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Sunday, August 12, 2012

What does Will Middlebrooks have in common with Tony C. and Jim Rice?

Another bad break for the 2012 Red Sox.

Will Middlebrooks saw his terrific rookie season come to a grinding halt on Friday night, but he can take solace in knowing he’s in very good company.

Hit on the hand by a pitch from Indians reliever Esmil Rogers in the ninth inning of Friday’s 3-2 Boston victory at Cleveland, the Red Sox third baseman suffered a broken bone in his wrist that will result in his likely missing the remaining two months of the season. This latest blow in a season full of injuries weakens Boston’s already-thin chances at a playoff spot, and astute fans of the team are reminded of two other rookies whose first seasons were marred by very similar injuries.

Tony C. -- the ultimate hometown hero.

In 1964, hometown hero Tony Conigliaro was a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors with 20 homers by late July when he had his right forearm broken by a Pedro Ramos pitch – also, ironically in Cleveland. The injury put Conigliaro on the disabled list for six weeks and he wound up with 24 home runs in 111 games; Twins outfielder Tony Oliva, with 32 dingers, was voted the American League’s top rookie.

Eleven years later, as Conigliaro was playing the final games of a career shortened by a horrible 1967 beaning, another rookie superstar emerged for the Red Sox: Jim Rice. A Triple Crown winner for AAA Pawtucket the season before, Rice adapted quickly to the majors and teamed with fellow rookie outfielder Fred Lynn to lead Boston to the AL East title. Unfortunately, Rice would not get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

On Sept.  21, with the Red Sox just a few days away from clinching the division, Rice had his left hand broken on a pitch by Detroit’s Vern Ruhle at Tiger Stadium. Rice had a .309 average, 22 homers, and 102 RBI at the time, enough to clinch Rookie of the Year honors in almost any season, but Lynn was just a bit better at .331, 21, 105 (plus a Gold Glove) in capturing both this honor and the MVP Award.

Lynn was hurt more often, but Rice's '75 injury was most costly.

More importantly, Rice would miss a thrilling postseason in which the Red Sox lost a seven-game World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. With the future Hall of Famer in the lineup, it’s not hard to imagine that Boston’s 86-year Fall Classic drought might have ended 29 seasons earlier.

The Red Sox are not likely headed to the postseason this year, with or without Middlebrooks. Nor was he likely to be Rookie of the Year; like Rice, he has been overshadowed by another outstanding first-year player in Los Angeles of Anaheim’s Mike Trout.

Still, it would have been fun to see what kind of stats Middlebrooks could put up with another 50-odd games to play in. He’s likely not to see action in many if any more this year, with his numbers stuck on a .288 average, 15 homers, and 54 RBI in just 75 contests.

If he can rebound to have a career similar to Jim Rice, however, Red Sox fans will certainly take the trade-off.

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