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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday: In 1976, the Bird was the Word

Two golden boys.

He flashed like a yellow-curled beacon across the baseball sky, a brief blip of innocence and fun before free agency and million-dollar contracts changed the game forever. 

Mark Fidrych. Just saying the name still makes me smile. The Pride of Northborough, Mass., debuted for the Tigers this week in 1976, and died this week in 2009. His sore-armed career in the majors lasted only 58 games, but he's still right up there with Dwight Evans, Luis Tiant, and Pedro Martinez in my pantheon of all-time favorite players.

Maybe it's because I was a rookie too in '76, also playing for the Tigers as a 9-year-old in the Newton Central Little League. I could barely throw the ball straight, but in my genuine woolen uniform -- I think the league phased them out after that spring -- I could stand in front of the mirror and pretend I was The Bird. 

Rookie on the rise.

Forty springs on, I can still recite his rookie stats from memory: 19-9, 2.34 ERA, 250.1 innings, 24 complete games in 29 starts. But numbers only begin to tell the story.

Fidrych, then a wide-eyed 21-year-old with parts of just two seasons in the minors, didn't start his first game for the Tigers until May 15 because manager Ralph Houk wanted to work the youngster in slowly. But The Bird -- named after Big Bird on Sesame Street, of course -- only knew one speed: full-tilt. 

Beginning with a two-hitter against Cleveland, he went 8-1 over his first two months, including back-to-back 11-inning complete games and a dismantling of the mighty Yankees on ABC's "Monday Night Baseball" that made him a national phenomenon. Teammates and fans loved watching him pitch, because he did so with precision (just 53 walks), passion, and a train to catch after the ninth. 

He was a man on a mission -- to win and have fun doing it.

Man at work.

The Bird appreciated every second of his time on the field. If a teammate made a great play, he ran over and shook his hand. If the mound needed some tending, he got down on his knees and did it himself. He claimed he didn't talk to the ball, but the fact we all thought he was when he jabbered to himself was good enough.

Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson let the lanky, 6-foot-3 rookie start for the American League in the All-Star Game over the likes of Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, and his own ace Luis Tiant, and it was the natural choice. When it came to pleasing fans, nobody did it better; Fidrych packed ballparks wherever he went, and Tigers attendance rose 39 percent from the previous season despite the team's lackluster 74-87 record. 

The Bird was the Word. Girls dug his locks, scooping them up after his haircuts. Rolling Stone put him on the cover. He even got to meet Frank Sinatra, which didn't mean much to him but delighted his mother.  

Bill Lee never got this gig.

Fidrych finished second in the AL Cy Young race to Palmer (he was robbed), and had a limitless future and a new three-year contract for $50,000 a year. Then, in the blink of a slip on the outfield grass while shagging flies in spring training, it was all but over. He injured his knee, requiring surgery, and then after coming back with a string of seven complete games in eight starts mid-way through 1977 suffered a dead arm from which he never recovered. 

Shoulder woes plagued him from this point on, robbing him of his control and his glory. By 1983, after umpteenth comebacks with the Tigers and a last-ditch effort for the Red Sox at Triple A Pawtucket, Fidrych called it quits at the ripe old age of 28. 

Last gas.

He went back to Northboro and became a commercial truck driver and farmer. He later had his own trucking business, mostly doing construction, and hung around the local diner. A working stiff with a wife, daughter, and no regrets he let folks know about.

Occasional "Where Are They Now?" articles appeared to catch us up on The Bird, but the first time Fidrych made real headlines after his retirement was on April 20, 2009, when word spread that he had died at 54 in a freak accident -- apparently crushed after his truck fell on him while he was working on it. 

I dug out my old 1976 Tigers team photo. There I was in the front row, with a Timex and Bill Lee glove on my wrist and a grin on my face.

The future limitless. 

Birds at rest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oh Yeah, The Red Sox Won

Not to be forgotten. (Associated Press)

Originally posted 4/17/14

Last night I actually forgot the Red Sox had a ballgame. It was completely out of character, but also completely understandable.  

As a Bostonian far from home, my thoughts the last two days have been dominated by the horrific events that took place Monday at the marathon finish line. I grew up a few blocks from Heartbreak Hill, and have been cheering on friends and strangers in this great race all my life. More times than I can count, I've thought of running it myself.  

Now, like New Yorkers who can never completely separate themselves from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, those of us who love the Boston Marathon will be forced to make room in our memories for what transpired this week. We will cheer again, but there will always be sadness and fear ready to creep in. 
Boston Strong in Cleveland (Boston Red Sox)

I learned about what happened like most people, in bits and pieces. It was just after 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon when I signed onto my iPhone for a brief look at the Red Sox and marathon results. Vacationing with my family in Washington, D.C., I needed a quick fix of the Patriot's Day fun we were missing.

On, along with details of a Sox victory over the Rays and the men's and women's marathon winners, there was a small account of "loud noises" at the race's Copley Square finish line. I didn't think much of it, and only mentioned it briefly to my wife and brother while in line with our kids waiting to enter the Museum of American History.
A few hours before the horrors unfolded. 

I was curious enough to check my phone again a few minutes later, however, by which point the game and race had been knocked from the online headlines by the horrors unfolding on Boylston Street. Trying to stay composed for the sake of the two 8-year-olds in our party, the adults took turns swapping phones during the next two-plus hours as the news grew increasingly grim.

By the time we left the museum at 5:30 p.m., there were sirens sounding through the streets as Washington went into a semi-lockdown mode. We had plans to meet an old friend for dinner that night, but wound up staying in and ordering pizza; transfixed by the footage and eyewitness accounts on CNN, we forced ourselves to switch over to pay-per-view and the silly diversion of "Here Comes the Boom." It was nice to laugh along with the kids. 
Kind sentiments from Tito's team.

Now, after more than 36 hours of Copley Square coverage, I am trying to get myself focused back on the Red Sox -- both as an additional escape and to help fill the pages of Fenway Reflections. I'll be back home tomorrow and will be starting a regular weekly column with odds and ends about the team.

It's clear Red Sox Nation is ready to cheer again even while the crying goes on. Tuesday afternoon my wife saw online that "Sweet Caroline" would be played that night at Yankee Stadium during New York's game against the Diamondbacks. Then she read me one of the comments beneath the story, and I had another welcome laugh.

"Nice thought," the reader mentioned, "but the Yankees still suck."
The feeling was mutual -- for most. (NY Daily News)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Signs of life -- but still concerns -- as Red Sox hit the road

Like the weather, the Sox have yet to heat up.

Before Big Papi's big blast yesterday bailed them out, the Red Sox were a few outs (and a few feet) away from a 1-5 homestand to start the Fenway Park season. As David Ortiz and his mates head into Yankee Stadium hoping the good vibes can continue, here are some reasons to believe -- and be concerned -- about what we've seen from John Farrell's team so far:

The starting pitching has been (mostly) very good. Jake Peavy was the best he's ever been for Boston yesterday, and he, Jon Lester, and John Lackey have all shined in the early going. Felix Doubront turned in one stinker, but he's always going to be up and down. The biggest anxiety, of course, surrounds Clay Buchholz, but Farrell insists his woeful debut was due more to fixable control issues than the shoulder woes that put him on the shelf for three months last season. Tonight's start versus the Yanks will show us more. 

Can Peavy keep it up? It would be nice.

Double plays have been a killer. Last season the Red Sox made a living playing opportunistic baseball. This year they've blown a lot of opportunities due to twin killings. The Sox have grounded into a MLB-worst 17 double plays, nearly three times the league average of 6, including five in the first six innings of Tuesday's 10-7 loss to Texas. This is one place the Sox really miss Jacoby Ellsbury's speed, but even plodders should be able to refrain from hitting grounders to the left side with men on base.

Even when slumping, they're getting on base. You can't hit into double plays if you don't get on base, of course, and the Sox are getting on nearly as well as ever. Their on-base-percentage of .349 ranks fourth in the majors and just .004 behind AL-leading Minnesota, and they are doing it with a largely patchwork offense due to the injuries to Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks. When these two return, and the New England weather heats up, the OBP should rise higher still.

Fly ball to Nava...hold your breath.

Outfield defense has been shaky. Last year Boston had Gold Glovers Ellsbury (CF) and Victorino (RF) plugging the gaps; this year, with Ellsbury gone and Victorino on the DL, the Sox have gone primarily with Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Daniel "Every Fly an Adventure" Nava in right. The drop-off has been considerable; while Sizemore and Bradley have both made nice plays, they lack Ellsbury's running speed and years of institutional knowledge. Hopefully they will get a better feel for Fenway and Victorino can take Nava out of his misery.

Learning on the job, Bradley is starting to shine.

We've seen the future, and it's exciting. Win or lose, still-official rookies Bradley and Xander Bogaerts have been a joy to watch. Bradley has great baseball senses, and is coming around at the plate -- including in the clutch. His game against Texas Monday was a thing of beauty, and while he works on making such events a regular occurrence, Bogaerts appears to already be there. Poised and polished well beyond his 21 years, he appears enroute to a freshman season somewhere between the Rookie of the Year campaigns turned in by Dustin Pedroia in 2007 and Nomar Garciaparra in 1997. 

We've also seen a bit of a World Series hangover. Although the near-comeback from an early 8-0 deficit Tuesday and yesterday's win are encouraging, Boston has played largely lifeless baseball in the early going. The three-game sweep at the hands of the Brewers felt like 2012, right down to the large sections of empty seats in the late innings. This, perhaps more than anything else, is troubling.

Will the fire-in-their-eyes Sox of 2013 show up tonight at Yankee Stadium? We shall see.

Sox need to tap their beard-bonding energy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why Opening Day reminds me I'm aging like Fenway dirt

This shirt is eight years older than Xander.

Another Opening Day at Fenway Park is nearly upon us, which also means it's my birthday week (actually, it's my birthday day). In many ways this is a nice congruity, since the beginning of a new baseball season also signifies the start of spring and (hopefully) better New England weather -- but it also calls attention to just how old I'm getting.

How does my first Fenway sojourn of the season remind me that I'm aging faster than cheddar cheese on a bleacher seat in August? Let me count the ways.

1. Most players are young enough to be my kids. I'm 47 today, so this is a relatively new phenomenon. Still, it's downright depressing to think that not only am I no longer a like-aged peer of the guys on the field, but most of them would now be apt to look at me like an old man -- their old man. 
I was 21 in 1988 -- old enough to be Will's dad.

2. Nobody playing for the Red Sox is older than me. As long as the Sox had Tim Wakefield, I was safe from this indignity -- since Wake was born exactly eight months before me. Now my closest contemporary on the Boston roster is Koji Uehara, born one day after my eighth birthday (Happy almost-birthday Koji), unless you count the coaching staff. I don't like to count the coaching staff. 

3. I've got sneakers and concert t-shirts older than Xander Bogaerts. This one speaks for itself. In fact, I was already out of college and well into my third newspaper job before Bogaerts entered the world in October 1992. 
If I was 21, I'd be smiling too.

4. I fill out a uniform -- too much. Ever make fun of the coaches and managers whose big guts droop over the belts of their uniforms? Me too, but not anymore.

5. Who the hell is that guy in right field? Without my glasses, I can't read the names on the backs of uniforms, which means I'm a slave to the JumboTron when it comes to identifying opposing players. I can recognize the Red Sox by their numbers, of course, but now those are starting to get blurry too.
The (not so) Ancient Warrior

6. "Old Man Yaz" was younger than me. This puts things into perspective, doesn't it? Captain Carl Yastrzemski was dragging his creaky bones around the American League at the ancient age of 44 by his last season, or three years younger than I am today.

7.  During spring training, the Red Sox played against Yaz's grandson. This one kind of makes my head spin. I mean, I was happy for Yaz and all, but it's still depressing.
 Yaz's grandson is playing? Oy vey...

8.  When planning out which games I'm going to, I check my kids' schedules. Parents, you know what I'm talking about here. Once the conflicts were house parties; now they are birthday parties. 

9. I sometimes turn on the Channel 5 News at 11:23 to catch the scores from Mike Lynch, or reach for the phone to call the Globe hotline. Yeah, I know every MLB box, video highlight, and updated batting average is on my iPhone, but old habits die hard.
My 1985 electronic scoreboard source.

10. I have a tough time staying awake for West Coast games. Or writing blog posts after midnight. Happy birthday to me.   

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

As Bogaerts matures, could there still be room for Drew?

Drew shined defensively in the postseason.

The Red Sox finally made David Ortiz a Happy Papi with a contact extension that all but assures the greatest clutch hitter in team history will finish his career as a Red Sox. Now, with Opening Day almost upon us, the Sox have the opportunity to make another move that could help one of their rising stars reach his potential.

Bringing back Stephen Drew.

Sure, Xander Bogaerts may be the best thing since Big Yaz Bread, or at least appeared to be when he took over at third base for a slumping Will Middlebrooks in last year's playoffs, but he's still technically a rookie with just 18 games of regular season experience. He showed tremendous poise and patience in becoming the youngest player (at 21) to ever start a postseason contest for the Red Sox, but he also made an error in Game 4 of the World Series with a rushed throw to first base and hit just .238 with one extra-base hit in six games against the Cardinals. 

This spring training, with the eyes of the baseball world looking on, he's batting .227 with 1 homer after a fairly large sample size of 44 at-bats. He does have 3 triples, but he also has 10 strikeouts.
He may be the future, but we're not there yet.

In other words, he may still be a great prospect, but he's not yet an every-day great player.

He's also about to start his first season as a big-league regular, at one of the game's most demanding positions: shortstop. He's shown excellent hands and range at every level, but he's never played more than 134 games in a campaign (last year, when he played 60 at Portland, 56 at Pawtucket, and 18 in Boston). Suiting up in the majors every day is a grind, as he'll soon discover.

Middlebrooks, after some talk of a move to first base, is back at third, apparently for the duration. Bogaerts is slated to be the everyday shortstop, with Jonathan Herrera the likely back-up option. Herrera has 375 games of MLB experience under his belt, but has never been a regular or played in an intense atmosphere like Boston.

Stephen Drew, of course, has done both.
Drew is a Dirt Dog who rebounded well in 2013.

Last year Drew recovered from an awful start at the plate to produce an excellent slash line of .291/.367/.497 in August and September combined as Boston pushed toward the postseason. His overall power totals of 29 doubles, 8 triples, 13 homers, and 67 RBI placed him among the upper tier of American League shortstops offensively, even though he was limited to 124 games by a hamstring injury in mid-season.

Drew's fielding was also very solid. He ranked third among AL shortstops in range factor, second in fielding percentage, and during the playoffs was particularly flashy with the glove -- playing so well defensively that John Farrell kept him in the lineup despite a .111 postseason batting average.

Farrell figured eventually the veteran would come through with the stick, and his patience paid off. Drew led off the fourth inning of Game 6 of the World Series with a home run -- igniting a three-run inning that broke open the clincher for Boston.
In Game 6 versus St. Louis, Drew came through.

His ego boosted by all these positives -- and a money-hungry agent in Scott Boras -- Drew chose as a free agent to turn down Boston's one-year, $14.1 million qualifying contract offer. Surely he figured better deals from other teams would come, but despite persistent rumors of suitors he's still without a home. 

The Sox are gambling on Bogaerts, but since Drew can't seem to find anybody else willing to meet his price, perhaps it's time Ben Cherington finds out if Boras might just take a lower offer. (One reason other teams are hesitant to sign Drew is that they would have to forfeit a draft pick to the Red Sox as compensation.)

Bogaerts may be the future, but Drew has been there and done that -- and would be an excellent insurance policy if the rookie were to struggle early or later on. He may even have a few tips to give the kid after more than 900 games at shortstop. At this point he likely would not mind a backup role as a chance to stay in the majors.
Drew apparently would love to be back.

Would Drew want to come back? He told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe that he would,  saying that "The chemistry Pedey [second baseman Dustin Pedroia] and I had was tremendous. But it's a business. It would be great to go back there. The owners, management, maybe that's something they want to do different. That's all I can think of."

Cherington and Co. want Bogaerts at short, and they want him there every day. But it's a long season.

Look at it this way: What if the Red Sox had handed left field to Jackie Bradley Jr. last year, and didn't have Shane Victorino to step in when Bradley faltered?

There might not have been a chance for Bogaerts -- or Drew -- to shine in the postseason.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pedro, Yaz highlight Red Sox "Grade A" lineup vs.Marlins

Pedro looks to tame the Marlins Tuesday.

After getting heat from Florida Marlins fans and management for fielding a lineup last Thursday at Roger Dean Stadium that included just one likely regular season starter, the Red Sox are making sure there are no complaints for those Florida rooters who make the trip to Jet Blue Park for Tuesday's split-squad rematch.

On the recommendation of Boston owner John Henry, who Saturday joked that the Marlins should "apologize for their regular season lineup," Red Sox manager John Farrell has what he calls a "Grade A" starting nine awaiting Florida fans and management 

Wade Boggs will be batting leadoff and playing third base, followed by Dustin Pedroia at second base and David Ortiz at designated hitter. Carl Yastrzemski will bat cleanup and guard the Green Monster in left, with Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop and Mo Vaughn at first. The bottom three in the order will include Carlton Fisk at catcher, Dwight Evans in right, and Johnny Damon in center. 

The starting pitcher? Who else but Pedro Martinez?

"This should be good enough for the Marlins management and fans," says Farrell. "Yaz has lost a step or two, and Carlton is having some problems with his knees, but we think they should be ready."
Yaz: Spry enough at 74.

Asked if he has any reserves available if needed, Farrell says that Dave Roberts has been studying the windups and pick-off moves of the entire Florida staff and will be loosening up for a pinch-running appearance in a close game. Fred Lynn and Jim Rice have also been taking extra batting practice in anticipation of seeing action.

After Pedro, Luis Tiant and Dennis Eckersley are expected to pitch in the game. Boo Ferriss also wanted to get some innings in, but the 92-year-old hurler could not get a plane out of Mississippi in time to make it to Florida by Tuesday morning.

"It's too bad," Ferriss said by phone Monday. "I think I could handle that Marlins lineup pretty good."

Saturday, March 1, 2014

No Mo Fooling Around: Oritz Deserves Two-Year Extention

For what he's done, Ortiz has earned two years.

After several weeks of trying to figure out why so many people are adverse to giving a contract extension to David Ortiz, merely the best big-game player in Red Sox history, I think I've finally put my finger on one of the key reasons -- one that might be locked deep in the subconscious of many naysayers.

Mo Vaughn.
Mo was once the man for Boston.

Before Pedro and Papi and Petey and Red Sox Nation and the sellout steak, Vaughn was the best and most popular everyday player on the Boston team -- a guy who, like Ortiz, loomed large at the plate, in the clubhouse, and everywhere else he went including the Jimmy Fund ClinicThen Mo chose to take his talents elsewhere as a free agent, and within a couple years injuries and too many trips to the postgame buffet did him in. 

Sure, Red Sox fans hated to see Mo go, but based on the final numbers they probably thought it wasn't such a bad move. Personally, I think that like Bruce Hurst a decade before, Vaughn's heart was never quite in the game after he left the intense atmosphere of Boston for come-late-leave-early Southern California. Fleeing town earned Mo plenty of cash but also may have cost him a shot at Cooperstown. (Before you laugh off this claim, consider his OPS of .936 through his Red Sox years. He's in pretty good company there, with a figure not too far below Willie Mays among the career leaders.)
Mo moped a lot in Anaheim.

Ortiz has a body type much like Vaughn, so it's natural to assume he's going to lose his bat speed and skills quickly as well. But Papi is already seven years older than Mo when he went to Anaheim, and that's just according to his "official" age (in reality, he might be one or two years older). Even taking his recent injuries into account, there is no sign of a Vaughn-like decline.

In fact, based on last year's World Series, Ortiz looks nearly as good as ever.

Now let's suppose that he does start to slip this year, and the second season of a multi-year deal winds up being largely a bust. If there was ever a player who deserved a bit of a golden parachute and victory tour, isn't it this guy? I know it's not my money, but seriously, hasn't this guy earned the street cred of the 1983 broken-down but beloved version of Carl Yastrzemski if it comes to that?
Broken down, still beloved.

Let's look at it another way. If Carl Crawford is worth a seven-year deal worth $142 million from Boston after winning his first Silver Slugger award, isn't Dave Ortiz worth two seasons at $30 million after earning his sixth -- along with the World Series MVP?

Back in 2004, Ortiz did something that neither Ted or Yaz or Pudge or Rocket or Mo could do in Boston -- he led his team to a World Series title. This alone would have been enough to earn him "never pay for a meal again" status in New England, but then he went and did it again. And again.

Three championships in a decade. Sure, Ortiz didn't do it all himself -- but he was a huge cog in the wheel, perhaps the hugest. Larry Bird won three titles for Boston as well, but if he had asked for a two-year pact, even during the Lying Down When Not Playing Era when his back had the durability of cardboard, would anybody have protested?
Down but never out.

Unless they wanted to be yelled off the air on WEEI or booted out of the old Garden, the answer is a resounding NO. Larry Legend was worth whatever he wanted for what he meant to the team.

Isn't Ortiz?

I say lay off Papi's back and give him the extra year he's seeking. And if he manages to keep playing at a high level through 2016, give him one or two more if he so desires.

The thought of Ortiz coming to town in Yankee pinstripes or any other uniform is far more sickening than when Damon or Clemens or Boggs did the same. Really, there is no comparison. All of them were great players, but Ortiz took the Sox where nobody since Babe Ruth did before: all the way.
Three is worth two.

For that, he deserves at least two more years -- and fans deserve at least that long to cheer him.