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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An open letter to John Henry and Ben Cherington


Proven commodity. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Dear John and Ben,
I know you are quite busy with the trade deadline looming, but I wanted to drop a quick note with my thoughts about the topic on everybody's mind today: Jon Lester.

First off, a disclaimer. As a 15-year employee at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I am more aware than most of the tremendous impact Lester has made on cancer patients and their families. By winning the clinching game of the 2007 World Series less than a year after finishing active treatment for a rare form of lymphoma, Lester became a hero right on par with Ted Williams in the infusion rooms and research clinics of Dana-Farber. He remains so today, as much for the kind words of support he offers current patients as for his on-field deeds.
A hero on and off the field. (Jimmy Fund)

But Lester need not have beaten cancer to be a hero. As one of the most reliable and durable pitchers in the major leagues for nearly a decade, he has helped the Red Sox to two world championships and proven himself a man of character and class. Yes, he was involved in the "chicken and beer" fiasco of 2011, but he owned up to his poor choices and has rebounded to pitch better than ever this season. He keeps himself in great shape and never misses a start, a rarity these days.

Therein lies the key point I want to make: Jon Lester is a proven commodity in an era when that commodity is a rarity. He is a left-handed starter who owns a fantastic .636 lifetime winning percentages despite pitching half of his games at Fenway Park and all of his games for a fan base and multimedia horde that demands more of its players than any other. We have seen what happens to some "elite" athletes when the come to Boston -- they can't handle the pressure and drop off in performance (i.e. Carl Crawford). Jon Lester is at his best when the pressure is on. A 2.11 career postseason ERA (3-0 and 0.43 in the World Series) is evidence of that.
In the postseason, no one does it better.

I know what your analytics tell you -- pitchers signed to long-term contracts at age 30 do not maintain their quality for the life of the contract. This plus the fact the Red Sox are probably not going to repeat as world champions this season (I have learned since 2004 to never say "not" in such cases until the mathematics warrant it), makes it tempting to trade him for some top prospects. But prospects are even a greater risk than a 30-year-old pitcher, and with all the strong young hurlers currently in the Red Sox organization, who better to help tutor them in the ways of Boston baseball than the guy who has conquered it? 

Before you make a move you may regret, let me leave you with a story. In the mid-1950s, Ted Williams was considering retirement. He was worn out after serving in two wars and going through a messy divorce, and wanted to go out on top. Then a fan told him all the records he could achieve if he were to stay in the game and cement his status as the greatest hitter of all time -- and the greatest player in Red Sox history. Moved and motivated, Ted continued playing through 1960.
Give this man the green.

Jon Lester currently has 110 wins, all for Boston. If he signs a six-year contract, and averages 15 wins for the first five seasons (very doable given his track record), he will enter the 2020 season with at least 185 victories -- and be poised to pass Cy Young and Roger Clemens (with 192 each) as the winningest pitcher in Red Sox history. I'm not sure if Lester knows these numbers, or cares about them, but I can't imagine a better person to have atop the franchise leader board.

Can you?




Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Miracle at Fenway" excerpt: Fenway Fights and Flights

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

My latest book, "Miracle at Fenway: The Inside Story of the Boston Red Sox 2004 Championship Season" is now available nationwide. This excerpt details the backstory behind one of the biggest turning points of the '04 regular season.

It had rained all night and into the morning, leaving the Fenway Park outfield so damp that even an umpire who really was blind would have been tempted to call the game on account of squishiness.


This, however, wasn't just any game.

The Red Sox had fallen to the Yankees, 8-7, the night before. All losses to New York were tough, but this one really hurt, with ace Curt Schilling inexplicably blowing an early 4-1 lead and normally reliable Keith Foulke coughing up the winning run in the ninth on an Alex Rodriguez RBI single. Boston had gone 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and a three-homer game by Kevin Millar had been wasted. Worst of all, the Sox were now a season-high nine and a half games behind Joe Torre's pinstriped crew.

With the other three AL East teams all under .500, it was looking more and more likely that the Sox would finish second to the Yanks for a seventh straight excruciating year. Even with a division title all but an impossibility, Boston still needed every win it could get in a supertight Wild Card race – and every opportunity  to gain confidence against New York in anticipation of a possible postseason encounter. After winning six of seven April games against their rivals, the Sox had lost three straight at the Stadium a few weeks before, including the “Nomar-Jeter” game when Garciaparra sat out with a lingering knee injury and watched his Yankeecounterpart wrap himself in bloody glory. Last night made it four straight losses to the Evil Empire.
Jeter goes all out. (Newsday)

It wasn't just the Red Sox who had a big stake in this game, however. FOX had it scheduled as a nationally-telecast, marquee matchup – with a 3:15 Saturday afternoon starting time. Boston-New York games always got strong ratings, and this year they had been through the roof both locally on NESN and nationally on FOX and ESPN. The intensity and intrigue established during the previous year's playoffs and built up during the winter-long A-Rod saga made for must-see TV. Sox-Yanks was like a soap opera and reality show rolled into one.     

Those affiliated with the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to get under way a few days later at Boston's FleetCenter, were also eager to see the game go off as planned. Everybody from delegates to corporate sponsors to fund-raising groups to politicians themselves had been seeking out tickets to the Sox-Yanks contests, along with trying to nab access to other Fenway specialties like batting practice, private tours, or reserved space in one of the ballpark's function rooms overlooking the field, which would remain open once the team headed out on the road after Sunday's series finale.

Nothing, however, trumped player safety. A group including managers Francona and Torre, Red Sox chief operating officer Mike Dee, and Fenway groundskeeper Dave Mellor all walked the field, and after feeling the soft, squishy grass and viewing the wide assortment of puddles, decided that the game should be canceled.

Out on Yawkey Way, Sox VP and event maestro Dr. Charles Steinberg was biting into a Rem-Dog from Jerry Remy's, waiting for the gates to open and the crowds to come pouring in, when his cell phone rang. It was Mike Dee.
Dr. Charles recalls it all. (Boston Globe)

“Hey, chief, where are you?'” asked Dee (he called everybody chief).

On Yawkey Way.”

“Listen, you've got to get an announcement out – we're banging the game.”

"Banging? What does that mean?"

"We're postponing the game."

“I was suspicious,” explains Steinberg of what he was hearing. “It's not raining.  It's gray and it's raw with billowy clouds and yes, it rained overnight, but, man, you've got 30,000 people pouring in to eat hot dogs and drink and hang out for two hours before the game is even scheduled to start.“

So I said, "Why?"

"The field took a real beating last night, and they're not going to be able to play."    

"Where are you?"

"I'm in Tito's office."

"I'll meet you there."

As Steinberg rushed across the street into Fenway and down toward the manager's office, he made calls to three more ballpark insiders: public relations director Glenn Geffner in the press box, talking through a press release and passing on the edict to “not release it until I tell  you”; to video/scoreboard production manager Danny Kischel in the control room, giving him a public address announcement and a similar request to "not read it until I tell you"; and to the scoreboard operator, with an announcement to "not show anyone until I tell you."

“All three systems were ready to go as soon as we called them back and said, 'Yes, go ahead.  Postpone this game,'” recalls Steinberg. “We didn't know if there could be a doubleheader the next day, because the teams already had the ESPN Sunday night game scheduled.”
Francona needed convincing.

Something felt strange to Steinberg. When he got to Francona's tiny corner office in the bowels of the ballpark, he found  Dee, Tito, Mellor, Larry Lucchino, Theo Epstein, and special assistant Jonathan Gilula, all crowded around Francona's desk.

Someone reiterated what Dee had told Steinberg about the field “taking a beating” the previous night, and Steinberg asked outright if a cancellation was absolutely necessary.

“I was worried that there was something dangerous going on,” says Steinberg, looking back. “We're not that far removed from 9/11, we've got the Democratic National Convention coming up, so I asked, 'Is there more to the story than you're telling me?'" Someone, maybe Larry, said, 'No, this is baseball driven all the way.'"

Realizing the kinds of questions they would be getting from writers as the ballpark filled up and the skies cleared, Steinberg continued pressing for more details he could pass on.

“Look, it's our [cancellation] call to make, not the umpires, if the game hasn't started yet,” Lucchino said. "But Tito, go out with Joe Torre and the umpires and Dave Mellor and see if they also see what we see. It's our call, and they don't need to agree, but see if they all understand.”

Lucchino's thinking was that if they could get more buy-in from some other key folks – Torre, the umpires – it would be easier to justify their decision to cancel such an important game when the writers started asking.

“So out to shallow left field walked that group, Terry Francona and Joe Torre and the four umpires and Dave Mellor,” says Steinberg. “Mike Dee and I trailed behind, walking along the warning track.  And humorously, they were stomping on the outfield grass in a way that splashed and elicited water reminiscent of Lucy [Ball] stomping on the grapes [on a classic I love Lucy episode]. This made it clear to everyone what we were dealing with here.”

Francona came back to where Dee and Steinberg were standing. He explained that Torre had acknowledged that it was the Red Sox' call to make, and that they could do so whenever they wanted. The understanding was that the game would be canceled, so Torre was now presumably telling this to his team in the visitor's clubhouse.

“As we were walking, Mike Dee took a call in his ear, and Tito and I heard half of the conversation,” recalls Steinberg.

"Hey, chief, what? 

“We're walking on the warning track.”

“How many guys? A mutiny?  Where?”

“All right, we're on our way there. "

Then Dee turned to Francona.

“That was Jonathan Gilula, Tito. He says a bunch of players are in your office, threatening a mutiny if we don't play this game.”

Without skipping a beat, Francona replied, "Well, it's the first sign of life I've seen from them in weeks.”

The trio returned to Francona's office, where the same people from before were now reassembled and joined by four more: Jason Varitek, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez, and Kevin Millar. All were in uniform except Varitek, who had on a red T-shirt and a stern look. Steinberg doesn't recall whether it was Francona or someone else who started talking with Varitek, but he still remembers the words.

“We wanna play,” said Varitek.

"Guys, I know that, but the field took a real beating last night."

"We wanna play."

"Right, I understand that, but it would take a super-human effort to get the field ready."

"Then do a super-blanking-human effort, we wanna play. "
Tek wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Yeah, we wanna play, yeah!” That was Millar.

"Yeah, we're not afraid of these guys, I'll come in from the bullpen if I have to!” That was Pedro.

“Then we heard this thunderous thud of a door closing,” says Steinberg. “There in the doorway is David Ortiz. 'What's going on?' he bellows. Somebody, I don't know if it was Millar or Varitek, tells him, 'They don't want us to play,' to which Papi says something like 'We want their asses! We want these guys! We want to play!'”


Millar says that at the time, the players in Francona's office thought that “the people upstairs” were behind the possible cancellation because they didn't like the pitching matchup: 3-7 Bronson Arroyo of the Red Sox against New York's Tanyon Sturtze (3-2), who had won the Nomar-Jeter game back on July 1 in relief. Boston players, however, wanted their crack at Sturtze, who came in sporting a 5.05 ERA.

"At that point, it’s almost like the movie Rudy,” says Millar. “We took our jerseys off and said “We’re playing.” Bronson Arroyo was probably the most underrated guy on that team, and we just wanted to get out there and do it.”

It was now 2 p.m., and it was clear the players were not going to back down. Lucchino instructed Mellor to work on the field for an hour and see what progress he could make; if he was making progress, then the team would consider delaying but not postponing the game. If it looked hopeless, they would cancel.

“So we start to disperse, and then poor Tito's phone rings,” says Steinberg. “It's Joe Torre, and I get to hear another one-sided conversation.”

"Yeah, I know.  I know.”

“I know I told you that.”

“No, we're going to try to play.”

"Joe, we all have bosses." That was Lucchino, chiming in.
Torre was not happy.

Mellor and his crew went to work on the field. After an hour they had indeed made progress, so they kept going and the crowd was told the starting time was being delayed an hour until 4:20.

Veteran cameraman Kevin Vahey was working the game for FOX. “The truck had told us the game was called, and then five minutes later they called back and said, 'Wait a minute, don’t take anything down yet!' Vahey explains. “I actually heard that someone at the FOX network office called [baseball commissioner Bud] Selig and said, 'The Red Sox can’t call this game, the weather is going to clear and all our people are there.'”

The subplot to all this is that while the field was being cleaned up, it was also being set up with a stage and equipment for a short pregame concert. The Dropkick Murphys, the Boston-based Irish rock band whose trademark song, “Tessie,” had become a hit at Fenway when it was played over the loudspeakers after Red Sox home wins, was planning to perform the piece live at the ballpark for the first time.

“Tessie” had originally been written at the turn of the 20th century for a Broadway musical, and was a favorite of the first Red Sox fan club known as the Royal Rooters. The Rooters changed the words to make fun of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and heckled them with the song all through the 1903 World Series. Pirates players placed some of the blame for their series loss to the Sox (then the Boston Americans) on “Tessie,” and the song became an official battle cry for the renamed Red Sox through four more World Series titles in 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918.
Magic Music (Library of Congress)

Then the Sox sold Babe Ruth, fell into the American League basement, and the Rooters disbanded. “Tessie” was played only occasionally at Fenway during the '20s, and never after 1930. The story of the song and its connection to the team might have ended there, were it not for the curiosity of Steinberg. Ever a student of history, he kept reading in books on the Red Sox about the magic of this song he had never heard. In October 2003, with Boston and the Yankees squaring off in the ALCS, he found a scratchy audio recording of “Tessie” from 1903 online. If the Sox beat New York, he planned to clean up and play it during the World Series  – 100 years after its first use as a talisman for victory. Perhaps it could be a good-luck charm once again.

That didn't happen, of course, but over the winter a new plan emerged. Epstein, the general manager/guitarist, was holding his annual “Hot Stove, Cool Music” fund-raiser at which local bands performed as a sort of pre-spring training celebration. Would-be rock stars from the baseball world like Epstein, ESPN analyst Peter Gammons (also a guitarist), and even ballplayers with musical talent like Arroyo joined in on the fun. Held in one of the bars across the street from Fenway, it was becoming a widely popular show that resulted in a CD that raised even more for charity.

At the January 2004 event, Boston Herald sportswriter Jeff Horrigan suggested that Steinberg talk to frontman Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys about redoing “Tessie” for a modern audience. Casey went for the idea, Horrigan helped rewrite the lyrics to make them relevant to the '04 Sox, and the Dropkicks recorded it with Arroyo and Damon singing backup vocals. The revamped “Tessie” had been playing at Fenway all summer.

But never live. Until the game the players saved, and history recorded.
Setting the tone. (Dropkickmurphys.com)

First the Dropkicks did their thing, banging out their hit at full throttle from center field while young Red Sox employee Colleen Riley, dressed as “Tessie,” danced onstage. Steinberg, watching the whole thing from the Red Sox dugout, looked over at Arroyo and thought how cool it was that the young pitcher, who had helped with the recording, was now getting the chance to see its live debut.

“Who's going for us today?,” Steinberg asked, and Arroyo replied by giving him a crooked little smile. Realizing that he had been so consumed by everything going on that he had forgotten, Steinberg laughed and said, “Of course, it's you!”
Arroyo got the start (Matthew Lee/Boston Globe)

Once the game finally started, before a full house loaded up on emotion, beers, and the 54-minute delay, the Yankees sought to make all the lobbying efforts and lucky songs inconsequential. They had jumped out to a 3-0 lead by the third inning, helped in part by a Millar error at first base, when Rodriguez stepped in against Arroyo. Few in the ballpark knew it, but this pair had first faced each other as high school players in southern Florida. Rodriguez, pumped about his game-winning hit the night before, crouched over the plate – leaving him little time to escape an Arroyo sinker pitch that got away and hit him near the left elbow. A-Rod stepped out of the box, leered out at his adversary as he took afew steps toward the mound, and started shouting at Arroyo.

In looking back at the incident, Arroyo said he never meant to hit Rodriguez, but did want to pitch him inside due to the results of their last face-off. Back in April, at Yankee Stadium, A-Rod had hit an outside pitch from Arroyo about 500 feet for a mammoth home run, but it had been quickly forgotten in the aftermath of Boston's 3-2, 13-inning win and subsequent three-game sweep

Exactly who said what during this latest encounter varies depending on the source. In watching the replay, and talking to several folks near the incident, it appeared to go something like this:

A-Rod spun around after being hit, dropped his bat, and as he walked toward first yelled at Arroyo that he should “throw the f--king ball over the plate.” Varitek stepped over and in front of A-Rod to keep him from doing anything physical to Arroyo, telling him to “just take your base.” The two quickly exchanged “f--k yous,” and then A-Rod bumped Tek and motioned with his finger – the universal language for “You want a piece of me? Come and get me!”

Tek did just that, shoving his glove into A-Rod's face and then grabbing him as both benches emptied. At first players sprinted over to break up the fight, but within a few seconds they had also started some new ones along the first base line in front of the Red Sox dugout. The biggest subplot was when Sturtze, who had grown up a Red Sox fan in Worcester, made the poor decision of grabbing Kapler from behind. The strongest guy on the team, Big Gabe soon had his attacker on the ground with an unnecessary (but appreciated) assist from teammates Ortiz and Nixon.
All hell breaks loose. 

“I think the first-base dugout had the best angle, but from center field [where he had his camera] you could tell something was happening,” says Vahey. “Whether or not Varitek said, “We don’t throw at .260 hitters!' I don’t know." 

Down in Florida, Joe and Donna Varitek were watching the Red Sox at home like they always did. When they saw their son and A-Rod starting to go at it, they were not surprised. “He was doing his job, protecting his pitcher,” reflects Donna Varitek today, the exact same response that Jason had given in interviews right after the incident. Joe remembers being afraid that using Jason's old football instincts might backfire on him. “I got a little worried after the push incident; Jason went into his driving tackle thing and drove A-Rod to the ground. He could have really hurt himself.”

Another guy who almost got hurt wasn't even on the field.
A close call for Pesky. (CBS Boston)

“That was the day I thought I killed Johnny Pesky,” says closer Keith Foulke with a nervous laugh, speaking of the 85-year-old former Red Sox shortstop, coach, and manager who was still with the team that summer as a sort of legend-in-residence. “It was the fourth inning, so I was in the clubhouse, dressed and ready to go out to the bullpen. I’m sitting there watching it on TV, and you kind of see it [the fight] starting to go. When Jason stood up, and they started jawing at each other, I took off my pullover, headed for the door, and was just about to turn and run down the stairs [to the dugout and field] when I ran into Johnny. He fell back, and I caught him.”

Another not-quite-so-old-timer was taking in one of the more unique views of the action in a suite high above the Red Sox dugout. Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley was interviewing former All-Star outfielder Fred Lynn for a book he was writing entitled Red Sox: Where Have You Gone?, and at the precise moment Lynn was describing for Buckley a three-homer game he had in Detroit as a rookie back in 1975, Arroyo hit Rodriguez – and sent Lynn, who had done some TV work since his retirement, into play-by-play mode. Lynn had been part of some pretty good Red Sox-Yankees fights himself back in the '70s, and this melee seemed to take him back.

“If you listen to the tape, it's really funny,” says Buckley. “One minute he's telling me about his big day in Detroit, and then he suddenly gets real intense and starts in like, 'Oh boy, he looks pissed! It looks like they're going to go! They're going to go!'”
Lynn: a bird's eye view. (Answers.com)

By the time everyone on the field had been separated, New York starter Sturtze was bleeding from his left ear, the result of his one-on-three tussle; Rodriguez, Varitek, Kapler, and New York outfielder Kenny Lofton had all been ejected; and the Red Sox had a new infusion of energy to ride out the season.

“It was one of those brawls where you get to see what kind of people your teammates are,” Damon said later. “In our case, we got to see great things – great camaraderie, great togetherness.”

This first manifest itself in the late stages of that afternoon's game. The Red Sox were down 3-0, up 4-3, down 9-4 (after a six-run Yankee sixth and another ejection, this time Francona), down 9-8 (after getting four back in the bottom of the sixth), and down 10-8 heading into the last of the ninth. Rivera was on to pitch for New York, which with a two-run lead was money in the bank.

Not this time. Garciaparra – who, unbeknownst to most, had been talking money that very morning – led off the frame with a double. He went to third on a deep fly to right by Nixon, and then scored when Millar (4-for-5 on the day) lined a single to center. Bill Mueller was up next, and after working Rivera to a 3-and-1 count, he struck a shot into the Red Sox bullpen to cap the three-hour, 54-minute marathon and an 11-10 Boston win.The entire team greeted Mueller at home plate; and Francona quickly realized he needed to pay extra-close attention to where (and near whom) he was celebrating. In rushing out from the clubhouse (where he had been banished by the umpires), the manager had forgotten to put on his shoes.
Mueller ended what Tek had started.

Afterwards, Francona and Epstein both had a sense of just how important the moment had been.

"It's a huge win for us, and will be bigger if we make it bigger,” Francona said. “If we have this catapult us and we do something with, that's what will really make it big.”

Added Epstein: “If we go on to play like this, this will go down as one of the most important victories we had. Today was not about stats or box scores, it was about emotions.”

The normally stoic Varitek chided himself for not keeping his own emotions under control with regards to A-Rod, and in the months and years to come would refuse to autograph any of the countless photos depicting the day's iconic moment – he and Rodriguez, face-to-glove-in-face – that would wind up on the walls of rec rooms and bars across New England.

When Charles Steinberg approached Tek in the clubhouse and told him “You won us the game today,” the catcher vehemently denied it. “He thought I meant the fight, but I didn't,” explains Steinberg. “I told him 'That game was postponed until you said your words.'” 

What did  A-Rod think of all this? "I think it's going to take this rivalry to a new level,” Rodriguez said. “The intensity is something I've never really seen before."

Although it was only July, it was indeed beginning to feel like the postseason around Fenway Park. The Red Sox won the Sunday night game against New York as well, 9-6, but the true impact of “The Fight” could not be focused on right away because another significant event was looming less than a week away: the July 31 trade deadline. ■