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Saturday, June 16, 2012

For Father’s Day, a (G)love Story



“You be Jason Varitek, and I’ll be Tim Wakefield,” my daughter yells, grabbing her mitt and heading to the backyard for some post-dinner pitching. At age 7, Rachel is already on her second hand-me-down glove from big brother Jason, but she’s never asked me for a new one. Looking at the ancient model I put on my own left hand, she knows better.
My glove is older than Rachel, older than 11-year-old Jason, older in fact than my marriage to their mother – which is moving into its 14th summer. The Wilson A2000 I’ve used to teach both of them the game has been with me through more than two decades of life-changing events. It’s worn, scuffed, and recently popped its first leak in the form of a broken string, but it’s never disappointed me. That’s tough to find in a human or horsehide.
It was once one of a pair – his-and-her mitts bought in 1991 with my fiancĂ©e Sharon for our first season as coed softball teammates. They were pricey for the time, I think about $70 each, but friends assured me the A2000 was the Cadillac of gloves. Oiling them down and wrapping them in bungee cords, we put them under the bed for a couple days to break them in and then practiced with them diligently.
We got to the point where we felt sure we’d be the terror of the Boston JCC League, but the day before our first game I broke my ankle playing basketball and spent the summer in a cast covered with the “Ws” and “Ls” of a dismal Red Sox season. Sharon was a trooper and played the season without me, but my only memory of the campaign is almost getting into a fistfight with a cocky jerk who yelled at her for dropping a ball at second base.
A well-traveled friend.
The gloves made the drive with us to Washington D.C. when Sharon got a job with the government out of grad school, but they didn’t get out of the closet much for the next three years. We both worked crazy hours, her in the office and me in the press boxes of college and minor league ballparks across Maryland and Virginia. I saw plenty of action covering games for The Washington Post, but my glove didn’t. When I had time for a workout, it was usually at 10 a.m., and swimming or running were the logical choices when everybody else was at work.
Try using a mitt before it’s well broken-in and you wouldn’t have much success. So it is with relationships; Sharon and I had started dating while we were both in school, and I was only 21. I wasn’t nearly broken in, and even though we had met on a diamond – during a 1988 pick-up game with some high school buddies in the midst of Morgan Magic – our mutual love for baseball wasn’t enough to get us through a dismal slump that started not long after our May 1993 wedding. By the time Kevin Kennedy took over for Butch Hobson two years later, we decided to call it quits.
She stayed in D.C. with her A2000, while my glove headed back to Boston in the trunk of my old Accord. I found a basement apartment in Coolidge Corner and started carving out a writing career at the Herald, Globe, and anywhere else I could get published. Once again, there was little time for games. That fall, I met Michelle -- who couldn’t care less about baseball but was very well broken-in as a person. At this point I was too, and we fit like a hard grounder to Pedroia in the hole. Sometimes tough to handle, but smooth in the end. We married three years later, just before Mo Vaughn defected for Anaheim.
From one glove to three.
The glove story didn’t end there, however. Jason was born on the first day of spring training, 2001, and two years later made his first pilgrimage to Yawkey Way for a Father’s Day game with the Astros. He brought along a tiny plastic red-and-blue Red Sox mitt, and I took my A2000 out of the closet and shook off the dust. It was the glove’s first trip to Fenway too, and we all saw a great contest – a 3-2 Red Sox victory capped by a Manny Ramirez single in the 14th inning.
The next summer our daughter was born on Aug. 16, and the Sox celebrated by beating the Blue Jays a few blocks away at Fenway and then winning 22 of their next 25. I dubbed this streak the Rachel Effect, and the good luck carried into October and the curse-busting victories over the Yankees and Cardinals. When the last grounder of the World Series went from Foulke to Mientkiewicz, the four of us were all watching together (with the glove just a few feet away).
Favorite throwing partners (for now).
Now the A2000 almost never goes more than a day or two between outings to the backyard and beyond. I’ve given up fulltime sportswriting for a job that has me home at nights and weekends, where Jason and Rachel have both taken aim at the dark, cracking center of my mitt thousands of times. Michelle remains a reluctant but supportive fan, and I’ve even gotten back into playing ball myself with a casual men’s softball league.
It was in one of these games, just a couple weeks ago, that I first noticed the broken string. One of my teammates, a friend of nearly 30 years who had been playing with me the day I met Sharon, and helped me pack up and leave Washington back in ’95, told me to borrow someone else’s glove and “not take any chances.” But I couldn’t do it. I figured the A2000 had come this far with me, it was good enough for a few more innings.
Jason is 11 now, and is more into hanging with his friends than playing catch with dad. I know Rachel will reach this point soon enough as well. But whenever their buddies are busy or they perhaps feel a bit sentimental and call on the old man, I’ll be waiting – and so will the A2000.
Good gloves are hard to find.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Theo defends his tenure, blames Lackey on "the Monster"


In a wide-ranging interview on Boston's 98.5 The Sports Hub, Chicago Cubs General Manager Theo Epstein discussed his decade as GM of the Red Sox and admitted that his "one regret" during the period were big-name free agent signings made in response to pressure from fans and management.

Theo was often on the hot seat in Boston.

Speaking with Felger and Mazz co-hosts Mike Felger and Tony Mazzarotti, Epstein said that while his philosophy during most of his tenure in Boston from 2002-2011 was to have strong drafts and build the team from within, he gave in a bit after winning a World Series to what he and his baseball operations team referred to as "The Monster."

"You had the realities of being in a big market and being in a really competitive atmosphere and a place that wasn’t that patient,” Epstein said. “Then, on top of that, we had the reality of what we came to call “The Monster" —which was what happened after we won in ’04. There became such an emphasis in the Red Sox organization of doing things bigger, better—pushing to be more marketable, more profitable, not to lost any fans, to keep pushing these numbers. It’s perfectly understandable, and I don’t blame anybody for it. It’s sort of a natural consequence of winning and a natural consequence of being in business."

Epstein was pushed by Felger to comment on whether certain free agent signings that have hampered the team in recent years like outfielder Carl Crawford and starting pitcher John Lackey were made by him or by team president Larry Lucchino and ownership. After the Red Sox suffered an epic September collapse last year to miss the playoffs, and then spent most of the first two months of this season in last place, such signings have come to define the team as bloated underachievers.
Later signings (like Crawford) have yet to pan out.

Crawford, a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner with Tampa Bay in 2010, had a very disappointing year at the plate and in the field in 2011 after signing a seven-year, $142 million contract with Boston. Lackey, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with Red Sox in December 2009, was just 26-23 during his first two seasons in Boston. Last year he had a mind-boggling-bad 6.41 ERA – one of the worst in MLB history for a pitcher with 150 or more innings.

Making these signings look even worse is that both players have not even appeared in a single game this season, as Lackey will miss all of 2012 after Tommy John surgery and Crawford is continuing to rehab from an elbow injury. His return date remains uncertain.

Epstein took full responsibility for these signings, but said that they went against what he believed to be sound baseball strategy – especially with Lackey, who was a 31-year-old hurler coming off an 11-8 season. The Red Sox had been swept by the Angels in the ALDS, with Lackey throwing seven shutout innings in the first game. 

After Boston declined to resign popular outfielder Jason Bay, who was coming off a 36-homer, 119-RBI season, Epstein said there was pressure to make another “sizzling” signing – and the guy who helped beat them was raised to a higher level than he deserved.
John Lackey: One decision Epstein would take back.

http://bleacherreport.com/images/pixel.gif"When you’re in a big market, and you win, and you’re up against the Yankees, and ratings are what they are, and attendance is what it is, no one wants to go backwards as a business," Epstein explained. http://bleacherreport.com/images/pixel.gif"I think if I learned a lesson from that off-season, it was to never feel the need to do something," he admitted. "If you’re trying to avoid one move that you don’t think is going to work out, don’t then settle for a different move that maybe doesn’t check all the boxes. You don’t have to get everything done in one off-season just because of what’s going on in the environment around you.”

Asked whether he believes the Red Sox can emerge from their current malaise, which extends to the last months that he ran the club last year, Epstein was graciously optimistic in assessing slumping starting pitchers Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz. He pointed to Buchholz’s rebound from a dismal start this year and says Beckett and Lester can do the same.

As for last September’s fall – which, in the end, led to the departure of both Epstein and popular manager Terry Francona – Epstein said it was primarily based on these three pitchers all slumping at the same time. When it was suggested by Felger, however, that Francona was too much of a “player’s manager” who did not call out these and other players in public when necessary, Epstein jumped to “Tito’s” defense.

Dustin Pedroia: Good call for Theo.

"You guys don’t know what happened all the time behind the scenes,” Epstein stated. “Tito’s approach was incredibly successful. He had to be true to who he was, and that meant a lot of loyalty but a lot of expectations behind the scenes and a lot of accountability behind the scenes that never necessarily saw the light of day.”

Epstein also defended his own tenure, which included World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 and the development of All-Star performers like Buccholz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacob Ellsbury. And he had an answer for those who blame him for the team’s current problems.

"I think the narrative can be shaped any way that people want," he said. "I think it’s easier to say that than to look at Pedroia, Bucholz, Ellsbury, a lot of the players on the roster that they probably have good feelings about and say, “Wow, Theo was the GM when we drafted and developed that guy and brought him up.” It kind of cuts both ways. I think there is a tendency to seize on the negative data points. That’s fine. Look, if I couldn’t handle that I wouldn’t have made it one year, let alone 10 years, in Boston.”
After this weekend, Theo will again cheer on the Sox.

Asked if he wishes the Red Sox well, despite his difficult parting from the franchise, the man who grew up a short walk from Fenway Park said he'll always cheer for his home town team. 

"I have great person connections to a lot of the people who are still there. I unconditionally root for them hard," he said. "I guess conditionally, because I'm not rooting for them this weekend (when Boston plays the Cubs at Wrigley Field). Besides that, I unconditionally root for them hard and wish nothing but the best for them. Look, I've been following them my whole life. I spent 10 years there and left a big part of my life there -- I sacrificed a lot and also benefited a lot from the things that went on there. It meant a lot to me and always will.

"I'm always going to pull for them and root hard for them."




Thursday, June 7, 2012

Saltalamacchia hitting at a record-setting pace for Red Sox


Salty had the fans happy for a while Tuesday night.

Fresh of his latest home run – a two-out, two-strike, two-run bomb in the ninth inning Tuesday night to temporarily tile up the Red Sox-Orioles game at Fenway Park – it seems a good time to closely examine Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s offensive output.

The homer was Saltalamacchia’s 11th of the season, a total that leads all ML catchers and puts him two behind David Ortiz for the club lead. Overall, just 11 American Leaguers have hit more home runs than Salty.

His slugging is impressive on any level, but for a Red Sox catcher, it’s off the charts. No Boston catcher has ever hit 30 home runs, and Saltalamacchia is currently on a 30-homer pace.

In fact, only three receivers have even hit as many as 20 homers in a year for Boston – Carlton Fisk (who did it four times), Jason Varitek (three times), and Rich Gedman (once). All were All-Stars, and Fisk also has a Hall of Fame plaque and retired number at Fenway on his resume.
Things are looking up for Boston's starting catcher.

Unless Salty falls into an epic slump, he seems certain to join this trio. He’s already nearly halfway to Fisk’s all-time team mark of 26 homers by a catcher (set in 1973 and matched in ’77).

While it’s true that catchers tend to slide offensively later in the season due to the rigors of their job, Saltalamacchia actually hit more home runs (10) in the second half of last season than in the first. He also has the benefit of a very solid backup in Kelly Shoppach, who hit 21 homers for Cleveland in 2008. If Salty slumps, Shoppach can step in.

There was some grumbling when the Red Sox let All-Star catcher Victor Martinez leave as a free agent after the 2010 season and then coaxed Jason Varitek into retirement this winter. Fans were not sure a commitment to Saltalamacchia – who had never played in more than 100 games in a season, or hit more than 11 homers – was a wise move.

Salty, however, has quieted many of the naysayers.

He had a solid 16 homers, 56 RBI, and 23 doubles in 103 games last season, and is poised to top all those totals this year (he currently has 11 doubles and 27 RBI). He’s also raised his average from the .230 territory up to .278 through last night. His defense has improved tremendously.
An All-Star in 2012? It could happen.

“He’s turned a big corner,” Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said this week, as reported on ESPN Boston.com “I’ve seen a player turn into an All-Star – an absolute player who you can count on, who’s got it. He understands what’s needed of him and he’s delivering it.”

Having just turned 27, an age when many players hit their prime, Saltalamacchia projects to be Boston’s starting catcher for the foreseeable future.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Daniel Bard's problems were predictable


Take a dominant reliever who can throw 98 mph for two innings and convert him into a starter. Although nobody really knew how this was going to work out for Daniel Bard and the Red Sox, the disastrous end results were less surprising if you looked inside the numbers.

Bard can't bear to look.

Bard spent five years as a reliever, two in the minor leagues and three as Boston's primary set-up man from 2009-2011. Before that, however, he had one season as a starter and was even more ineffective then than he has been this season.

During 2007, his first year in professional ball, Bard split the year between two Boston Class A clubs in Greenville, SC, and Lancaster, CA. He went 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA in 22 games (all starts) and allowed 78 walks and 75 hits over 75 innings—an almost unfathomable 2.053 WHIP. He struck out just 47 batters and managed to hit eight of them.

The Boston organization did the logical thing with the 22-year-old right-hander and turned him into a reliever. Over the next two years, he was absolutely lights-out with an ERA below 2.00 each season and combined totals of 136 strikeouts and 35 walks over 93.2 innings. He let up just 48 hits during this span and was equally effective as a closer and set-up man.

Most people figured this is how things would remain once Bard came up to the majors, and for a while, this was true. Jonathan Papelbon was entrenched as Boston's ace closer, so Bard became his set-up man and thrived in the role.

The only smudge on Bard's resume was that he seemed to tire late in the season, never more so in 2011, when his ERA went from 2.05 in the first half to 5.28 in the second. So when Papelbon bolted Philadelphia for a bigger contract this offseason, it only seemed logical that Bard take his place. His innings were likely go down a bit as a closer, and he could throw more blazing fastballs.

The Red Sox, however, went in another direction—some speculate for cost-cutting reasons. They acquired closer Andrew Bailey from the Oakland A's to take Pap's place and announced that Bard would be moving to the starting rotation (where several spots were opening up with Tim Wakefield's retirement and Tommy John surgery for John Lackey).

Then, even after Bard struggled mightily in his new role and Bailey went down with a thumb injury in spring training, they kept Bard in the rotation and designated Alfredo Aceves as the closer.


What happened next has been well-documented. Aceves faltered out of the gate, had a hot stretch and has been up-and-down of late—definitely a heart-attack closer. Bard, on the other hand, has been more of a flatline starter with no pulse at all. 

Ah, the good 'ole days.


His stats are atrocious—a 5.24 ERA, a 1.618 WHIP and a league-leading eight hit batsmen in 55 innings—but even more alarming are his mechanics. As numerous analysts have pointed out, Bard seems to be throwing with a different motion on practically every other pitch.

His fastball, once a sure high-90s howitzer, is now peaking at closer to 93 and is much more hittable. After averaging more than a strikeout an inning for three years, he has recorded just 34 in his 55 innings this season. He has been especially ineffective with runners on base and the third time through the order—not things you want from a starter. 

The "experiment" reached its low point on Sunday, when Bard allowed six walks and hit two batters while lasting less than two innings at Toronto. The usually quiet hurler opened up after this debacle, telling reporters "I think it's just maybe we tried to turn me into a starter rather than take the same pitcher I was out of the pen and just move that guy to the rotation, which is probably what should have been done. It's partially my fault—it's all my fault. Maybe it's just a matter of getting back to what I had success doing in the past."  

Does this mean sending Bard back to the bullpen, which has been fantastic of late (despite Aceves' unpredictability)? It seems a bad move to upset the apple cart there, especially since the pen is already going to be undergoing a makeover when Bailey comes off the disabled list.

Bard sounds open to reworking his mechanics to solve the problem, but that's tough to do in the middle of a major league season. Plus, the starting rotation also has a rehabbing player coming back in Daisuke Matsuzaka. Could a trip to the minors—perhaps taking Matsuzaka's rotation spot at Triple-A Pawtucket—be the answer?



Is this where Bard should be spending games?

It's not clear yet what the Red Sox have in mind for Bard, but the decision could have a major impact on the rest of Boston's season. 


What would you do?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Big Papi is closing in on 400 homers -- in case you haven't heard


Ortiz has had plenty to smile about already this year.

When David Ortiz homered last Friday at Toronto, it gave him 13 long balls for the season. Much has been made of Big Papi's big start, but there has been almost no mention of the milestone he is quickly closing in on—400 home runs.

Ortiz now has 391 homers, and if he stays hot he may get the nine he needs by the All-Star break. Yet no one seems to be paying much attention.

Back when Carl Yastrzemski reached the 400 mark for Boston in the summer of 1979, all of Red Sox Nation and much of the baseball world was carefully tracking his progress. A month-long "Yaz Watch" ensued after homer No. 399, and Captain Carl finally got his big one off Oakland’s Mike Morgan at Fenway Park on July 24. His 3000th hit came a few months later, making Yastrzemski just the fourth major leaguer (joining Aaron, Mays, and Musial) to achieve both distinctions.

Why the dramatic dip in interest this time around? Blame it on steroids and expansion.

Yaz about to uncoil his 400th home run swing.

Yastrzemski was just the 18th major leaguer to hit 400 homers, and when he did it the number was considered more or less a free ticket to the Hall of Fame. Now, thanks in large part to weaker pitching and the huge uptick in home runs during the steroid era (roughly 1990-2003),there are 48 members of the 400 Club—with Ortiz and Adam Dunn of the White Sox (currently at 382) hoping to make it an even 50 this year.

The achievement simply doesn't carry as much significance as it once did, and it's too bad. Baseball is a game of numbers, and one of the more magical numbers in the game has been diluted. But any way you look at it, it's still a hell of an accomplishment.

Ortiz came to the Red Sox for the 2003 season with 58 lifetime homers. In his first nine seasons with Boston, he averaged nearly 36 a season (plus 12 more in the postseason). In 2006 he set a Red Sox season record with 54.

Yes, the New York Times reported in 2009 that Papi was on the infamous list of 104 MLB players alleged to have tested positive for banned substances in a 2003 non-punitive drug-testing survey. The league and Player's Association has disputed some of the names on the list; however, and the list remains sealed. Papi himself said he never knowingly took steroids—although he did apologize in an August 2009 press conference at Yankee Stadium for being "a little bit careless" when purchasing legal vitamins and supplements.

His complete innocence remains unclear, but Ortiz has never tested positive since more stringent testing went into effect and remains one of the most productive and clutch sluggers in baseball. Whether or not he makes the Hall of Fame—and I'd put him on the fence at this point—he deserves to get plenty of kudos as he approaches and then hits homer No. 400.

The way Papi is going now, there will be plenty more to come.

Big Papi's first 2012 blast came in the home opener on April 14.