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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The 1975 Red Sox helped save baseball -- and my childhood

Forty years ago tonight the Red Sox and Reds played what is routinely cited as one of the greatest games in sports history. Filled with high drama and compelling characters, Game 6 of the 1975 World Series set TV viewership records and jump-started baseball's popularity -- which had waned with the rise of the NFL and Monday Night Football.

Some say Game 6 saved the National Pastime. It definitely helped save me.

I was in the stands at Fenway that cold October evening, and wish I remembered it better. It was well past an 8-year-old's bedtime, and most of my recollections of the evening revolve around the pregame -- when I joined the multitudes shouting "Looie! Looie!" into cardboard megaphones as we watched ace Luis Tiant warm up in the Boston bullpen -- and the climax -- lots of screaming, hugging, and organ playing after Carlton Fisk's shot to left field banged off the foul pole for a game-winning homer.

The 7-6 Red Sox win only temporarily staved off a Cincinnati celebration the next night in Game 7 , but the feats of Pudge, El Tiante, and their teammates during that season and beyond had a lasting impact on me -- providing a way to survive and then escape from the darkest force of my childhood.

Before '75, the Red Sox were not on my radar screen. My big brother Adam played in the Newton Central Little League, and I went to his games, but my father was an MIT-educated engineer who liked to joke that he "wasn't created with a sports gene." Dad could build or fix anything but looked like Felix Unger when throwing a ball.  

Baseball was never on the radio or the TV, and I connected with my father by building plastic model cars in his basement workshop. I'm not sure I even knew who Carlton Fisk was then, but I could tell any two Ford Thunderbirds apart by studying the taillights of my AMI replicas. At the time that was good enough.

Pre-Sox stats: A full-length taillight on the '66.

Then, on Friday the 13th of January, 1975, my parents sat me and Adam down on his bed to tell us they were splitting up after 13 years of marriage. My mother claims I said something mature like "Well, if you don't get along well together, at least this way you can stay friends," but at age 7 I certainly couldn't grasp the seriousness of what was going on. 

Dad moved the next day from our house in leafy Newton to an apartment abutting Routh 95 in Burlington, where the three of us hanged out every weekend watching late-night TV and eating burgers and creamed corn. Adam and I slept head-to-toe on a living room couch, like Richie's big brother Chuck and his college roommates on "Happy Days." 

For Adam, then nearly 11, it must have been scary and sad to see our father starting his life over. For me it felt like an adventure.

Beacon Village: Fun far from Fenway.

We didn't listen or watch baseball at "dad's house," but by the time the Red Sox clinched the American League East that September the games started appearing on the big Zenith in our den. Mom had a boyfriend, and he had plenty of sports genes.

Jack was big and strong, a jock-turned-lawyer and a rabid Sox fan. He had the games on no matter what he was doing; he even had a huge set of headphones with a built-in radio that he wore while mowing the lawn. I still made Rydell models in the shop, but Jack never went down there. To connect with the new man in the house, I had to watch the games too.

So I did -- and got hooked.

While my own baseball skills were and remained mediocre at best, I found I had a natural affinity for understanding the game and its history. Jack, who had played in high school and beyond, explained some of the finer points, and I began listening to the Sox on my clock radio as I fell asleep and then poring through boxscores in the next morning's Globe. Tiant, Fisk, Rice, Lynn, Yastrzemski -- these heroes provided the language I figured would win Jack over. 

"Hey, Looie got the win last night," I'd say to Jack as we passed heading to and from the bathroom, and I'd feel, briefly, like his equal.

When Luis was winning, life was easier.

Dad briefly took over as the baseball man in the family that October, when a friend of a friend hooked him up with tickets to all four home games in the Red Sox-Reds World Series. These were, I believe, my first visits to Fenway Park, but it was not the start of a trend; once the series and season were over we rarely went back.

A clear dichotomy formed in the years that followed. Weekends at dad's house from spring through early fall were fun-filled with mini-bikes and James Bond movies and burgers, while the weekdays back in Newton were for baseball. Dad married his girlfriend Judy, who was and is a great stepmom but also lacks a sports gene. Mom married Jack, assuring that the Red Sox would always be on at her house.

Hoping for the best, fearing the worst.

As I got older and began to understand a little how the real world worked, I learned one had to be careful when watching and listening to games with Jack. 

If the Red Sox were winning, he smiled and laughed and was your buddy; if they were losing the smile disappeared and he filled up his big glass from the liquor cabinet more often. He never took me and Adam to games or even played catch with us -- those honors were reserved for his own son -- so this hit-or-miss bonding was the best I was going to get.

Sprawled out on the shag carpet in front of the TV, with Jack in the dark leather recliner behind me, I prayed for wins. After Bucky Dent in '78 and the dismantling of the club that soon followed, the drunk, angry moods became more common. It wasn't just the slumping Sox, I learned later; Jack's once flourishing law career was also on a downward trend. 

Time for another drink.

It was best just to stay away, and I found I could momentarily forget about him and the scare he put into me by listening to Ken Coleman call the Sox games on WHDH -- "850 on your AM dial." If there was no game on, I could sing along to Jim Croche or Don MacLean albums with my mom. She made sure I felt loved, and when Jack was in one of his dark moods I guess I did the same for her.

By the early '80s, when Yastrzemski was winding down, I had given up any chance of bonding with the big guy across the hall. I still loved baseball, and began taking the Green Line from Boston College to Kenmore Square with friends in a rite of passage that allowed me to escape the tension at home by making a new home at Fenway. Occasionally dad got there with me -- one game he took me and 10 buddies to right after my Bar Mitzvah remains a great memory -- but the Red Sox were mostly "my" thing. That was fine.

Yaz retired in October 1983, but the last links to the '75 team, Dwight Evans and Jim Rice, were still going strong when I left for college a couple years later. The next summer I returned just as the Red Sox and young pitching phenom Roger Clemens were heating up. 

It was the type of club that even Jack and I might have enjoyed together, but by this point Mom had finally endured enough. He was on the way out, and when he meekly offered me great tickets to a few games that August -- not to go with him, just free seats -- I politely refused. I'd rather grab a standing-room spot balanced atop the guardrails behind the last row of Section 25 with my friends than take his weak-ass handouts.

By '86, I'd rather hang here than with him.

I have no idea where Jack is now; the last I heard about him, he had done some time in jail and been disbarred for stealing money from clients. I occasionally Google him but nothing comes up other than a few short stories and court documents describing his incarceration. I know people who know one of his other ex-wives, and a few calls would likely unearth his whereabouts. But I don't make them.

Mom found a guy worthy of her love -- and ours -- and they had a great decade together before he died of cancer. She and dad did indeed stay friendly and still get together with Adam and my families often. Ballgames are usually on in the background; Dad and Judy still have not developed sports genes, but they'll go to their grandkids' games.

Jack is about 80 now; I imagine the next time I read his name -- if I ever do -- will be in an obituary. Forty years after he entered my life, and nearly 30 years after he left it, the fear and anger are long gone. What's left are the memories of a great team, and a love for the game that I developed in 1975 out of desperation -- but has remained far beyond its original intent.

Maybe Jack never took me to Fenway, but now I can go whenever I want. I tend to look at it not as revenge, but it feels sweet just the same. 

Like a fly ball heading deep to left, staying fair, and making us believe anything is possible. 



Saturday, October 3, 2015

Here's how Dave Dombrowski can solve the Farrell-Lovullo Red Sox managerial dilemma

Have we seen the last of this? 

The rumors out of Yawkey Way are that John Farrell will be back as Red Sox manager for the 2016 season, provided he is healthy after treatment for Stage 1 lymphoma. This would be a mistake.

As much as I wish Farrell well in his cancer battle and respect him for his 2013 World Series success and classy demeanor, this has been a different team since his bench coach Torey Lovullo took over as acting manager. The Red Sox have played with more energy, heart, and success since the switch, with numerous late-inning comebacks -- which was not the case earlier in the season.

Lovullo is now a hot commodity, and Boston stands to lose him as other teams seek to make managerial changes this offseasonConfounding the problem is that Lovullo has already said he will not take the Boston job if his friend Farrell -- who he served as a coach in both Boston and Toronto -- is fired or kicked upstairs to a desk job.

There is a solution, however, that might satisfy both men.

Your move, Dave. (

Monday morning, new Boston baseball czar Dave Dombrowski could invite them into his office and praise them for making the most of a tough situation. Since it was by working together that they were able to turn this hopeless year into a respectable one, he could explain, he doesn't want to break up that partnership. 

He just wants to reverse it.

Imagine a 2016 Red Sox team with Lovullo as manager and Farrell as his bench coach. It would be the best of both worlds.  The grizzled veteran providing wise counsel to a protege-turned-colleague out to match his past success.

Young players like Travis Shaw, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Blake Swihart who blossomed under Lovullo this late summer would not feel abandoned, nor would veterans like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Xander Bogaerts who went through the 2013 wars with Farrell. 

Lovullo has connected with players in 2015... Farrell did before him. (Boston Globe)

Look at the Yankees dynasty of recent vintage. Any time he wanted in-game consultation from 1996-2003, manager Joe Torre could turn to his side and ask bench coach Don Zimmer -- a veteran of 1,744 games as a manager. The godfather-consigliere arrangement resulted in six AL pennants and four World Series titles.

Zimmer was no doubt frustrated he never won it all as manager, but he could seek solace in the fact his insights were beneficial to Torre's success -- and recognized as such. Zim didn't let his ego get in the way of a good gig.

Zim and Torre made it work. (Sports Illustrated)

Farrell doesn't quite have Zimmer's MLB tenure -- he's managed less than 800 games -- but he has won championships in the Boston pressure cooker as both a manager and pitching coach (under Terry Francona in 2007). Since pitching is the biggest fix now needed here, Farrell's expertise before, after, and during games would be invaluable.   

Both Farrell and Lovullo are proud men, but also smart enough and close enough to see that this could work. 

Even if he recovers fully, Farrell could probably benefit from being in a job with less stress and media demands. He could head home earlier after games, get more rest, and still be near the world's best medical care. 

Farrell can also look to his track record. Sure, he was at the helm for the 2013 champs, but he's also finished last 3 of his 4 years in Boston (the club was 50-64 when he stepped down this year). In six years as a manager, including 2011-12 in Toronto, he's finished over .500 once. Maybe he's a great baseball man but not cut out to lead.

Could they handle a role reversal?

Then there is Lovullo. As well as he has done in his first two months as an MLB manager, he is still largely unproven. He knew the players on this team well when he took over in August, and they responded beautifully to him. If he stayed he could help them take the next step; in another city he would be starting from scratch -- and without a close friend by his side. 

Why not give it a shot? Farrell has a guaranteed contract from the Red Sox through 2017, with a club option for 2018, so John Henry will be paying him regardless. If it doesn't work, Dombrowski would still have the option of offering Farrell another position in the organization and/or firing Lovullo. 

Dombrowski and Lovullo: still a chance. (Getty Images

Firing Farrell and/or losing Lovullo to Washington or another team would be a public relations nightmare. Flipping their roles would be a wonderful feel-good story, providing it is spun as a decision made by the two men involved. Farrell has already won it all, so maybe he would enjoy helping his friend do the same.

There is one more reason Dombrowski should make this move: He knows it was not Farrell who assembled the train wreck of a roster Boston had entering 2015. Farrell didn't let Jon Lester go and fail to sign a true No. 1 starter. He didn't bring in Hanley Ramirez and his crappy attitude to play left field, or overpay for Pablo Sandoval because he had a cute nickname and gaudy World Series stats.

That was Ben Cherington and John Henry's team. The 2016 Red Sox will be all Dombrowski's, and John Farrell and Torey Lovullo should both be given a chance to lead them -- together.


Monday, September 21, 2015

On Big Papi's big night, a new Red Sox hero continues his rise

What Papi saw: Bogaerts celebrates at home.

During pregame ceremonies at Fenway Park honoring his 500th home run, David Ortiz punctuated his short speech by telling fans, "Let's hit some more bombs!" 

A few hours later, as Ortiz watched on deck, Xander Bogaerts took Big Papi up on his offer.

Bogaerts, who continues to emerge as the leader of the next generation of Red Sox players, hit a slider from Brandon Gomes for a grand slam in the eighth inning as Boston continued its string of strong play with an 8-7 win over Tampa Bay. As if to further emphasize Bogaerts' ascendance, his shot cleared the Green Monster in left field just a few feet to the left of the big "501" cards held up by fans to note Ortiz's current home run total.

Pedro and Papi had fun during the pre-game

Coupled with a run-scoring double high off the Monster in his previous at-bat in the seventh, Bogaerts had a 2-for-5 night with a career-high 5 RBI. The 22-year-old shortstop is now hitting .323 as he continues a late-season quest to overtake Detroit's Miguel Cabrera in the American League batting race. Cabrera, who went 1-for-4 in a 3-2 Detroit loss to the Chicago White Sox, is at .337.

An inning after his hitting heroics, Bogaerts showed another facet of his five-tool skills -- diving into the hole at short to grab a hard grounder off the bat of Tim Beckham and then spinning his body and throwing a perfect strike to first to help thwart Tampa Bay's final rally.

Will Bogaerts hit 500 home runs in his career? That remains to be seen. But in pushing the Red Sox out of last place for the first time since June 2 -- and to a 20-11 record over the past five weeks -- he is giving Fenway fans a glimpse at what might be his own long career of big hits.   

Friday, September 18, 2015

Xander Bogaerts could go from All-Star snub to batting champ

Miggy -- I want YOU! (Getty Images)

Look out, Miguel Cabrera, someone is gaining on you.

On Sept. 1, Xander Bogaerts was batting .316 after a 2-hit game against the Yankees. Cabrera, Detroit's dynamic first baseman, was at .359 after 2 hits of his own against the Royals -- and seemingly a lock for his fourth AL batting title.

In the three weeks since, while most New England sports fans focused on David Ortiz's quest for 500 home runs and the start of the Patriots season, Bogaerts has continued his season-long consistency at the plate. A slumping Cabrera, meanwhile, has seen his average hit a free-fall. 

Entering play tonight, Cabrera -- 1-for-21 in his last six games -- is at .335. While this mark still leads the league, Bogaerts has hit .375 for the month to make what was once thought a runaway into a race.

Miguel is mystified. (Getty Images)

The way both players are trending, Bogaerts has a real chance of wiping out the 14-point gap between them. After a .240 rookie season last year, Bogaerts has been one of the game's most consistent hitters all of 2015. He has batted .312 or better each of the past four months and his .345 mark since May 31 leads all of MLB.

Cabrera is headed in the opposite direction. Since a ground-ball single against the Royals his first time up on Sept. 10, he has gone hitless in 20 straight official at-bats (plus three walks). He hasn't homered in 18 games, and while he claims he's not injured -- he missed more than a month mid-season with a strained calf -- clearly something is not right.

Further working against Cabrera is the state of the two teams. Neither the Tigers or Red Sox is playing for the postseason, but while Boston has injected life into its late summer with a dynamic young nucleus including Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr., Detroit is essentially playing out the string with a lackluster lineup that offers their two-time MVP little protection.  

Young Guns are shining for Boston.

Just 17 games are left in Boston's season, so Bogaerts can't afford many off-days and nights if he's going to have a shot to overtake Cabrera. The way he's hit all year, however, it doesn't appear a slump is likely. 

Whatever happens, it will make for a fun few weeks of box-score glancing. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

David Ortiz Countdown brings back memories of Yaz Watch -- and the Charlie's Angels Gaffe

Two who know the thrill of the chase.

My phone buzzed Wednesday night in the Staples parking lot with a text from my friend Scott reading only "498." The two photos below were attached, and I momentarily had a rush of excitement and jealousy that he was at Fenway Park while I waited in school supply lines. 

It was only the second inning. Perhaps, I texted back to Scott, David Ortiz could get two more homers in the game and reach 500 before the Red Sox went on a 9-game road trip the next day. He didn't, of course, and by game's end my thoughts returned as they often have in recent weeks to 1979 -- when Carl Yastrzemski was in pursuit of his 3000th hit

I was 12 that summer, and like most Boston-born kids had been cheering for Yaz all my life. I twirled my bat and tugged at my pants in Little League games, and made self-tossed leaping catches against the backyard wall of our house in imitation of Captain Carl's Green Monster heroics.

Like Ortiz, Yastrzemski had been in danger of missing his best chance to get his big hit at home back in '79.

Ancient Mariner (Topps)

He had a great first half-season, and slugged his 400th home run in July, but the march to hit No. 3000 was excruciatingly slow. Like this year's team, the Sox were essentially out of the pennant race that September, leaving fans not much else to cheer for but the "Ancient Mariner's" quest. 

Yaz hit .225 in August, the month he turned 40, and more often than not the "Yaz Watch" numbers that the Boston Globe noted on the front of its Sports page stayed unchanged from one day to the next.  He needed just 5 hits when the Red Sox started a six-game homestand on Sept. 7, and after getting 3 of them the first night against the Orioles his bat went stone silent.

Struggling in the stretch. (Getty Images)

The next three games against the Orioles he went 1-for-12, and when the hated Yankees came in for three more Yastrzemski was still one hit shy. He went 0-for-3 with a walk in the first contest, which I watched on the massive free-standing Zenith in our family's den -- flipping back-and-forth between Yaz's at-bats on Channel 38 and a Tuesday night ABC lineup of "Happy Days," "Angie," "Three's Company." and "Taxi" on Channel 5. 

Remember, this was before smartphones with their tweets and Gameday updates made it easy to view a game in your hand while watching something else on TV. I guess I could have brought in a portable TV or radio and had both going at once, but hey, I was just 12. 

Wednesday's game pitted Yastrzemski against sore-armed New York pitcher Catfish Hunter. I tried my dual-channel tactics again, this time choosing NBC's "Eight is Enough" against the game. I caught Yaz walk in the first, fly deep in the third, and then ground out to end a 3-run Boston fourth.

Tough competition.

This knocked out Hunter, so Yastrzemski was facing struggling rookie Jim Beattie when he came up again in the sixth. By now my partner viewing was a "Charlie's Angels" movie on ABC (again, I was 12) but I still managed to see Beattie get Yaz to ground out -- leaving the captain with possibly one more late-game chance. I sighed and flipped back to Bosley's beauties.

Then, perhaps lost in my pre-teen fantasies, my timing fell off. While watching the ladies get to the bottom of their latest mystery, I saw the letters start scrolling across the bottom of the screen: "CARL YAS..." I immediately leaped up and flipped the dial, but I was too late -- there was my hero letting out a sigh of relief on first base after a seeing-eye single under Willie Randolph's glove. No. 3000 was in the books.


I saw the replay, but was pissed at myself for weeks.

Fast forward to today. With Ortiz still 2 homers shy of 500, I am determined not to miss the big moment -- which will almost certainly come sometime during Boston's current nine-game trip. I'll have my phone and with me at all times, and will run to a bigger screen if one is nearby. I can even watch the entire game all over again if I want (we didn't have a VCR back in '79 either).  

Still, it won't be quite the same without The Fonz and Jaclyn Smith.

Two more to go. (Boston Herald)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Vineyard visits with Bill Lee, Yaz, Tony C., and days gone by

One of my Vineyard visitors.

I had never heard of Nelson Chittum, who went 3-0 with a sterling 1.19 ERA for the 1959 Red Sox. Then I met him yesterday, along with Carl Yastrzemski and Bill Lee.

Each summer I pack up my lucky 2004 SUV with the Red Sox/Jimmy Fund license plates and drive/ferry my family to Martha's Vineyard for a last gasp of summer before Labor Day. Michelle  loves reading and letting her mind unwind from the daily challenge of helping her patients recover from strokes and brain injuries; Jason and Rachel, now 14 and 11, enjoy the final unstructured days before school.  

Me? I love the trip back in time.

The beaches and bike trains and Ben and Bills ice cream are all great, but my favorite moment of each year's journey may be the first few minutes Jason and I spend rifling through the baseball cards at the Chillmark Flea Market. They are split up into beat-up boxes marked "1950-60s" "1970s-80s" and "Red Sox." and we fly through them all -- putting aside those "possibles" we will consider for purchase. 

Little stickers in the top right corner of each card's protective plastic sleeve tell us what it will set us back, and Jason knows I'm seldom going to spend more than $5 for any given card. It's not Honus Wagner I'm after here, but a few moments of my childhood -- and Jason's. 

Before my eyes, my son has quickly become a full-fledged teenager. He grew about 8 inches in the last 8 months, and his voice dropped from tenor to bass. His body is filling out, taking him from the "before" photo in the old Charles Atlas ad much closer to the "after." He recovered from major leg and hip surgery in February faster than anyone expected, and spoke in front of 1,500 students and family members as his middle-school salutatorian in June.

Jason, before time took over.

In two weeks he will be a freshman at Newton North High, my alma mater, and plans to join the wrestling team and the theater program. Other than the three or four games we go to together at Fenway each year, baseball is very far from his mind. I've tried rekindling his interest, but he'd rather talk about movies, music, or even politics than the Red Sox pitching rotation. I'm slowly accepting it.

For those couple minutes at the flea market, however, both of us are 8 year-olds enthusiastically mining for gold. Ken Goldberg, who owns the cards along with a treasure-trove of road signs, books, and other items, stands back and watches. I am sure he has seen this countless times before -- fathers, sons, and the occasional mom and daughter thumbing back through the decades.

I collected baseball cards feverishly through my grade-school days, picking up most of them at Garbs drugstore by the Boston College trolley stop. Friends -- Greg Rutan and Kim Myers most spring to mind -- would accompany me on these trips, and we'd look over our loot while devouring ice cream sundaes next door at Brigham's. We'd always hope for Red Sox, of course, and barring that a star like Munson or Palmer or Foster. 

Ken helps bring me back.

It was the same with me and Jason when he was a little kid. We'd haunt the few remaining baseball card stores left in the Metro West area, and split our time buying new packs and looking through oldies. He devoured baseball history books and covered his walls with posters of Big Papi, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and (of course) Jason Varitek.

Then, one by one, the stores starting closing, reflecting a generation of kids that was moving increasingly online or onto "faster" sports like basketball and football. My son's interest waned along with the public's; he was a mediocre ballplayer, like his old man, and probably stayed in Little League one year longer than he wanted to for my sake.

Now Jason is a self-professed nerd who spends his time writing and playing intricate online computer games with friends all over the world. The posters and books in his room are changing along with his interests. My nephew is the baseball star; Jason is the star of Katan. 

Until we get in front of Ken's table.

"Look -- a '75 Yaz!" Jason yells, at the same moment I pull out my 1960 Nelson Chittum (I'm a sucker for any card with that old smiling Red Sock logo). A confident-looking 1978 Bill Lee -- that summer, I remind Jason, would not turn out well for him or the team -- comes out next. 

He spots a '65 Tony Conigliaro, where the 20-year-old stares out at the camera with a steely resolve. The card is bent and faded, giving it no real value, but Jason knows better: this is Tony C. in all his young, handsome glory, before the Gods of Fate beat him down.

Forever young.


Friday, August 14, 2015

New Fan Offering at Fenway: Push-Ups with the Panda

More stretching is in Sandoval's future.

In what they hope will be a productive and fan-friendly effort to help rotund third baseman Pablo Sandoval shed some pounds, the Red Sox are rolling out a new fan initiative during the homestand starting tonight:

Push-Ups with the Panda.

Before each inning the Red Sox take the field, the barcodes from five tickets will be announced to the crowd and listed on the center field scoreboard. Those fans holding tickets with matching codes will be invited onto the field to do 20 push-ups with Sandoval. 

"Sandoval's mobility at third base has been a disappointment," says general manager Ben Cherington. "Balls we saw him get to during the playoffs last year are finding holes, and at the plate he's not whipping the bat around at the same rate either. He's a great guy, but he's just too damn fat."
Hmmm....snow cone....

In another move geared to help Sandoval, Cherington says the team is considering installing a water fountain by the third base coach's box. Sandoval had to leave a game earlier this season due to dehydration, so it is hoped that walking by the fountain each inning will prompt him to stop for a quick sip.

"We checked with the league office," says Cherington. "Although the water fountain will be in foul ground, balls bouncing off and then caught will be outs. This might help us too when it comes to Sandoval's mobility issues."

Sandoval could not be reached for comment, but shortstop Xander Bogaerts thinks these would both be good moves. 

"I'm running myself ragged out there trying to get to the balls that Pablo can't," says Bogaerts. "I've worn out three pairs of cleats already. Maybe the extra water and extra exercise will get me some extra rest too."