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Monday, November 28, 2011

Meet Luis Tiant Nov. 30, back his Hall of Fame candidacy (see petition link)


Red Sox pitching great Luis Tiant has been nominated by the Veteran's Committee for the Baseball Hall of Fame. This Wednesday night (Nov. 30) at Jerry Remy's Sports Bar and Grill, a block from Fenway Park, meet Luis and show him your support by signing your name to a petition that will be sent to the Hall of Fame in advance of next Monday's vote.

Have Luis autograph a new copy of my latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, and his award-winning documentary, Lost Son of Havana, produced by the Farrelly Brothers. The event is being co-hosted by Narragansett Beer SupahFan Streetwear: http://www.supahfans.com/

Luis will be on hand from 6-9 p.m., and there will also be a trivial contest and the Bruins game on Remy's many big-screen TVs.  So tell all your friends and Turn Out For Tiant! For more info go to http://www.jerryremys.com/; to sign a petition supporting Luis, go to: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/turn-out-for-tiant-back-luis-tiant-for-the-hall-of-fam.html


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Who will be next to have his number retired at Fenway?



The numbers are lined up along the right-field grandstand roof at Fenway Park as silent bas-relief beacons to nearly 80 years of outstanding performances by Red Sox players. 


They were once arranged in order of when they were officially retired, which led Boston Globe columnist/fatalist Dan Shaughnessy to note that the original four digits formed a date -- 9-4-1-8 -- on which Fenway was being prepped for a Red Sox-Cubs World Series. For 86 long years, 1918 would mark the last year that the ballpark was home to a world champion. 


Perhaps to help break this "curse" the numbers were later rearranged from smallest to largest, so that they now read across as follows: 1 (for Bobby Doerr); 4 (Joe Cronin); 6 (Johnny Pesky); 8 (Carl Yastrzemski); 9 (Ted Williams); 14 (Jim Rice); 27 (Carlton Fisk); and 42 (Robinson). 


The first seven men wore Red Sox uniforms with distinction; the eighth, Robinson, was denied the chance to do so after a sham 1945 tryout at Fenway based on the color of his skin. Robinson's number has now been retired by every major league team, but its presence here is particularly significant because of what could have been. 


Boston management has set down ground rules for this exclusive club -- all such honorees (besides Robinson, of course) must have played at least 10 years for the franchise, retired a Red Sox, and later made the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 


These rules, however, have been altered twice.


In 2000, after his selection to the Hall of Fame, the Red Sox gave Carlton Fisk a consulting job with the team so he could "retire" with Boston and have his number retired that summer—even though he had spent the last half of his playing career with the White Sox,


Pesky never made the Hall of Fame; by raising up his "6" a day after his 89th birthday in 2008, the Sox honored his six decades with the team as a player, coach, manager, broadcaster and instructor. Although he actually fit none of the original three criteria for number retirement, it's hard to imagine anybody being more dedicated to the franchise.


Assuming the rules can be broken again, whose numbers are the best candidates to join these legends in the years to come?


David Ortiz (#34): The heart of the franchise since 2003 and a force behind two World Series champions, Ortiz has been officially dubbed "the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history."


His charisma and flair for the dramatic—including three walk-off hits in a week during the epic curse-busting playoff run of 2004—assures his place in team history.


If the free agent signs on for two or three more years with Boston, "Big Papi" will likely reach his milestone 400th or even 450th home run with the Sox. That plus his magnetic personality make him the most likely number retiree on the current club, although ending his career elsewhere could harm his chances.


Jason Varitek (#33): The captain's reputation as a gritty, dedicated team player took a hit this September when the Red Sox blew their huge wild-card lead. Fans wondered aloud about "Tek's" leadership skills as news broke about the chicken-wing eating shenanigans of Boston pitchers.


Still, the catcher's total body of work over 15 seasons with the Sox is impressive: a team-record 1,488 contests behind the plate, a Gold Glove,193 home runs and two World Series rings. Pitchers swear by his game-calling, and he has caught an MLB-record four no-hitters to support their claims.


Tek is now strictly a backup with a 40th birthday looming in April, but if he can help Boston rebound next season and end his career on a high note—and in a Red Sox uniform—it may be enough to get his "33" up on the wall.


Tim Wakefield (#49): Starter. Closer. Long man. Short man. Innings-killer. Friend to sick kids in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Jimmy Fund Clinic. Tim Wakefield has done it all for the Red Sox since being claimed off the scrap heap by Dan Duquette in 1995, and the knuckleballer is now within reach of becoming Boston's all-time winningest pitcher—just six wins behind co-leaders Cy Young and Roger Clemens (192 apiece).


Therein, however, lies the quandary.


Wakefield took nine long starts to reach his 200th career victory last summer—his first 14 wins were with Pittsburgh—and many fans felt manager Terry Francona should have replaced the 46-year-old in the rotation with long-reliever Alfredo Aceves and his sparkling 2.61 ERA as the wild-card lead slipped away. Bringing back Wakefield (7-8, 5.12 in '11) for one more year in 2012 doesn't guarantee he'll get the wins record, and many fans feel he should hang 'em up and let a younger arm take his place.


But if he does come back, and he does break the mark, it will be a great story  and greatly increase the chance his "49" will one day be retired.


Pedro Martinez (#45): Wakefield may have more victories, and Clemens may have more Cy Young Awards, but there is no debating the best Red Sox pitcher of the last 25 years. In fact, when taking into account the era in which he played, Pedro Martinez may be the most dominating hurler in team history.


Martinez went 117-37 with a 2.51 ERA for the Red Sox from 1998-2004, a period when steroid-pumped sluggers were keeping most AL starting pitchers well above the 4.00 mark. In the 2000 season, when he finished with a 1.74 ERA, the next-nearest hurler to him was Clemens (then of the Yankees) at 3.70. It was like the days Babe Ruth used to out-homer entire teams; nobody else was even close to Martinez.


Pedro left Boston after the magic 2004 season for the security of a longer contract with the Mets, but unlike with Clemens all was forgiven. Martinez received huge ovations in his returns to Fenway with New York and to throw out the first pitch of the 2010 season, and a decision to retire his "45" would likely receive similar support from fans.


Luis Tiant (#23): Pedro had fans in a frenzy as he struck out batters at a record clip during his prime, but for sheer enjoyment there was no Red Sox pitcher who was more fun to watch then Luis Tiant. Inside this portly hurler with the wild, twisty-turny motion was the heart of a lion, and Fenway crowds chanted "Looie-Looie" each time he took the hill.


Tiant won 20 games three times for the Red Sox in the mid-70s, plus two more wins in the epic World Series of 1975. His career regular-season stats, including a 229-172 record and 49 shutouts with six teams, match up favorably with several Hall of Famers, but this Cuban hero has fallen short in his bid to make it to Cooperstown.


Luis is now up for consideration by the HOF's Veterans' Committee, and if they vote him in on Dec. 5, a retirement of his "23" at Fenway next summer would be a classy gesture by management—and a great public relations move as well.


Dustin Pedroia (#15): Sure, it's a bit too early to make a spot on the wall for Dustin Pedroia's "`15." "But if early results are any indication, the diminutive fireplug with the big bat and smooth glove will one day be honored in a fashion similar to another great Boston second baseman, Bobby Doerr.


In just five full ML seasons, Pedroia has been named a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, a three-time All-Star and a two-time Gold Glove winner. He's led the AL in runs scored, hits and doubles, become a 20-homer, 20-steal performer and emerged as a leader on the Boston team.


If he keeps it up for another 10 years, he'll be booking his tickets for Cooperstown—and a place among the all-time greatest Red Sox.


Nomar Garciaparra (#5): There was a time, as recent as 2003, when the thought of the Red Sox one day retiring Garciaparra's number was a foregone conclusion.


Just a year later, it was suddenly anything but a sure thing.


For his first seven seasons, from 1996-03, the shortstop had compiled a .323 average and a .555 slugging mark while emerging as one of the most popular players in team history. "Nomah" had won two batting titles and was a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate.Then it all came crashing down.


After the 2003 season, believing that injuries were slowly robbing their star of his range and bat speed, the Red Sox hotly pursued Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod signed with the Yankees instead, but the slight angered Garciaparra and impacted his performance on the field and in the clubhouse.


By August of 2004 the disgruntled icon was traded, and missed out on the magic World Series run that fall. He still got a ring, but he may have lost his chance at a number retirement.


Dwight Evans (#24): This one is a real long shot, but it shouldn't be. Evans played the last season of his career with the Orioles, but for 19 years and 2,505 games before that he was a Red Sox—and put up some of the most impressive numbers in team history.


On defense, "Dewey" had great range and a rifle arm, winning eight Gold Gloves for Boston despite having to play a right field in Fenway Park that was bigger and more sun-challenged than most. Offensively, he went from being a streaky hitter with 20-homer power in the 1970s to one of the best all-around batters in the game—leading all AL players in homers (256) and extra-base hits during the '80s.


His Boston totals of 379 homers, 474 doubles and 1,384 RBI all rank in the Top Five in team history, and nobody in franchise annals has matched his Gold Glove total. It's hard to believe that those 101 games with Baltimore might be the only thing keeping Evans from having his "24" retired at Fenway, but now that Manny Ramirez is no longer wearing it either, the right-field grandstand would be a great place for it to wind up.


Tony Conigliaro (#25): No Boston-area kid ever had a more glorious career ahead of him with the Red Sox than a young "Tony C." And nobody ever had that glory taken away so fast—or in such horrible a fashion.



Conigliaro was movie-star handsome, a rock singer in his spare time, and by mid-1967 had reached 100 home runs at a younger age (22) than any other American League player. Then the local legend was nearly killed by a pitch, and although he came back several times in heroic fashion, eye problems connected to the injury kept him from ever fulfilling those early expectations.


Tony C couldn't even get lucky in retirement. A massive heart attack at age 37 caused irreversible brain damage, and left him largely incapacitated for the last eight years of his short life. Nobody ever showed more guts while wearing a Red Sox uniform, however, and for this reason many fans believe his "25" should be retired as much for what could have been as for what he did accomplish.


Who do you think should be honored alongside Yaz, The Kid, Jim Ed, and the rest? After all, the Yankees have retired 16 numbers including Robinson's—surely the Red Sox can find a ninth man to recognize in this fashion.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Valentine overcame gruesome injury early in playing career



It remains to be seen whether Bobby Valentine will be the next manager of the Red Sox, but one thing is certain: If Larry Lucchino and his partners are looking for a guy who knows how to bounce back from a tough year, this is their man.

Valentine was one of baseball's top prospects in the late 1960s. The Connecticut native with sprinter's speed headed west to USC and was the fifth pick (by the Dodgers) in the '68 draft. Big things seemed in store when he was named Pacific Coast League MVP after batting .340 with 14 homers and 16 triples at Triple-A Spokane in 1970. A shortstop, he was the heir apparent to Maury Wills in Los Angeles.

Things didn't go quite so smoothly. Valentine started out slow in the big leagues, partly due to torn knee cartilage sustained playing touch football, but seemed to be hitting his stride after being swapped up the freeway to the Angels.

A month into the '73 campaign the 23-year-old had his average at .302 and was taking time off from shortstop to fill in for an injured teammate in the outfield when he ran back to the wall in pursuit of a Dick Green fly ball.
What happened next was a baseball equivalent of the Joe Theismann injury, with the vinyl fence at Anaheim Stadium playing the role of Lawrence Taylor.

As Sports Illustrated later described it: The ball missed Valentine's glove by an inch, and his leg drove into the vinyl between the two support poles so that the tarp first yielded, then ensheathed his calf like a vise before flinging him back to the ground with a grotesque bend in the middle of the shin.

The incident fractured both of the bones in Valentine's lower right leg, and he spent nearly six months in two different casts. When the second one was removed, doctors discovered that the bones had knit poorly—leaving an 18-degree bend between his knee and ankle.

Valentine had two choices: suck it up and learn to play in pain, or spend 13-16 more months undergoing surgery and leg reconstruction with screws and plates. 

"In my mind," he told SI, "to go with their plan meant not to be a ballplayer." Doctors gave him a few months to decide, and by spring training he was jogging and ready to play. Valentine had a huge lump on his knee, a constant limp and his speed was gone. But he played 117 games anyway, batting .261 in his transition from superstar prospect to fringe performer.



Over the next five years he did whatever he could to stay on the roster—eventually playing every position but pitcher—and wound up getting into nearly 400 games on one good leg for four different teams. He knew adversity, but didn't know how to quit.

In that regard he had a lot in common with his father-in-law, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, another guy who wore No. 13 and had been dealt a tough blow by fate (in Branca's case, it was giving up Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World" that clinched the '51 pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers). Imagine the late-night discussions those two had.

Nobody would have blamed Valentine for limping away from the game, but he loved it too much and wanted to help others succeed at it.

As manager of the Rangers and Mets, and in two stints skippering teams in Japan, he was not always loved by his ballplayers, but he was respected for his intelligence. Peter Gammons, who has worked with him at ESPN during Valentine's recent stint as an analyst, calls him, "One of the most brilliant men I've ever met."

Cocky and at times abrasive, he rubbed many people the wrong way. He could also explode with the best of them, and wasn't afraid to sit down under-performing players.


Clearly this is one guy who would not let pitchers get fat and happy on beer and wings. He fought too hard to stay in the Show to let others give less than their best.

Terry Francona had a sterling reputation as a nice guy and a "player's manager" who preferred letting others get the bulk of the attention and credit.

Valentine enjoys being in front and saying what he feels, even if players won't want to hear it. And with a roster full of stars that could use some shaking up, Bobby V. may be just what Larry Lucchino and Red Sox ownership feel they need.


Friday, November 18, 2011

The (MVP) Case for Ellsbury

As the Red Sox managerial search continues, the American League MVP race has been largely pushed to the back-burner in New England. But now seems an appropriate time as any to put in a last good word for Jacoby Ellsbury before the decision of media voters is announced next Monday.

According to the experts, the AL MVP is likely going to be one of three front-runners: Ellsbury, Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, and Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Since Verlander already (and appropriately) copped the Cy Young Award in a unanimous vote this week, his stock has risen. But so has the discussion about whether pitchers should even be eligible for the MVP, or if it should be reserved for everyday players.

The way I look at it, the pitchers have their award, and the non-pitchers should have dibs on this one. Maybe they should just rename the Cy Young the "Most Valuable Pitcher Award," to help voters understand this logic. But for now, at least, Verlander and his 23-5 record are very much in the mix.

This brings us to Bautista and Ellsbury. While there is no mistaking that Bautista has had another outstanding power year -- his 43 home runs led the league, as did his .608 slugging percentage and 1.056 OPS -- he doesn't compare to Ellsbury as an outfielder or all-around player. Ellsbury won his first Gold Glove Award with a Fred Lynn-esque year in center, and while much was made of his near-miss in one of the season's final critical games at Baltimore (here it is in case you forgot: http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=19704805&topic_id=&c_id=mlb&tcid=vpp_copy_19704805&v=3), the fact is that most outfeilders would never even have gotten their glove on the ball, nonetheless held on as they smashed against the fence. Bautista? No chance.

As for the "MVPs make those plays" talk, well, it's true that they often do. But MVPs also hit game-winning 14th-inning home runs in the heat of the pennant race, as Ellsbury did against the Yankees in the waning days of the Red Sox collapse. In fact, one can make the argument that no Boston player did more to prevent the September swoon than Ellsbury -- who hit  .358 in September with 8 homers, 11 doubles, and a 1.067 OBP.  Batusita hit .259 in September, but nobody really cared about that since the Blue Jays weren't even in the playoff hunt.

Yes, the Red Sox blew it. But when you combine defense, offense, speed, athleticism, and general excitement, there was no better player on an everyday basis in the American League this year than Jacoby Ellsbury. He was a threat to steal every time he got on base, and certainly would have swiped far more than 35 bags in another lineup (he had 50 and 70 in 2008-09). The impact this had on pitchers can't be measured; Bautista (9 steals) made no hurlers nervous once the bat was out of his hands.

Many times they never let Jose swing it anyway, as he was walked a league-best 132 times. Even so, Ellsbury scored more runs than Bautista (119 to 105) while igniting the Red Sox offense from the top of the lineup. In fact, Ellsbury's own power numbers (32 homers, 105 RBI) were among the best ever garnered by a lead-off man. For an apt comparison, see Nomar Garciaparra, circa 1997.

Voters may not be able to get past the historical Boston collapse, but they should. Ellsbury did his best to prevent it, and when you throw in the fact he lost almost the entire 2010 season to injury, and was batting leadoff, there was no more impressive performance by an American Leaguer this season. Bautista was this year's George Bell, another Jays slugger whose 1987 MVP year is largely forgotten today. Nobody is going to forget Ellsbury's breakout season anytime soon.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My excellent adventures with Red Sox managerial candidate Pete Mackanin



When Pete Mackanin was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as a candidate for the Red Sox managerial job this past week, the first thought most Bostonians had was "Who's Pete Mackanin?"

Although Phillies fans know him as the bench coach and trusted adviser to skipper Charlie Manuel, and astute seamheads might remember his workmanlike nine-year career in the majors and brief interim posts managing the Reds and Pirates, the majority of New Englanders had never heard of Mackanin. They joked about how he looked like Ted Danson with his heavy mane of wavy gray hair, and asked when Norm from Cheers would be coming in for his turn to interview.

I was in the minority. I had not only heard of Mackanin, I had actually spent many late-summer nights talking to the guy. 

Back in the spring of 1993, as a young sports correspondent for The Washington Post, one of my first assignments was to profile the new manager of the Frederick Keys—an Orioles minor league club that played in rural Maryland. I figured I'd be writing the standard cliche-filled piece about a guy who loved baseball and teaching it to others, but it wound up being more of a study in the harsh realities of the game. From the first time I talked to this guy, he held nothing back.

"Late last June, Pete Mackanin was a Class AAA manager with the Cincinnati Reds organization, looking forward to a major league promotion he believed was imminent," my story began. "One year later, he was alone in a hotel room in rainy Woodbridge, Va., a Class A manager with the Frederick Keys who no longer dreamed of the majors."

Mackanin was 41 at the time, and with his studious glasses had an air of maturity about him. He loved the game all right, but he was also bitter that after five years managing just one rung below the show in Iowa and Tennessee, he was back in the low minors. 

The previous year, he told me, he had been promised by Reds scouting director Jim Bowden that a big-league coaching job was his if he spent just one more season managing at Nashville—but after his club lost 10 straight Mackanin was fired instead via a 6:30 a.m. phone call. For six months he collected unemployment and spent $600 sending out resumes, until Orioles scouting director Doug Melvin offered him a one-year contract at Frederick with no guarantee of advancement. Rather than making the six figures promised by Bowden, he was bringing home $30,000 and looking for a winter job.

I was surprised that Mackanin would be so open with me about his travails, and even his salary, knowing that his words would soon be in print where Bowden and others could see them. But as he told me more, and I began covering his team on a semi-regular basis, I realized that this was just the way Mackanin was—and I developed a quick respect for this frank, passionate baseball lifer.

This was a guy who was a fighter, going back to when he was "amazed" to be drafted by the Washington Senators in 1969 despite a .209 average as a junior at Chicago's Brother Rice Catholic High. Although he told me he figured his pro career would be a short one, he impressed Washington manager Ted Williams with his toughness and versatility and made the majors as an infielder in '73—by which point the Senators had moved to Texas and become the Rangers. To further hone his skills, he spent winters playing in Venezuela.

He failed to hit in a couple stretches with the Rangers, ending up traded to Montreal after the '74 season. He got to start at second base for the Expos the next year, and although he batted just .225, he showed some pop with 12 homers. Back-to-back .224 averages in 1976-77 cost him his starting job, however, and he was on the move again in '78 to Philadelphia.

He saw very little big-league action in two years with the Phillies, after which another trade led to his best ML season as a utilityman with the woeful 1980 Twins. He saw time at every infield position and hit a respectable .266, but Minnesota was starting a youth movement, and Mackanin—now an ancient 28—signed on with his hometown White Sox as a free agent after the '81 season. When he failed to catch on in Chicago or another big-league club over the next three years, he was set to finish his business degree when he was offered a job managing the Cubs' Class A Peoria club. Realizing baseball was what he knew and loved best, he took it as a way to stay in the game.
Eight years later, he was resigned to the fact he might never make it back to the majors. But in his job as "part babysitter, part father figure" to young Orioles prospects, any resentment he had never showed. He led the Keys to the 1993 Carolina League North title with a fine 78-62 mark, then was promoted by Baltimore to Double-A Bowie for the '94 campaign.

Bowie was another Maryland suburb, which meant I came along for the ride, watching another Mackanin-led club led by the likes of flamethrowing reliever Armando Benitez and future big-leaguers Curtis Goodwin and Alex Ochoa. The Bowie Baysox played in a new, not-yet-completed stadium, so many of my post-game chats with Mackanin now took place in a makeshift trailer office that one approached carefully through the muck and mud of the construction site.

When the major leagues went on strike that summer of '94, the Baysox were suddenly the highest-level baseball team playing in the entire Maryland-Virginia-DC area, and Mackanin and I both got a lot more ink. By the time Bowie made it to the Eastern League playoffs we were on the front page of thePost Sports section, above the fold, and after the Baysox took a 2-0 lead in their best-of-five series against Harrisburg the road to coaching (for Pete) and covering (for me) the Orioles seemed to be opening up. Harrisburg won three straight, however, and our big-league dreams were dashed.

Both of us moved on after that—Mackanin to the Expos as a Triple-A manager and me back to my hometown of Boston—and I lost touch with his whereabouts until he resurfaced as the Pirates interim manager in 2005. He led Pittsburgh to a 12-14 record the last month of the year—quite an improvement from their 55-81 mark under predecessor Lloyd McClendon. But the Pirates brass wanted a "name" manager at the helm and gave former Dodgers skipper Jim Tracy the full-time job for 2006.



Mackanin had another interim shot with an awful Reds team in '07—and I was cheering from afar when Cincinnati went 10-4 after he took over. Even after a late-season slide they finished a very respectable 41-39 under his leadership, not bad for a team that had failed to finish .500 in seven seasons, but once again Mackanin was passed over for a veteran manager in Dusty Baker.

Now Mackanin is being considered for the open full-time post in Boston and perhaps Chicago. Most experts and fans figure he has little, if any, chance of getting either job, but I'm still quietly rooting for him. He's the same open, honest guy I remember, as Boston baseball writers discovered when they interviewed him after his day with the Red Sox brass. He also seems at peace after 40-plus in pro ball.

"Of course I've wondered," he said to reporters when asked during his Boston visit why he's never gotten a permanent managerial job. "I don't know. If you believe you need a big-name manager, I can't convince you otherwise. That's just your opinion. I don't happen to believe that's important."

Once you've managed out of a trailer, he probably figures, you can manage anywhere.