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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Yaz is 75, and I hope he's happy

(Associated Press/Steve Senne)

Carl Yastrzemski had a birthday the other day, and a big one at that. The Man They Called Yaz is 75 years old, and as he hits the milestone it appears from an outsider's view that this most private of legends -- who has endured some rough times in recent years -- has plenty to feel good about. 

The young man who shares his famous last name, grandson Mike Yastrzemski, is a rising star in the Baltimore Orioles farm system. Mike has been an extra-base-hit machine at three minor league stops this year, and could even get a September call-up to the majors. Since Carl was a significant influence in Mike's upbringing, especially after the sudden death of his father (Carl's son Michael) in 2004, the 24-year-old outfielder's success is a major source of joy and pride for his grandfather.

Two of Yaz's titanic career statistics have been passed in recent months, his 3,419 hits (now ninth all-time, just eclipsed by Derek Jeter) and his 452 home runs (now 37th, topped by Adam Dunn and David Ortiz). Any player who worked as hard as Yastrzemski to reach those numbers could be justified in feeling a bit sad seeing them drop a notch or two on the record lists, but their mention alongside Jeter, Ortiz, and Dunn's deeds has given fans an opportunity to reflect on (or learn about) what a terrific ballplayer Yaz was during his time in Boston.      
Papi's pal -- and backer. (NESN)

Yastrzemski, in fact, took the opportunity of Ortiz's 453rd home run to offer some gratuitous and classy comments about the new No. 2 man (behind Ted Williams) on Boston's all-time homer list. Ortiz's milestone shot had sparked some debate in newspapers and on sports radio talk shows about whether Big Papi or Yaz should be considered the second-best hitter (after Williams) in Red Sox history. 

Fans were split, with the old-timers mostly going for Yastrzemski -- pointing out that he had to focus on playing the field as well as swinging a bat for the majority of his career. The younger folks took the Ortiz side, noting his three World Series rings (to Yaz's zero) and much higher slugging and on-base percentages.

Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe figured he'd ask Yaz his thoughts on the subject, and their exchange (included in this Shaughnessy column) surprised a public not used to Silent Carl voicing his opinions on such matters -- or much of anything else.

"I would say as a hitter, I would say he's [Ortiz] next to Ted," Yastrzemski told Shaughnessy. "I would put him ahead of me. He had more power than I had." Asked what he would think if he turned on the radio and heard the Papi-Yaz debate raging, the Hall of Famer replied, "I'd be glad that they would have me in the same class as him."   
The Big Three

These comments, so un-Yaz like, blew me away. For a guy who grew up watching Yastrzemski play balls off the Monster from the Fenway bleachers and imitating his bat-twirling, pants-tugging stance in Little League games, there was never any doubt to me that he was No. 2 to Ted -- and I've got plenty of respect for what Ortiz has accomplished. Both are Hall of Famers in my book.

But in addition to being genuinely shocked when I read Shaughnessy's column, it also made me smile. If Yastrzemski is comfortable sharing these thoughts, I surmised, he must be feeling pretty good about himself and his own place in team history. Shaughnessy didn't ask if Yaz thought Ortiz was a better all-around player than him -- that would be no contest, given Yastrzemski's seven Gold Gloves -- but as a hitter, deep down, Captain Carl knew Ortiz had the superior numbers.

In addition to sharing a name, Carl Michael Yastrzemski, and Mike Yastrzemski nearly share a birthday. Mike marked his 24th on August 23 with a hit against the Richmond Flying Squirrels, one day after notching two hits on Carl's big day of August 22 (plus a home run the night before).

Here's hoping that the two got a chance to celebrate their mutual milestones in person or with a phone call. For the joy he gave all of us who were lucky enough to see him play, Yaz deserves the opportunity to savor this time in his life -- and the young man who is bringing him joy.   
Yaz and Yaz (Boston Herald)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Babe who helped the Red Sox to 2004 glory -- no, not him

(Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Players from David Ortiz to David Roberts all played a role in the thrilling finish to the 2004 Red Sox season, but there was another factor at work as the days grew shorter and colder that fall -- one that I believe helped propel Boston from the brink of a four-game ALCS sweep at the hands of the Yankees to a World Series championship in just 10 days.

Whether the spirit of George Herman Ruth had something to do with the miracle turnaround, no one is certain, but there was one living Babe who I will always feel was part of the seismic shift of success that saw Boston finally come out on top.

The story actually began a year earlier, in October of 2003, when the Red Sox were on the brink of beating the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS. Like any fan, I was doing everything I could to send good karma from my family room to the Bronx. I had my Pedro Martinez bobblehead and '75 American League championship banner atop theTV, and was watching Pedro cruise his way to victory when my friend Scott came strolling through the front door. It was the seventh inning and the Red Sox were winning, 4-1.

"Can you believe this? We're going to the World Series!" Scott yelled. He and I had been attending Sox games together since high school, and had been taunted into submission by Mets fans as Syracuse classmates in 1986, so he was looking forward to a chance at redemption.
Thanks, Scott. (Boston Red Sox)

"Shut up, you idiot," I yelled, but of course it was too late. Just like I did when I asked my girlfriend Wendy to take a photo of me and the TV screen when Calvin Schiraldi got the final out of the '86 World Series, Scott had chosen his words poorly. An inning later a tiring Pedro was driven from the game, and the Yankees wound up winning the pennant in 11 innings.

Nine months later, on August 16, 2004, the Red Sox were slated to meet the Blue Jays at Fenway Park. I was also on Brookline Avenue that night, but not at Fenway. I was a few blocks away, at Beth Israel Hospital, with my wife, Michelle, for the birth of our daughter, Rachel.

The Sox were a less-than-stellar 64-52 at the time, 10.5 games behind New York in the American League East and battling with Anaheim, Minnesota, and several other teams for the Wild Card lead. The blockbuster trades that had sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs and brought Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Roberts to Boston were still being dissected by the media -- the merits of the deals yet to be determined.
Would Cabrera be key? No one knew yet.

Then, seemingly all at once, everything clicked. The Red Sox pulled away from Toronto for an 8-4 victory on the 16th, and over the next three weeks kept winning, and winning, and winning. By the time Pedro and Big Papi fueled a 8-3 rout at Oakland on Sept. 8, Boston had gone 20-2 since Rachel's birth -- one of the hottest stretches in team history.

As the New York lead in the East kept shrinking, and the Wild Card advantage expanding, I began to wonder if perhaps my little baby girl was some sort of living, breathing talisman. Maybe the tiny Red Sox hat I put in her bed at the hospital had given her some power to produce victories.
Working her magic.

I took to calling the turnaround of the team the "Rachel Effect" and I still believe it had something to do with what transpired that October. You better believe Rachel was up and watching every out of the World Series, along with our son, Jason. Back then, when people still believed in curses and victory parades were not a common occurrence in Boston, Red Sox fans looked for luck wherever we could find it.

Scott, however, was barred from the premises.










Thursday, August 7, 2014

Some 2004 memories from Kevin Millar -- yours could win you an autographed book

Millar and Manny: so many stories

Have a personal memory -- funny, poignant, sad, or glad -- to share about the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox? It could win you a free autographed copy of Miracle at Fenway, a book filled with reflections from players, front office personnel, and fans about that glorious year and those leading up to it.

Just include your story in the comments portion at the bottom of this entry, along with your name and contact information, and you'll be in the running. I'll announce my favorite tale here on Aug. 16. The winner will get a copy of Miracle at Fenway mailed anywhere in the country, inscribed however he or she wishes. (If, for some reason, you can't post a comment, please email it to me at saulwizz@gmail.com.)

Come up with the winner, and I'll even send a book to the Yankees fan of your choice -- provided I don't have to pledge my allegiance to The Evil Empire.

Here is a book excerpt to get the ball rolling featuring thoughts from Kevin Millar on his and the team's big August turnaround, which came after the three-team trade deadline stunner from GM Theo Epstein in which disgruntled shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was sent to the Cubs and Gold Glovers Orlando Cabrera (who also played short) and Doug Mientkiewicz (a first baseman) came to Boston:
Millar calls Cabrera the key. (Sports Illustrated)

"Sometimes you need a spark," Kevin Millar explains of the trades that saved the 2004 season. "We were just kind of there, just kind of spinning our wheels. It's the same for any sport -- any team. When you're in that kind of funk, you need something to get ahead. You saw that with Mike Trout and the Angels [in 2012] and Yasiel Puig and the Dodgers [in 2013]. That year, with us, it was Orlando Cabrera.

"Theo stood up there and made a bold move and you know what? If it didn't work out, he could have been blackballed for life. That was what made Theo so good; he had the ability to make decisions, and he believed at that point that it was time to move Nomar -- and Orlando Cabrera was an absolutely wonderful asset to this unit that we were trying to put together, and so were Doug Mientkiewicz and [fellow deadline pickup] Dave Roberts."

It wasn't just the newcomers, however. For much of the year the only consistent hitters on the team had been leadoff man Johnny Damon and sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Now it seemed like everybody else was getting hot at once. 

Catcher Jason Varitek, at a time in the season when most receivers are beginning to wear down, hit an incredible .444 in August with nine doubles, five homers, 20 RBI, and an OPS of 1.339. Third baseman Bill Mueller, who had struggled through knee problems to a .257 average just one year after capturing the AL batting title, opted for July surgery and returned with a vengeance -- hitting .380 in August with numerous clutch hits. Cabrera, the man brought to town for his glove, was contributing a steady stream of doubles to the cause as well.
Varitek got hot at the right time.

Then there was Millar, the clubhouse character who in the past two years had helped as much as anyone to create an atmosphere where winning, friendship, and fun could all coexist. He had proven to be an overachiever at the plate with 25 homers and nearly 100 RBI in 2003 before falling back to earth for much of this campaign, and was scuffling along at .269 with very little production when a single impulsive move turned it all around.

"We were in Seattle for a game, watching the Mariners take batting practice," Millar recalls. "Their catcher Miguel Olivo [a .235 hitter] is just raking it, blasting bomb after bomb. He has an open stance, and I've never hit open in my life. So I came back to Fenway for the next series and figure I'm going to hit open like Miguel Olivo. I go deep with three hits, no joke, and then the Yankees come to town and I hit four home runs in a three-game series. It was all because of Miguel Olivo -- no hitting coach or nothing else."

Millar pauses and laughs, putting his story into perspective. "In this game, that's what drives me crazy. People don't adjust. When things aren't going right, you've just got to try something crazy, you know? I hit that way the rest of the year, and it absolutely turned my career around."

The hot streak, which raised Millar's average above .300 by mid-August, was indicative of the transformation overcoming the 2004 Red Sox. Free from the tension that hung over the clubhouse during the long months of the Nomar Watch, Boston players were enjoying themselves again.  

---------------

Now it's your turn! Share your 2004 Red Sox story in the comments section below and win a chance to relive that year through the pages of Miracle at Fenway.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Red Sox-Yankees 2014:A kinder, gentler hatred

No cat fights yesterday -- just cuddles.

Growing up in the Fenway bleachers during the 1970s and early '80s, I got used to the smells of pot smoke, warm beer, and Yankees-Red Sox vitriol.

Brawls between Sox fans and visiting loudmouths from the Bronx were as common in the stands as they were on the field back then. Broad-shouldered "blue coat" ushers fresh off the BC football team would break up the fights, and we'd hoot, holler, and occasionally throw our wadded up Sports Bar wrappers at the pinstripped combatants as they were escorted from the premises.

Things were slightly less physical but no less intense during the 1999-2004 era, when the Sox and Yankees battled it out three times in the ALCS. The anger and passion was higher than ever, and while there were fewer fistfights -- higher ticket prices and tighter security played a role in this, no doubt  -- there was plenty of taunting and harsh words when the guys in their Jeter and A-Rod jerseys came to town.
The players felt it too in 1999-2004.

Now, with both teams in a rebuilding mode and the last playoff series between them a decade in the rear-view mirror, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has reached a new stage: a kinder, gentler hatred.

This atmosphere was in full display during yesterday's 6-4 New York win at Boston. Due to the trade deadline white-flag shakedown that sent Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jonny Gomes, and numerous other veterans out of town and brought the likes of Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, and Joe Kelly in, coupled with the Derek Jeter farewell tour, made it feel like nearly half the fans at Fenway were in Yankees regalia. Still, the only taunting or fighting I heard was of the G-rated variety (which was nice, since I had 9-year-old Rachel with me).
Equal opportunity art by Justyn Farano.

When Jeter sprinted onto the field during warmups, the crowd let out a roar, and his first at-bat was greeted with a standing ovation and a multitude of cell phone photo-snapping (your truly included). Rachel asked why everyone was cheering a Yankee, and I explained that Red Sox fans recognize class and excellence when they see it -- no matter the uniform. Still, this kind of reaction would have been unheard of in the old days.

There was booing for old friend Jacoby Ellsbury when he stepped in after Jeter, which dismayed Rachel (he was her favorite when with the Sox), but this seemed more good-natured than mean. Fans were going through the motions; it was if they felt booing him was the right thing to do, but their hearts and lungs were not really in it.  
Jeter -- class caught on camera

This went on all day. Sox and Yanks supporters laughed high-fived, and traded pictures throughout the game, and in many cases came to the ballpark together as spouses, friends, or siblings with divided loyalties. We were surrounded by examples of this emerging phenomenon, which may be growing in part because the scalding-hot hatred between the clubs is lessening. You didn't dare date a Yankees fan in the 1980s for fear of family scorn; now it's like having a vegan girlfriend. Your brother may raise his eyebrows, but nobody really cares.

Does this chumminess mark the end of the true rivalry? I don't think so. If the Red Sox and Yankees both contend again in 2015, I am pretty sure the old passions will reemerge. If free agent Lester signs with New York, that could play a big role as well. The fisticuffs may be gone for good -- three recent World Series championships for Boston have lessened the need for Sox fans to draw blood in defending their club -- but there is nothing wrong with having an arch-rival.

Just think of these days as less like Darth Vader versus The Rebel Alliance, and more like Cheers versus Gary's Olde Time Tavern. Play hard, and then share a beer after the game.  
My brother would have killed me.