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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Only one Red Sox playoff game truly matches Super Bowl XLIX

The Sox equivalent? That goes back a ways.

For the past week, Boston sports media pundits from Felger and Mazz to Dan Shaughnessy to Steve Buckley have weighed in about which past Boston sporting events are worthy of comparison to Super Bowl XLIX. 

The way last Sunday night's game unfolded -- with the Patriots trailing Seattle 24-14 in the fourth quarter, rallying to go ahead in the last two minutes, having that lead all but stolen back in the final MINUTE, and then turning the table a final time on the most unlikely of goal-line interceptions -- made it an instant classic. New England's 28-24 victory sealed the legacy of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and assured rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler, author of the Pick-Heard-'Round-the-World, that his days working at Popeye's were over for good.

Seattle Coach Pete Carroll was immediately lambasted for not calling a second-down running play for bruising back Marshawn Lynch or mobile QB Russell Wilson, a move which brought logical comparisons in these parts to Red Sox managers Grady Little and John MacNamara. (If you have to ask, you're reading the wrong blog.) I admit conjuring up images of Mac and Grady myself as the euphoria turned to disbelief over why Carroll chose to throw in that situation.

Great, but not the best.

Butler, in contrast, was the game's unlikely hero -- a Dave Henderson or Dave Roberts in shoulder pads. But while Hendu's homer in the 1986 ALCS and Roberts' steal in the 2004 showdown with the Yankees proved pivitol points in thrilling victories, and ranked at or near the top of most of the lists this week, neither sealed a victory or a championship. Both, in fact, came in the fifth game of seven-game series.


To truly match the ramifications of Sunday's game, you have to go much further back in Red Sox history. In fact, the only time the Sox clinched a world championship in the final moments of an all-or-nothing contest was during Fenway Park's first postseason: the 1912 World Series between Boston and the New York Giants.

Like this year's Super Bowl, the Fall Classic of '12 had everything needed to generate fan and media buzz. There were two ace pitchers -- classy veteran Christy Mathewson of the Giants and young fireballer Smoky Joe Wood of the Red Sox -- filling in the Brady and Wilson roles. A legendary boss occupied one dugout (manager John McGraw of the Giants as Belichick) who an eager adversary (player-manager Jack Stahl of the Sox as Carroll) hoped to topple.

Wood and Mathewson: Calm before the storm

There were even battling crowds to throw  into the mix. The fierce rivalry between New York and Boston baseball fans was already well established, and the Red Sox "Royal Rooters" had their own brass band and were led by Boston Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald -- grandfather of future president John F. Kennedy.

The Giants were heavy favorites entering the Series, but through seven games the Sox had managed to split six contests with one darkness-induced tie. For the eighth and deciding game at Fenway, Mathewson faced Boston's Hugh Bedient on a cold, damp afternoon. Wood, who had pitched the day before, was ready in the bullpen. 

New York went up 1-0 in the third inning, but failed to capitalize on several chances to expand their lead. Mathewson was hurling a shutout into the seventh when Stahl manged to bloop a single to center and came around to score on a double down the left-field line -- which then included a sloping hill directly in front of the ad-plastered fence.

Christy Mathewson: Brady in a baseball cap.

It was still 1-1 after nine innings, and the skies were darkening as the Giants came up in the tenth. Wood had relieved Bedient, and New York got to him on a Red Murray double and a run-scoring single by Fred Merkle (remember the name). The final out of the frame was a hot shot to the mound off Wood's hand; Smokey Joe managed to get the out at first, but Stahl was forced to pinch-hit for his ace (a .290 batter) leading off the bottom of the 10th.

Clyde Engle, a weak slap-hitter, was overmatched against Mathewson. He hit a fly ball to center, which Fred Snodgrass settled under for a seemingly easy out -- until it popped out of his glove. Engle took second, and got to third on a deep line drive by Harry Hooper which Snodgrass managed to spear for a then-game-saving play.

The tying run was now 90 feet away. Another weak hitter, Steve Yerkes, was up next, but a rattled Mathewson inexplicably walked him. Tris Speaker, the AL's top batsman, now stepped in, and Matty appeared to win the best-on-best battle by inducing a foul pop to the right side. First baseman Fred Merke was closest to the ball, but for reasons unknown -- some reports claimed Mathewson called him off -- it fell untouched. 

Fate dealt its cards.

Given another life, Speaker singled in Engle and took second on an unsuccessful throw to third to try and nab Yerkes. Mathewson should have been celebrating a championship by this point, but now was just hoping to get out of the inning with a 2-2 tie. He walked Duffy Lewis to load the bases and set up a force out at home, but Larry Gardner's fly ball was deep enough to score Yerkes with the series-clinching run.

Joe Wood -- 34-5 in 1912, 3-1 in the World Series

The two New York miscues would haunt those who made them for the rest of their careers, with "Snodgrass' Muff" entering the baseball lexicon. It's too early to tell if Carroll will ever be exonerated for having Wilson throw from the one-yard-line, but unless he wins another Super Bowl or two it will almost surely be in the headline of his obituary -- as was the case with Snodgrass.

Gardner's game-winning hit was not a stirring play like Butler's interception, but, as Belichek would say, it got the job done. It also helped spark a Red Sox dynasty, as Boston claimed additional World Series titles in 1915, 1916, and 1918 with the help of a young pitcher named George Herman Ruth. 

Gardner was around for three of the titles, while Hooper was on board for all four -- a record he now shares with Tom Brady for the most world championships won by a Boston pro athlete not on the Celtics (who, with 11 titles between 1957-1969, had a full roster's worth of players achieve the feat). You can win yourself a few bar bets with that one.

Now, it would seem, the pressure is on David Ortiz. As the sole member of the current Red Sox team who was on the 2004, ,2007, and 2013 champions, Ortiz can match Brady and Hooper with his next title. 

One thing is sure -- it won't take him an eight-game series to get it.

Brady now has four -- how about Papi?




Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Record snows have brought seasons of woe for Red Sox

Will it be another cold October?

Ask any Red Sox fan who remembers Jim Rice 3-D Kelloggs cards to name the most excruciating seasons in team history, and chances are two years will immediately come to mind: 1978 and 2003.  

Sure, 1986 was pretty bad too, but that was against the Mets. These things always hurt worse when the Yankees are involved, and in '78 (Bucky Bleeping Dent) and '03 (Aaron Bleeping Boone) that was most definitely the case. 

When the list of record Boston snow falls began popping up on TV and computer screens a few days ago, I couldn't help but notice the top two slots were occupied by storms that took place in those same cringe-inducing years. 

Occupying the top spot is the President's Day weekend storm of Feb. 17 and 18, 2003, when 27. 6 inches hit the Hub over two days. It was a biggie, sure, but with the web warnings we all received for days and the mega-machinery in place to clean it up, it was not crippling for long.

Number two is the 27.1-inch storm which for many New Englanders who remember it will always be the pre-Internet blast against which all others pale by comparison: The Blizzard of '78.

Fenway Chill: Winter '78 (Boston Globe)

Computer satellite forecasting was in its Good Morning America infancy, and most of us (or our parents) were at school or work when this mid-day Monday storm hit on Feb. 6, 1978. Many commuters who tried to get home were left stranded in their cars on Route 128, and kids had two weeks off to play in the streets.

Fenway Chill: October '78 (Associated Press)

In a way, the reaction to the two storms was similar to how Red Sox fans got through the events of those same years. The bitter taste of 1978 took years to get over; it was really not until the April night in 1986 when a young Texan mowed down 20 Mariners that folks at Fenway could smile again.

The events of 2003, in contrast, were quickly forgotten. Within days of Boone's home run Grady Little was out and the Red Sox were in search of a manager and reinforcements to make another push at the Yankees in '04. Soon Terry Francona, Curt Schilling, and Keith Foulke were in the fold and hopes were high again.

Blizzard of Boone: October '03

Lest fans be too worried that another dismal year is in store with a mega snowfall, they can always look at the fifth-biggest storm of all time for solace. 

The date of that one? Feb. 8-9, 2013.

That October turned out pretty OK.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why Hall of Fame voters got it wrong (again) on Curt Schilling

Schilling & Martinez both belong. (Boston Globe)

Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson were worthy Hall of Fame selections today, each receiving more than 98 percent of the vote, but the man who sparkled alongside each of them on World Series champions got only 39.2 percent -- nowhere near the 75 percent needed for inclusion.

This marked the third year since he became eligible that Curt Schilling has finished well back of the pack, and it has me perplexed. By no means am I implying Schilling is in Johnson or Martinez's class as a pitcher; Johnson is in the pantheon of Tom Seaver and Lefty Grove among all-time greats, while Martinez is the Sandy Koufax of his generation based on his incredible stretch of mid-career domination. At his best, there was none better than Pedro -- maybe ever. 

Still, there are many reasons that the man who made bloody socks famous also deserves Cooperstown inclusion -- especially when one considers the third pitcher who received first-ballot entry this year with 82.5 percent of the vote -- John Smoltz -- is in many ways Schilling's statistical near-twin.

Here are three:

1. Schilling was a top-of-the-rotation starter on three different teams that reached the World Series -- and a three-time champion.

Schill matched the Big Unit in '01.

This is an impressive and very rare trifecta. Schilling went 16-7 in leading the 1993 Phillies to the cusp of a title before Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams imploded against the Blue Jays. In 2001 he was 22-6 and teamed with Diamondbacks "co-ace" Johnson to keep the mighty Yankees from a four-peat, and in 2004 he was 21-6 and clearly the best pitcher (sorry Pedro) on the Red Sox team that finally got it done.

Throw in his solid 15-7 mark in playing second fiddle to Josh Beckett on the '07 Red Sox title-winners, and it's clear this is a guy who not only knew how to win, but how to help teams win.

2. His postseason record is among the best ever -- and he did it over the long haul.

Schilling was bloody good in the postseason.

Schilling has few peers here. He made the playoffs five times, reached the World Series on four occasions, and overall made 19 postseason starts. Over 133.1 innings he was 11-2 with four complete games, two shutouts, a 2.23 ERA, and 0.96 WHIP. He went deep into games on almost every occasion, and shined bright on the biggest stage -- compiling a 2.06 ERA and 0.896 WHIP in 48 World Series innings. In 2001, he and Johnson shared Series MVP honors.

Among all-time postseason leaders, Schilling ranks third in winning percentage (.846), fifth in wins, eighth in both starts and strikeouts (120), and ninth in innings pitched. That's dominance.

3. His regular season stats compare very favorably to others in the Hall of Fame -- including today's first-year inductee Smoltz.

Better than Curt? Only in relief.

Check out Smoltz's stats as a starter. Sure, he's one of only two guys with 200 wins and 150 saves, but that's like saying Joe Torre is the only guy to hit 250 home runs and win multiple World Series as a manager. Smoltz was an All-Star caliber closer for three years, and that's hardly enough of a sample size to warrant Hall of Fame selection. Throw out his 154 saves, and Smoltz and Schilling have VERY similar numbers:

Smoltz:   211-155 (.579), 3.33 ERA, 3084 strikeouts, 1010 walks, 1.176 WHIP 

Postseason:  15-4, 2.67 ERA, 0.941 WHIP
8-time All-Star, 1 twenty-win season, 1 World Series title, 3 times Cy Young Top 5 (1 win)

Schilling:  216-146 (.597). 3.46 ERA, 3116 strikeouts, 711 walks, 1.137 WHIP
Postseason:  11-2, 2.23 ERA, 0.968 WHIP
6-time All-Star, 3 twenty-win seasons, 3 World Series title, 4 times Cy Young Top 5

I'm nor saying Smoltz is not a Hall of Famer, but why is he a first-ballot slam-dunk while Schilling is still on the way outside looking in? Are a couple Rolaids Relief Awards worth more to a candidate's credentials than a couple World Series rings? How about the fact one guy is perceived as a low-key gentleman and the other as a bit of a blowhard? Should that matter? 
Schill as a Phil -- quite the thrill.

Now let's look at another first-ballot guy with Schilling-like stats and multiple world championships -- Catfish Hunter. He won five rings, three with Oakland and two with New York, but his sore arm kept him under 150 innings for the Yankees in '77 and '78. He's clearly in Cooperstown for what he did from 1967-76, and that's fine, but what he did in that stretch and over his career was pretty comparable to Schilling, and he did it in an era dominated by pitching:

Hunter:  224-166 (.574), 3.26 ERA, 2012 strikeouts, 954 walks, 1.134 WHIP

Postseason:  9-6, 3.26 ERA, 1.126 WHIP
8-time All-Star, 5 twenty-win seasons, 5 World Series titles, 4 times Cy Young Top 5 (1 win) 

Again, Hunter was a lovable guy, but was he really that much better than Schilling? Remember, he was winning 20 games a year when that was far more commonplace; he finished in his league's Top 5 in wins five times, just once more than Schilling (both led their league twice). He also played on two of the most dominant teams of the last 40 years -- the 1971-75 Athletics and the 1976-78 Yankees.

The Cat -- better than Curt?

Taking into account that wins on their own often don't measure the full strength of a pitcher, let's take a look at wins above replacement (WAR) -- a measure of how much better or worse a team does with a player compared to the league average performer at the same position (with factors like ballparks also taken into account). The higher the WAR, the more valuable the pitcher. Here's the WAR breakdown for Schilling, Smoltz, and Hunter:

Schilling 80.7 (26th all-time)

Smoltz 69.5 
Hunter 41.4

Try the same thing with Hall of Fame members Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning, and you'll see Schilling compares very favorably to them both in wins, WAR, and postseason performance (Bunning never even pitched in the playoffs). Granted, Drysdale and Bunning are from a different era, but even taking that into account the numbers stack up quite evenly. 

Drysdale -- another in Schilling's class.

Not all sportswriters were Schilling fans, but they clearly respected him when it came to accolades. He never won a Cy Young Award like Smoltz or Hunter, but he finished second in the voting three times (twice to Johnson) and overall had far more Cy Young votes than Smoltz and only a few less than Hunter. In fact, Schilling had more Cy votes than all but 20 pitchers in history (and only one non-winner, Adam Wainwright, is in the Top 20).

That's what makes the current situation so confusing. Hall of Fame voters may not like Schilling's politics. They may not be fans of his business acumen (especially if they live in Rhode Island). They may even think he talks too much. But when it comes to their Hall of Fame votes, it seems they should be able to put that aside and judge the man solely by his numbers and success.

If they do, they will see it is clear that he belongs in Cooperstown.

One of these doesn't belong -- but he should.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

For some fans, Jon Lester was more inspiration than ace

Lester notches the last out. (Wall Street Journal)

I originally wrote the story below for the Dana-Farber staff Intranet, but felt that giving it a wider audience would be a nice contrast to the negative accounts surrounding Jon Lester's signing with the Chicago Cubs.The names of patients and staff have been changed to preserve their privacy.

May 21, 2008
Lester's no-hitter gives cancer fighters a lift 

Jon Lester's no-hitter was the talk of the Dana 1 infusion clinic yesterday morning, and just because the 24-year-old lefty pitches for the hometown Boston Red Sox. 

Lester is also a lymphoma survivor who received treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 2006-07. and his quick recovery from patient to the top of the baseball world is an inspiration to others tackling cancer.
Lester and Tito celebrate (Reuters)

"I look at this guy and say, 'He's come a long way in a short time. If he can do it, I can do it," says Patrick, a 62-year-old patient who was at the clinic getting treatment for his T-cell lymphoma. After Patrick was diagnosed last fall, his son-in-law gave him an authentic Jon Lester jersey for good luck. 

When he took off his jacket to reveal the shirt yesterday, Patrick says his fellow patients loved seeing it. "I think it gave everybody a lift." 

This is not the first time Lester has been in the national headlines. Initially diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma as a rookie with the Red Sox in late August 2006, he returned to the Boston roster last July and slowly worked his way back into form. 

His effectiveness returned faster than expected, and he wound up leading the Red Sox to victory in the final game of their 2007 World Series sweep over the Colorado Rockies. 
Lester holds the hardware, 2007

Lester is back in the regular rotation this season, and is strong enough to have thrown 130 pitches in Monday's no-hitter. He also found time to meet with Dana-Farber patients as part of this winter's New Stars for Young Stars Jimmy Fund event at Jillian's Boston.

Lester's presence is felt all over Dana-Farber. Todd, a 28-year-old patient, is in the midst of his second battle with rhabdomyosarcoma, and he has been following Lester's incredible story since the pitcher was diagnosed about a month before him. 

As an athlete himself who captained his high school and college football teams, Todd knows how much one's physical and mental strength is sapped by cancer.
Three survivors

"It's hard to describe; even when the treatment is over, it's really tough to get back to where you were before," says Todd. "To see him pitching in the World Series just a year after starting treatment, and now pitching a no-hitter, it's incredible. It definitely gives you inspiration and more hope."

Dana I infusion nurse Jennifer Smith, BSN, RN, agrees that Lester's on- and off-field heroics give a much-needed boost to those in her care.

"Especially when patients feel like their sickness is taking over, it's very encouraging," she says. "Jon has proven that you can fight the fight, win the battle, and go on and live your life."
Thanks, Jon

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Forget David Ortiz, the guy Hanley Ramirez needs to get on speed dial is Jim Rice

They'll be tougher off the Wall. (USA Today)

Some good-natured ribbing took place on Sports Radio after Hanley Ramirez's press conference today, when the new Red Sox left fielder admitted that he has yet to speak this week with new teammate David Ortiz -- his "big brother" in baseball since Ramirez first signed with Boston back in the early '90s. 

Hopefully the two will connect soon, but if Ramirez really knows what is good for him, he'll meet up with another Red Sox slugger early and often in the months to come:

Jim Rice.

Forty years ago, rookie Rice came to Boston and earned himself a spot in the 1975 starting lineup with his prodigious bat. Rice was such a great hitter that the Red Sox moved six-time Gold Glove-winning left fielder Carl Yastrzemski to first base and planted Rice in front of the Green Monster. 
The '75 Sox outfield (L-R): Rice, Lynn, Evans

The rookie certainly didn't remind anybody of Yaz in those early days, but Rice worked as hard at his fielding as he did his hitting. Coach Johnny Pesky hit him hundreds and hundreds of fly balls, and the result was that Jim Ed became a very competent outfielder -- especially at Fenway.

In 1983, while he was winning the American League home run (39) and RBI (126) titles, Rice was also tied for second in the majors with 21 outfield assists -- many of them coming on balls hit off the Wall that he turned into outs at second base. 
Rice has his eyes on this one. (Getty Images)

Sox manager Ralph Houk said of Rice's fielding, "I don't think people realize just how good he is; he gets to most balls, and especially those hit to his right. I don't know of anybody who is better than he is playing the wall." No less an authority than Peter Gammons said Rice deserved a Gold Glove that year.

From behind the desk at NESN, Rice still looks like he could snap a bat in half with a check-swing. Chances are he could also show Ramirez some of the tricky bounces one encounters in left field at Fenway, both in the real digs at Yawkey Way and down at Fenway South in spring training. Rice didn't have the luxury of a practice Monster in Florida when he was playing; hopefully Ramirez will take advantage of it.
Rice still looks good. (NBC Sports)

Another area where Ramirez could take a lesson from Rice is toughness. During his three peak offensive years of 1977-79, the future Hall of Famer played in 481 of Boston's 484 games. It took real trips to the disabled list to knock Jim Ed from the lineup; last year Ramirez was sidelined in 23 of LA's first 103 games by finger, thumb, hand, shoulder, and calf injuries without ever going on the DL.

Ramirez may never be a Hall of Famer, but if he wants to live up to his press conference promise to play hard and well for Boston, he can take a lesson in both areas from the Cooperstown inductee who is around Fenway every day.

Or he could always try what the last Ramirez to play left field at Fenway did -- steal Wally's glove!

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."