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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Red Sox announce “Operation Sellout Streak” incentives


Fenway Fiction

The Red Sox are hoping for less scenes like this in the weeks to come.

In an effort to keep up fan interest and keep alive their record sellout streak, the Red Sox have announced special fan incentives for the remainder of the 2012 season.

Fans who show up at Fenway Park will now get a special thank you from management: tickets to another upcoming home game. “We want to thank the best fans in baseball for their loyalty as we continue to improve our team,” Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said after last night's 10-9 loss to Kansas City. “Let's show everybody how much we care by filling those seats for our final 13 home games.”

“Operation Sellout Streak” will attempt to extend professional sport's longest-ever sellout streak, which currently stands at 780 games but has come under scrutiny in recent weeks due to what appears to be thousands of empty seats at Fenway and the availability of tickets online for as little as 10 cents.

In addition to the free tickets, fans will also have the chance at additional rewards for showing their loyalty. Those who arrive at games before the third inning and stay until the final out will receive “I kept the streak alive” stickers, while those who stay off their cellphones for at least half the contest will get a free “I filled Fenway” poster depicting the ballpark loaded to capacity for a Red Sox-Yankees contest.
Fans will be rewarded for their loyalty.

“We know it has been hard for fans to get through some of these early-inning letdowns, or some of the late-inning meltdowns,” said Lucchino after Boston blew a six-run lead for the second time in a week. “Better days are on the way, but until then we hope Red Sox Nation will keep with us and keep the faith.”

As yet another incentive to keep fans coming, the Red Sox announced that a “mystery pitcher” will start one of this year's remaining home games. Bill Lee, who at age 65 became the oldest pitcher ever to win a professional game for the San Rafael Pacifics in the North American League last week, is rumored to be one of the candidates.
Bill Lee: starting soon at Fenway?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sweet Caroline – a nice tradition or the end of real Red Sox fans?


Must be the eighth inning.

Of all the Johnny Pesky stories to come out the past week, one mentioned in an article by Martine Powers of the Boston Globe stood out. When Pesky visited the Perkins School for the Blind several years back, Powers relayed, students at the facility just outside Boston had reportedly serenaded the beloved Red Sox legend with a song that caused the old shortstop to tear up:

Sweet Caroline.

OK, smart alecks, before you start in with snappy comebacks like, “He was crying because he had to listen to those awful lyrics again,” just think for a moment. Can a song that causes a wonderful old man to cry – let's assume it was for joy – and can get parents and children to put their arms around each other and belt out the words as they sway side-to-side, really be so bad?

According to some people, yes.

The bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park has been preceded by a recording of Neil Diamond singing his signature 1969 hit for the past decade. It doesn't matter if the Red Sox are winning 2-1, losing 2-1, or losing 12-1, Sweet Caroline always gets her airtime.

On Opening Night, 2010, Neil Diamond himself led the way.

If you listen to the crowd reaction, it sounds like most people love this tradition; thousands sing along as strong and loud as they did when Bruce Springsteen opened with Thunder Road at Fenway last week, and with just as much unabashed joy. Yet many sports radio hosts and callers are passionately opposed to the ritual, which one can assume means there are many fans at the games who share their displeasure.

Why such hatred? Some pundits point to Sweet Caroline as a prime example of Fenway's “woosification” from an old-school ballpark of real fans into a mass of “pink hat” idiots who know nothing about baseball. These clueless ditzes jumped on the Red Sox bandwagon after the 2004 World Series season, and will sing a silly tune no matter what the score.

My friend Nancy, a very sharp fan who has season tickets in left field, is squarely in this anti-Caroline camp. She was so disgusted by the sing-along during a particularly dismal home performance by the Red Sox this summer that she leaped up and started berating the swaying masses around her. What would cause an otherwise lovely woman to do this?

Apparently there is something Mets and Red Sox fans have in common.

I asked her.

“How can they be so happy with the Red Sox getting killed?” she told me. “Don't they care about the game at all?”

That's decent logic, and it's shared by many of the other fans I polled. Some said Sweet Caroline is OK but shouldn't be played when the Red Sox are losing, while others think it has run its course altogether and should be scrapped. Some like Nancy think it's the worst thing to hit at Fenway since Bucky Dent.

The history behind the song isn't enough to sway these nay-singers Neil Diamond revealed in 2007 that the Caroline he wrote it for back in '69 was the 12-year-old daughter of President John Kennedy, who after the assassination of both her father and beloved uncle Bobby had every reason to think the world was an awful place. Diamond was motivated to write it, he said, after he saw a photo of Caroline and her pony.

This seems very nice, the nay-singers will exclaim, until you start closely examining the lyrics. “Look at the night... now it don't seem so lonely... we fill it up with only two...Warm, touchin' warm...reaching out... touchin' me, touchin' you.” There are actually anti-Sweet Caroline websites pondering what a grown man was doing thinking about a preteen girl in such a manner.

Neil Diamond's inspiration -- one of Boston's most beloved families.

Yes, the words do seem a little weird since Diamond revealed who Caroline was, but you can spin it another way; perhaps he was thinking of a little girl being lonely after her father's death, and that memories of them together would help her through the darkest times. If Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg was upset by the lyrics, she never made these feelings public. In fact, Diamond was at her 50th birthday party to sing it to her live.

I stopped short of asking Diamond himself, but did go to another expert for answers. Steve O'Neill has been a Red Sox season ticket holder since the 1990s and is also social work manager at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He helps sick people and their loved ones get through their hardest hours, and has had quite a few serious medical scares in his own nuclear family. He also has a son who's seen several tours of duty in Iraq leading a U.S. Army National Guard unit charged with detecting and disarming bombs and other explosive devices.

O'Neill is about as level-headed and un-pink-hattish an individual as you'll find, but he looks at this whole Sweet Caroline thing a bit differently.

If it was good enough for Johnny Pesky...

“When I go to a ballgame, I think of being at games with my father and grandfather years ago,” he says. “Sweet Caroline reminds me of that time. I imagine Caroline thinking about her dad, just like I'm thinking about mine. Fenway is about making memories, and when I come to a game with my own daughter and we sing it together, we really make a connection.”

I know what he's talking about, because I've sung Sweet Caroline with my own 8-year-old daughter at every Red Sox game she's attended. I've even called her a few nights to sing it with her before bedtime – Rachel with her stuffed Wally on one end of the phone, me at Fenway on the other.

Does this mean I'm not a real fan if the Red Sox happen to be losing during our duet? Hardly. It just means I'm a dad making his little girl smile.

O'Neill again: “The feeling behind the song is very meaningful. It reminds you that there is more to life than just games. It puts perspective on things.”

Let's get inspired.

I'm no Neil Diamond groupie, and when I tell O'Neill I'm actually among those who think Sweet Caroline is great if the Red Sox are winning, but not otherwise, he frowns and offers another pearl of wisdom.

“If you're down, and you sing, it can lift you up,” he says.

Kind of like an audio rally cap.

I'm no pink hat, but for now I'm going to keep singing no matter what the score. The Sox need all the talismen they can get. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Johnny Pesky: 'Mr. Red Sox' is at rest – and in Cooperstown

Here's to you, Johnny.

The word came over the car radio as I was somewhere between Springfield and Albany last night. Once the initial shock set in, I couldn't help but think how fitting it was that I was enroute to Cooperstown when I heard Johnny Pesky had died.

If the Hall of Fame is the heart of baseball history, Pesky was the heart of Red Sox history.

Those of us born in the mid-1960s don't remember Pesky as an All-Star shortstop who could get 200 hits in his sleep or the manager who couldn't win with the “Country Club” Sox of 1963-64. Although we heard all the stories and saw all the old photos of Johnny alongside legendary teammates Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio, for us he was more like a grandfatherly figure who made every day Old Timers Day at Fenway.

Four generations of Red Sox loved Pesky.

He was the guy we saw praising the club on TV as a member of the broadcast crew in the early '70s, and then strolling the field in those hilarious softball-style 1975-80 uniforms as a coach. If you got to Fenway early enough from grade school through college, you might see Pesky hitting balls off the Green Monster to help Jim Rice master left field, or spraying them to Wade Boggs at third. Boggs, asked today to reflect on Pesky, credited his old mentor for making him into a Gold Glove winner.

Just like our kids hear the “1-800-54-GIANT” jingle so often on Red Sox TV and radio today that it feels like “Happy Birthday,” we grew up on “The Window Boys” of J.B. Sash and Door Company – which of course included a gravel-voiced Pesky making such quips as “We've been doing this for 40 years, and we're still trying to get it right.” The ads were so corny they were laughable, but Johnny brought a touch of class to them.

As I got older I was lucky enough to get to know Johnny pretty well. When I helped Ken Coleman and later Joe Morgan emcee Boston Braves reunions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Pesky was one of the guys from Boston's “other” baseball team that Braves fans welcomed with open arms. He'd spin tales of talking hitting with Williams and captivate the crowd, then sign autographs and shake hands as long as the line kept coming.

Pesky was a high-flying infielder for Boston.

Williams gets credit for being the most successful “celebrity” fundraiser in the history of the Jimmy Fund, but Pesky quietly did his part for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – often right alongside Ted. And when Williams could no longer make the trips to the Jimmy Fund Clinic to meet with kids in treatment, Pesky kept on coming, including a wonderful 2005 visit when he let dozens of pediatric patients try on his '04 World Series ring – then asked where the adult patients were so they could see it too.

In recent years, with the death of his beloved wife, Ruthie, Johnny finally started to look his age. He was still often around Fenway, most memorably for his annual birthday salutes and the retirement of his No. 6. When the Red Sox finally broke through and won the World Series, Pesky did the honors (along with Carl Yastrzemski) of raising the championship banner up the flagpole on Opening Day of 2005. Nobody deserved the honor more.

And, of course, there was the poignant scene of Pesky and Doerr, both in wheelchairs, being wheeled onto the field by David Ortiz, Tim Wakefield, and Jason Varitek during Fenway's 100th anniversary celebration this year. How wonderful that both these legendary nonagenarians were able to enjoy that day.

Pesky and Doerr: A high point of the 100th. 

Pesky was never selected for enshrinement in Cooperstown like Williams, Doerr, Yaz, Rice, Boggs, and so many others he played with or coached, but when I got into town last night and hurried over to a near-empty Hall of Fame just before its 9 p.m. closing, I was happy to see that a photo of the “Pesky Pole” had made it into a 100th anniversary exhibit on Fenway Park.

Does it matter whether Johnny ever actually hit a home run that wrapped around Fenway's right-field foul pole for a 302-foot homer? Nope. The guy was part of the fabric of the ballpark for more than half a century, so Pesky's Pole (and his retired number nearby) deserve to remain part of Fenway's physical plant as long as its standing.

Pesky's Pole and retired number -- forever at Fenway.





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.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Tony Robbins tells the Red Sox “You CAN win” – and they listen


Fenway Fiction

Secret to their success?

When the Red Sox snapped their three-game losing streak in Cleveland last night, there was one man in the visitor's clubhouse who wasn't surprised in the least: Tony Robbins.

The self-help guru and motivational speaker, who has helped such world-class sports figures as Serena Williams, Greg Norman, and Pat Riley reach their peak performance, was at Progressive Field to help the Red Sox try and do the same.

“He was great; he told us, 'You CAN win, you have all the pieces, you just need to put them together and believe in yourself,'” said Clay Buchholz, Friday's starting pitcher. “When I let up that homer to Cabrera in the first, Tony called me over to the runway and looked right at me with those huge eyes of his. 'You CAN win and you WILL win,' he said, and I couldn't wait to get back out there.”

Buchholz is a believer.

Buchholz wound up pitching a two-hit, complete game victory, after which he enjoyed a beer toast with Robbins in the clubhouse. John Lackey proudly carried both cans over to them, after which he grabbed two more for himself.

Robbins, author of such bestselling books as Awaken the Giant Within and CDs like The Power to Shape Your Destiny was summoned to join the Red Sox on the second day of their crucial 10-game, 11-day roadtrip by team chairman Tom Werner, who credits Robbins for helping him out of a professional slump in Hollywood following his huge success in the 1980s and '90s producing TV series like “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne.”

“Tony is the real deal,” said Werner. “When I went to him I was at my creative worst, and within two months I was coming up with '3rd Rock From the Sun.' He turned things around for me, and he can do it for this team.”

Werner believes Robbins can get the Red Sox back here.

A big part of Robbins' philosophy is based on gaining clarity about what you want and solving the conflicts between your emotions, desires, and beliefs. “The biggest problem is people want to know how to solve their problems, but what they need to do is create the life that they want – a life of their own design,” Robbins told the team before the game. “You have to start with what you want instead of what you don't want. Start with the end in mind.”

In the case of the Red Sox, the logical end point is the playoffs – but Robbins wants them to focus on getting there a piece at a time. He is taking a special interest in fallen aces Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, the underachieving pitching duo who have won one game between them in two months.

Lester channels his inner Shallow Hal.

“He keeps telling me not to think about the fact I'm 5-10, but to focus on the fact I had nearly a .700 winning percentage coming into this year,” Lester explained. “If he can make Jack Black think a 300-pound girl is Gwyneth Paltrow, he can get me back to where I want to be on the mound.”

Lester's first test with this new philosophy will come Sunday, when he faces Cleveland rookie Corey Kluber in the series finale. There is no word yet on how long Robbins will stay with the team, but it is believed he will fly on with the club to Baltimore and New York.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Eight reasons to keep watching the Boston Red Sox



Bobby V. and Papi: two to watch.

The Red Sox may yet have a push for the second Wild Card in them, but even if they continue to play .500 ball and miss the postseason, there are still plenty of reasons for fans to keep watching though September. Here are eight of them:
  
Pedro Ciriaco
Critics keep saying the little guy can't keep it up, but Ciriaco is still batting .338 after 27 games with Boston since his early July call-up from Pawtucket. He hit very well in two earlier stints with the Pirates as well, and now boasts a .336 career mark in 116 major league at-bats.

He has also shown a steady glove at three infield positions, an ability to hit in the clutch, and top-notch speed on the base paths. At 26, Ciriaco is not the “career minor leaguer” some have made him out to be, and his unabashed enthusiasm has made him a fan favorite.

Look for him to continue improving as a hitter and base stealer.
Gonzo is shining at the plate and in the field.

Adrian Gonzalez
He may never be the 45-homer guy Theo Epstein envisioned when he signed him to that monster eight-year deal, but Gonzalez is currently on the type of tear that few hitters can muster. He's now on pace to finish with more than 100 RBI and 200 hits for the second straight year, and he's saved Boston's steady stream of young infielders all year with his great glove work.

Sure, it would be nice to see more emotion, and with just 11 homers his “A-Gone” nickname should probably be changed, but Gonzalez is not the problem with this team

Will Middlebrooks
If it wasn't for the other-worldly numbers being put up by Mike Trout in Los Angeles, Boston's freshman third baseman would be getting plenty of attention as a Rookie of the Year candidate. His three-run pinch homer on Tuesday night was just the latest in a season full of big hits, and he has handled the pressure of replacing an iconic fan favorite (Kevin Youkilis) very well.

At age 23, Will the Thrill should be a fixture in Boston for the next decade.

Fans long to see Bailey pitching when it counts.

Andrew Bailey
The injury to Bailey in spring training was one of the biggest blows of the season, as it forced manager Bobby Valentine to reshuffle his pitching staff and turn projected starter/long man Alfredo Aceves into a closer. Aceves has had his moments, but he's clearly better cut out for his former role.

All eyes will be on Bailey when he makes his expected return to Boston later this month. If he can reclaim the form he showed as Oakland's bullpen ace in 2009-11, it will be a big plus for the Sox heading into next season.
  
David Ortiz
When Big Papi limped off the field on July 16, you could almost hear the death knells of the 2012 Red Sox season start playing. His Achilles strain has hurt the team deeply, as it removed Boston's biggest bat from the lineup at precisely the same time table-setters Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford were returning from their own injuries.

Ortiz was on his way to a 35-homer, 110-RBI season when he went down, and after he returns (likely by next week) will be out to prove he still has something left – and is worthy of the two-year contract he craves.

Buchholz has been looking up since June.
Clay Buchholz
While top-of-the-rotation starters Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have continued to struggle, No. 3 man Buchholz has rebounded from his own slow start to emerge as one of the best pitchers in the American League over the past two months.

He has allowed more than two runs in just two of his past 10 starts, and with a bit more luck and support could easily be among the league leaders in wins. It's unclear what the future holds for Lester and Beckett with Boston, but the only place Buchholz is likely going is to the No. 1 slot in next year's rotation.


All Those Doubles
Sure, they may all be struck in vain, but the Red Sox have a good shot to break their own major league record for most doubles by a team in one season. Boston's 2004 and 1997 clubs hit 373 apiece, which ties them with the 1930 Cardinals for the current standard.

With four more two-baggers Tuesday, this year's Red Sox already have 247 doubles through 111 games, which easily leads all of baseball. If they continue at their pace of 2.25 a contest, they will fall just short of the mark – but Ortiz's return should help raise that average. Come the last weeks of September, cheering for Wall balls could be all the rage at Fenway.

Bobby V. goes bonkers as Shaguhnessy looks on.
Bobby Valentine
Boston owner John Henry released a statement on Monday stating that Valentine's role as manager was safe, and the fact he felt compelled to do so says a lot about the dark clouds of turmoil surrounding the Red Sox. Valentine's sarcastic comments and often off-the-wall behavior of late suggest a man who is visibly displeased with the pressure and magnifying glass he is under, and while he has taken to defending his team's effort and attitude, the players have not sent much love back his way.

Terry Francona was content staying out of the spotlight, but Valentine can't seem to avoid it. And if the team is struggling its way to the finish line with 85 to 90 losses, Bobby V may feel he's “one and done” – and choose to go down swinging with outbursts we can't yet imagine.