thing you know, Manny or Ortiz would hit a home run. We loved that he had something he loved and could have a good feeling about instead of the hospitals and needles.”

Leandre was lucky (again).

The good luck charm within the Red Sox team itself was Johnny Pesky, the shortstop-manager-coach-legend who had been employed by the Boston organization for most of his 65-plus years in baseball. The Sox made sure Johnny got to St. Louis for Game 4, which he watched from the stands with Dr. Charles Steinberg and Pam Ganley Kenn, who helped him with his public appearances and looked at him like a grandfather. When the game moved into the late innings with the Red Sox ahead, the trio got up to make their way down to the visitor's clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

Then, as they were leaving their section, fans began politely clapped for Pesky as they would a war hero. It meant a tremendous amount to him, because in a way he was an old warrior here. After all, it was in this city in 1946 where he had been accused of “holding the ball” and costing the Sox a World Series title. He now felt all was being forgiven.

St.Louis fans gave Pesky his due.

By the ninth inning, Pesky was in a small room off the main visitor's clubhouse watching the last moments of the game unfold on a video monitor. And Keith Foulke, who in 11 games and 14 innings pitched during the postseason allowed just seven hits and one run, was getting the chance he had joked with Francona about back in Yankee Stadium [to get the final out of a big series].

After Pujols singled to lead off the ninth, Foulke retired Rolen and Edmonds. Edgar Renteria stepped in and took the first pitch for ball one. Up in the booth, Joe Castiglione got ready to make his call:

Swing and a ground ball, stabbed by Foulke. He has it, he under-hands to first...and the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions! For the first time in eighty-six years, the Red Sox have won baseball's world championship! Can you believe it?

On the field, Jason Varitek leaped into Foulke's arms for a hug. In the visitor's clubhouse, Johnny Pesky stood up, raised his arms in triumph, and hugged Pam Ganley Kenn. “If I was 50 years younger, I'd have probably been jumping up and down like a crazy man,” he said later. When the players made their way into the clubhouse, moments later, Schilling, Millar and others embraced Pesky as well.

A hug for the ages.

Jeff Idelson, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was also in the clubhouse – seeking artifacts that fans could enjoy for years to come at Cooperstown. His wish list was to get something from Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez – named MVP of the World Series with a .412 average – Orlando Cabrera, David Ortiz, and Derek Lowe.

“There’s a tempo to it, because you want to let people celebrate,” Idelson explains. “ It’s about understanding people and getting them at the right moment. You don’t want to say something like, “Hey, take that champagne out of your hand and go get this for me.”

Idelson already knew Curt Schilling from when he had visited the museum with his kids, so he went up and asked if he could have the cleats that he had inscribed with “KALS” to raise awareness about Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's Disease. Schilling said sure.

“Then he said, 'Do you want the sock too' – meaning the bloody sock,” recalls Idelson. “I said sure, we'd love the sock. He didn't have it there, so his in-laws drove it up to the museum a few weeks later.”

Hall of Fame hosiery. 

Next Idelson got a hat from Martinez, and a bat from Ramirez. He asked Cabrera for his glove, and got that too – along with a hug. “Cabrera's whole family was there,” recalls Idelson. He couldn’t believe I was asking him for his glove, and he was so proud. 

"He said it was one of the great moments of his life.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In rewriting history, the 2004 Red Sox-Yankees ALCS also rewrote a Hollywood script

Peter and Bobby Farrelly were in a bind.

The Red Sox had just beaten the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, their second straight extra-inning win -- both courtesy of walk-off David Ortiz hits, The two teams headed back to Yankee Stadium for the sixth contest, and while Boston still trailed the best-of-seven series three games to two, momentum was shifting their way.

Excerpted from "Miracle at Fenway"

Up in Toronto, brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly were thrilled to see Ortiz deliver yet again, but also a bit nervous.

Huge Red Sox fans who grew up in Rhode Island, the Farrellys had risen to fame after moving to Hollywood and writing and directing such blockbuster films as Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary. In the spring of 2004 they had been sent the script for a movie called Fever Pitch, written by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, about an obsessed Red Sox fan who has to choose between the team and the girl he loves.

"It was the first time I read a script that I felt was perfect, and I didn't want to rewrite," recalls Peter Farrelly, who played high school baseball and was a Carl Yastrzemski fanatic as a kid growing up in the 1960s and '70s. "We lived and died with the Sox, so we knew it was something we had to do."

The cast included Jimmy Fallon as the overzealous Red Sox fan, Lenny Clarke as the beloved uncle who bequeaths him terrific season tickets, and Drew Barrymore as the workaholic, baseball-phobic girlfriend. Although much of the filming took place in Toronto, the directors and their production team -- led by producer Kris "Mudd" Meyer, a former security guard at Fenway -- spent several weeks in Boston shooting in and around Fenway.
Jimmy trying to get Drew into the game.

It was one of the best times of their lives. Friends and family seemed to come out of the woodwork, stopping by the trailers on a nightly basis to party with the Farrellys, Meyer, and the crew. The Red Sox offered their full cooperation, even allowing the brothers to film with players including Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon. 

For the scenes when Fallon is seated at the ballpark talking with his fellow fans, they recruited local actors, including Jessamy Finet and Erin Nanstad -- two East Boston girls who carried 1918 pennies to every game for good luck -- to add to the authenticity. Finet was one of the game's highlights as the wisecracking blonde who gave Drew Barrymore hell for not knowing about the Curse of the Bambino.

"Everybody was great, from Terry Francona to the players to the fans," says Peter Farrelly. "We shot a few times right after games, including the big scene when Drew jumps down from the stands, right beside Johnny Damon, and then runs across the field to Jimmy's seats. We wanted the stands to be full for filming, so I walked out to home plate during the seventh-inning stretch, got on the microphone, and said, 'We're filming a movie for 10 minutes after the game. If you can stay just that long, you'll be in the movie.' Almost everybody stayed."
As Drew runs from Damon...

...30,000 extras cheer on.

Now, however, the brothers had a problem.

"When we started filming, the original script was that the Red Sox didn't win but Jimmy gets the girl," explains Peter Farrelly. "They lose to the Yankees, but he's grown as a guy and he's learned to have a relationship with someone other than the Red Sox. His life is better, and so is hers.

"But then when we were shooting in Toronto, things started changing," he continues. "All along, we were thinking, What if they win? Babaloo and Lowell wrote an alternate ending when the Red Sox made the playoffs. But then when we started to come back against the Yankees, that's when we started thinking, we're going to have to get back to Fenway and start reshooting some of this stuff."

The brothers' fears were realized as the Red Sox completed their historic comeback with victories in Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium to clinch the pennant. When Boston beat the Cardinals in the first three games of the World Series, the Farrellys knew they had to act.
Decision time.

The morning of Game 4, the Farrellys made a decision. They were already planning to fly back to Boston to film a new ending for their movie if the Red Sox won the World Series, but they knew a perfect ending would include having the stars of the film and team all celebrating at the end. The Farrellys specialized in comedies, but they wanted this to be real.

They chartered a plane for St. Louis, and made sure their production team, film crew, and stars Fallon and Barrymore all got to Busch Stadium. Appealing to Major League Baseball for on-field access, they were given the okay based on their previous access at Fenway -- provided they did not interfere with the player celebration in any way. Their stage was not set for a perfect ending; they just needed the Red Sox to hold up their end. 

The Sox did, winning Game 4, 3-0, and touching off a massive party on the field. St. Louis team officials graciously let Boston fans stay behind to cheer while their team's players, coaches, and front office staff soaked up the moment. This was Peter and Bobby's chance.
The moment had come -- to film.

As the players and their families celebrated all around them, the Farrellys managed to film the final scene to Fever Pitch -- a lover's embrace by Fallon and Barrymore right down on the field amid the festivities. Peter Farrelly also scooped up some dirt to save, and got photos of his son Bob with the World Series trophy set up by the pitcher's mound.

A few hours later, Jessamy Finet and Erin Nanstad were walking back to where they had parked their car at a downtown St. Louis hotel. On a whim, the two East Boston girls had decided to fly to Chicago, rent a car, and drive to St. Louis for Game 4. They didn't have tickets, but managed to get some in the second-to-last row of the upper deck. They also brought their lucky pennies.

Now, with no extra money left for lodging, they planned to sleep in their rental car before heading back to O'Hare Airport the next morning.
Good-luck girls Finet (left) and Nanstad

Suddenly, they heard a scream from behind them. "JESSAMY! ERIN! What are YOU doing here?" It was Drew Barrymore, Finet's on-screen nemesis. The girls had no idea that the cast and crew from Fever Pitch had been at the game, and didn't notice them filming the on-field embrace. But it turned out that they had parked their rental car at the same hotel where the filmmakers were staying, and the Farrellys insisted that Finet and Nanstad party with them and spend the night.

It sure beat sleeping in the car.

A short while later, the girls were sipping champagne, courtesy of Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick, when Jimmy Fallon called them over. "I know you girls are big fans," he said, and put something from his pocket into their glasses.

It was dirt from the mound. They drank it. It tasted gritty but good.

Now that's a perfect ending.

Premiere Night at Fenway, 2005

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Lackey, Beckett take different routes since chicken and beer

Beckett and Lackey -- partners in crime 

Three years ago, they were the poster boys for bad clubhouse behavior while with the Red Sox. This week, John Lackey and Josh Beckett were both in the headlines again -- and for dramatically different reasons.

On Monday, Lackey pitched seven stellar innings for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Three of the NLDS, picking up the victory in a 3-1 Cardinals triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers. St. Louis clinched the series the next evening, setting up an NLCS date with the Giants in a series that starts tomorrow night in San Francisco. 

Then, on Wednesday morning, as his Dodgers teammates were still lamenting the abrupt end of their season at the hands of Lackey and the Cards, Beckett announced he was retiring from the major leagues after 14 seasons. He faced surgery and months of rehab for a torn labrum in his left hip, and at age 34 figured enough was enough.

Things never came together in LA (USA Today)

It was a sad end to a rough few years for Beckett, who has struggled with injuries since his trade to the Dodgers in August 2012. Although he did pitch a no-hitter earlier this season, he made just 35 starts in his three seasons in LA.

It is hard to imagine two players taking more disparate paths than Beckett and Lackey have since the summer of 2011. In August of that year, Beckett was among the AL leaders in earned-run average while Lackey was at the other end of the Boston rotation -- with an ERA north of 6.00 and status as perhaps the most reviled athlete in New England with his bloated contract and hound-dog face.

In 2011, Lackey couldn't look

As long as the '11 Red Sox were cruising along in first place with the best record in the league, which they were as late as Sept. 1, Lackey's problems were confined to the back-burner. But when Boston had its monumental collapse in September with a 7-20 mark that left it out of the postseason, Big John was seen as one of the key causes for the meltdown. Beckett, after all, still finished 13-7 with a 2.89 ERA.

Then the news got worse. A few days after the season ended, a story by John Tomase of the Boston Herald broke that Boston starting pitchers had spent their off-days during the season hanging in the clubhouse scarfing down beers and fried chicken rather than sitting in the dugout. Beckett, Lackey, and lefty Jon Lester were eventually tabbed as the top offenders, and were raked over the coals by media and fans in a wave of bad publicity that helped cost manager Terry Francona his job.

After the secret (sauce) got out

Beckett never really recovered. He went 5-11 for last-place Boston in 2012 before being traded to the Dodgers along with Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto in a salary-dumping move that would help both teams. Away from the boo-birds and pressure-cooker atmosphere at Fenway, Beckett pitched much better in Los Angeles, but could not stay healthy. Shoulder injuries wrecked his 2013 season, and hip problems put him on the disabled list three times this year -- including for the postseason. 

Lackey, in contrast,enjoyed a dramatic resurgence after Chicken-Gate. When it was revealed just how hurt he was during 2011, and that he had pitched a full season in constant pain and without complaint, it won him back some respect. Things were so bad, in fact, that he needed to have Tommy John Surgery and sat out the entire 2012 campaign.

Nobody knew what to expect from Lackey in 2013, but he emerged as one of Boston's top starters during that championship summer with a 1.157 WHIP and 3.52 ERA that went down to 2.77 in the postseason -- when he went 3-1 and became the first man in MLB history to win a World Series clinching game for two different franchises (having done so with the Anaheim Angels as a rookie in 2002).

In 2013, jeers turned to cheers USA Today)

It was more of the same for Big John this year, when he pitched with better velocity and better results than at any time in his Boston tenure before being dispatched to St. Louis for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig as part of John Henry's trade deadline fire sale. Now he's back working his magic in the playoffs, and may even get a crack at a third world championship ring.

Neither Josh Beckett or John Lackey will make the Hall of Fame, but both were All-Star pitchers and key starters on two World Series champions -- Beckett getting his rings with the Florida Marlins in 2003 and the Red Sox in 2007, when he went 20-7 during the regular season and then 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in October.

They made their mistakes in Boston, to be sure, but they should be remembered for the joy they helped bring to Yawkey Way -- not the buckets of extra-crispy breasts.
Thanks for the (good) memories (Getty Images)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Five creative ways Red Sox can honor Derek Jeter Sunday

Jeter and the Monster -- one more time (Daily News)

The stat came across my Facebook feed last night courtesy of my friend Kevin Vahey, a veteran cameraman at Fenway Park and countless other venues -- who, I suppose, picked it up from the pre-game press notes at Fenway or Yankee Stadium:

Most Games at Fenway Park by Yankee Players (regular season and playoffs):

Lou Gehrig: 152
Mickey Mantle: 152
Derek Jeter: 151

Since neither Gehrig or Mantle played any postseason contests in Boston -- the Sox and Yanks never met in the playoffs until 1999 -- it is safe to say that no Yankee player has ever taken part in more important games at Fenway that Derek Jeter. This includes the epic ALCS battles of '99, 2003, and 2004, contests when the the Athens-Sparta rivalry reached its all-time high. And despite the sightings of "A-Rod Sucks" and "Jeter Swallows" t-shirts side-by-side on Yawkey Way during those years, it's hard to imagine a Yankee player ever garnering more respect from Boston fans than that currently enjoyed by  #2 in this weekend's visitor's scorecard.

So while I'm disappointed to hear that Jeter won't be playing shortstop for the season's final otherwise meaningless weekend -- he declared after last night's walk-off hit that he wanted his last game at short to be at Yankee Stadium -- I do hope he gets in the box score on both Friday and Saturday. This would give the Sox an opportunity to present him with a gift far more unique than a Fenway seatback or a tin number from the Green Monster (both of which they gave last fall to retiring Yankee relief ace Mariano Rivera):

1.  A plaque with a chunk of dirt taken from the shortstop area at Fenway Park and an inscription reading: 
Most games played at Fenway Park by Yankee Players (Regular Season and Playoffs):

1. Derek Jeter 
2. Lou Gehrig
3. Mickey Mantle   

Events Maestro Dr. Charles Steinberg and Co. could have the plaque inscribed and ready to give Jeter in what is being billed as a "low-key" ceremony before Sunday's game, provided he played Friday and Saturday to get up to 153 Fenway games. Then again, if he plays Friday or Saturday they could still give it to him, since 152 games would tie him with Lou and The Mick and perhaps induce him to play in the finale.

I'm sure the Yankee captain would appreciate the gesture, and besides, how many cars and golf clubs and cowboy boots with the #2 on them can one guy need? Since Fenway is the last stop on the Jeter Farewell Tour, Red Sox management has a chance to show some real creativity. The over-the-top ribbing of Rivera in his Fenway ceremony last September (when the Sandman's blown save in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS got top billing) was not appreciated by Yankee fans or media types. This would be applauded by all as a class move.

 Here are four more ideas that would please everyone and give Jeter the sendoff he deserves:

2.  Invite back the other eight Yankees in the starting lineup for Jeter's first game at Fenway on July 15, 1996, and have them suit up and take their positions before the game -- leaving a hole for Jeter at shortstop.
Bring back Bernie and Co.

Jeter led off that day for New York, going 2-for-4 with a double and run scored in an 8-6 Yankees loss. The full lineup In order: Jeter (SS), Bernie Williams (CF), Paul O'Neill (RF), Darryl Strawberry (DH), Tino Martinez (1B), Mariano Duncan (2B), Jim Leyritz (C),Gerald Williams (LF), and Andy Fox (3B). If this group were to take their spots on the Fenway diamond, Jeter would likely feel compelled to jog out and fill the gap at short -- if only for a minute.

3.  Before Jeter's first at-bat, play a recording of longtime Yankee Stadium PA announcer Dave Sheppard calling him to the plate. 
Pipe in the Voice of God. (ABC News)

Sheppard was the "Voice of God" at the Stadium for 56 years, lending his famous and dignified  tone to the proceedings from Mickey Mantle's first game there in 1951 through late in the 2007 season. Jeter had the presence of mind to ask Sheppard to record his introduction -- "Now batting for the Yankees, Number Two, Derek Jeter, Number Two..." and it has been re-played for all Jeter home at-bats since Sheppard's retirement (he died in 2010 at age 99). 

"That's the only voice I ever heard growing up," New Jersey native Jeter explained of his request to Sheppard. "That's the only voice I wanted to hear announced when I was at home." Since Jeter's last game should have been at home anyway -- what were the schedule-makers thinking? -- perhaps he wouldn't mind hearing it in his last road contest.

4.  A framed plaque with a ticket stub from the July 15, 1996 game and the Sept. 28, 2013 contest.
Yours on EBay for $14.95

Even if Jeter doesn't play Sunday, it will be his last game in uniform -- and meaningful none the less. By the way, that $9.00 bleacher seat now goes for $40.00.

5.  A gold-plated lifetime pass to Fenway Park, bearing the inscription: "This pass enables Derek Jeter free entrance to Fenway Park for all games, with the provision that he not  play in any of them if a playoff berth is on the line."
Come on back and see us -- but don't play.

This would give the Red Sox a cute way to rib Jeter about his role in so many big Yankee moments at Fenway, and the desire for Boston management to make sure he doesn't add any more to the list.

What can Jeter give to Boston during his send-off weekend? Even one inning at shortstop would be great, but short of that I am guessing Sox fans wouldn't mind a line-drive single to right or even a home run.

Providing, of course, that it came with the home team safely ahead.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Reasons to keep watching the Red Sox (including the chance to ruin New York's October)

Heart of the (new) order. (NY Post)

Six chances to help do in the Yankees' Wild Card chances -- starting with a 9-4 whipping last night -- is one reason to pay attention to the last-place Red Sox this September in between Patriots games. Here are some more:

The Clutch Kid
It's Yoenis' world. (

Seeing Jon Lester in green and yellow hurts, but the wonderful clutch hitting of Yoenis Cespedes has made it a bit easier to take. Entering last night, Cespedes had hit .382 with runners in scoring position and five game-tying or go-ahead hits in the 7th inning or later to tie him with David Ortiz for the club lead -- after just a month with the team! Last night he went 3-for-5 with his 24th RBI in 29 games for Boston, and he now has 91 overall for the year -- just four behind his new teammate Ortiz and among the American League's Top 10.

Yoenis has a pretty good outfield arm too, as the numerous runners he's nabbed at home plate and elsewhere can attest.

Young Gloves

The guy can chuck it. (Getty Images)

The rookies the Red Sox have brought up this year have all struggled at one time or another at bat, but their defense -- especially that turned in by late-season additions Christian Vazquez and Mookie Betts -- has been terrific. Betts has turned in some leaping, highlight-worthy grabs during his on-the-job training in center field, and Vazquez has been a delight at catcher. His quick throws to first base for pick-offs and to second and third to nab would-be base stealers are the best Boston has seen from behind the plate since  Gold Glover Tony Pena passed through town in the early 1990s. 

With an even more highly-touted catching prospect in Blake Swihart coming up behind him, Vazquez may not be here long -- and Betts could also be trade bait with Boston's 2015 outfield already crammed with potential starters Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Allen Craig, and new Cuban signee Rusney Castillo. Of course if Betts keeps hitting like he did last night against New York -- 3-for-5 with a home run -- he'll make that decision much harder.

The Starting Pitching Puzzle
Is Ranaudo for real? (

Will Clay Buchholz continue his recent channeling of early 2013? Will Anthony Ranaudo continue showing he has the stuff to join the 2015 rotation? Will Allen Webster work his way into the mix? Will Tuesday's winner Joe Kelly put together some more victories? A lot of question marks remain on this young staff, and how some of them get answered in the weeks to come may determine who Boston pursuits for its 2015 rotation -- including a possible push to get back Lester.  

Papi's Pursuit
Soon to be No. 2?

Cespedes may be the next David Ortiz when it comes to clutch hitting, but the real dude is not about to give up his spot as top dog in the lineup just yet. Despite batting third in one of the most anemic offenses in Red Sox history, Big Papi has a legitimate shot at the AL RBI title with 95 through last night. He already has 30 homers, so when he reaches the century mark in runs batted in it will mark his eighth 30-100 season with Boston -- and break his tie with Ted Williams for the most such years in franchise history. 

It will be real fun if Ortiz and Cespedes both are in the running for the RBI crown heading into the final 10 games of the year -- especially if they continue to bat third and fourth in the Boston lineup.

The Castillo Countdown 
Coming to Fenway soon. (AP Images)

Management has said Castillo (signed to a 7-year, $72.5 million contract in late August) will play as long as possible for Boston's minor league teams -- several of which reached the postseason -- but Ben Cherington would also like to get the Cuban defector his first taste of MLB play before year's end. If and when Castillo does reach the Boston lineup in September, it will be exciting to see what the guy can do against top-notch pitching. Remember, Castillo had not played any organized baseball for a year and a half before his first game with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox last week (when he had an RBI single). 

Spoiler Alert
Brett Gardner is NOT happy. (Newsday)

Wins this month mean nothing in terms of Boston's postseason chances, but they mean an awful lot to some of the teams they are playing. The Yankees and Rays are still battling for their playoff lives, and the Royals would much rather make it in as Central Division champs than face a one-and-done situation as a Wild Card. In addition to ending a sour year on a sweet note, the Red Sox also have a chance to salvage some pride rather than roll over. I don't advocate putting in a dizzy Dustin Pedroia to win, but if they can salvage a winning month with a young, piece-meal lineup, it would make 2014 just a little easier to swallow.