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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why We Cheer Wake -- in Good Times and Bad

In addition to being a perfect post-heatwave afternoon at Fenway, Sunday's Red Sox-Mariners matchup gave fans several opportunities to cheer on the most popular 65 mph pitcher in team history: Tim Wakefield.

The knuckleballer received ovations when his face was flashed on the centerfield scoreboard during bullpen warmups, when he started the game with a nifty play on an Ichiro grounder, and when he fanned Mike Carp to end the sixth inning for his 2,000th strikeout with Boston. The only other guy to whiff that many for Boston was the "K Man" himself, Roger Clemens, and fans would not stop screaming until the reluctant hero emerged from the dugout for a brief curtain call.

Perhaps the most telling cheers of the afternoon, however, came when Wake was removed from the game an inning later. He had given up three consecutive singles with two outs in the seventh, then allowed a towering grand slam over the Green Monster to the immortal Brendan Ryan. Boston's lead had been sliced from a laughable 11-3 to a not-such-a-sure-thing 11-7, and Tito had no choice but to take out the 44-year-old righty. As Wakefield started his slow walk back to the dugout, the clapping started low and built to a pitch that matched anything heard after the previous inning's milestone. Sheepishly, he tipped his hat again just before reaching the steps.

As I joined in the reverie from my third base seats, I couldn't help but be reminded of another time when Wakefield earned accolades for a less-than-perfect performance. On the windy, chilly, miserable night of Oct. 16, 2004, when the Red Sox were in the midst of a brutal 19-8 loss to the Yankees that brought them to the brink of ALCS elimination, it was Wakefield who "took one for the team" and allowed five runs in a fast-emptying Fenway while the rest of the bullpen rested. The applause we gave him that night was more subdued, for sure, but offered up with no less respect or gratitude. And in the end, of course, Wake's act of self-sacrifice allowed the Sox to trot out several strong arms over the next two extra-inning contests and begin their Comeback for the Ages.

Is Tim Wakefield one of the best pitchers in Red Sox history? Certainly not. Has he been one of the most valuable members of the club since the Clinton administration? Absolutely. Whether spot-starting, long relieving, jumping into a regular rotation spot, or even closing (remember that?), he goes wherever he is needed and gives the team innings and effort. Whether or not he gets the 7 wins he needs to catch Clemens and Cy Young atop the franchise leaderboard is immaterial; the guy who is the MVP of the Jimmy Fund Clinic and the first Boston player to earn the coveted Roberto Clemente Award for "representing the game of baseball through sportsmanship, community involvement, and positive contributions to [his] club" is someone you are proud to root for. These days in sports, that's not so easy to find.

And that's why we cheer him, no matter the outcome. Wake is a guy you'd like in your foxhole.

Do you have a favorite Wakefield moment? Let's hear about it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

1 to 15 to 2...You ain't seen nothing!

The last few games have been as up-and-down as they come for Boston's bats. One night the Sox get five hits and one run over 16 innings, the next they get 15 runs and 16 hits, and then they slide back down to two runs against what is arguably the worst team in the majors. But this type of roller-coaster is nothing compared to what transpired at Fenway one week in 1950.

Ironically, the Red Sox were squaring off from June 6-8 of '50 with the predecessors of today's Orioles -- the St. Louis Browns. Owner Bill Veeck's club was the perennial celler-dweller of the American League, and Veeck was so desperate for patrons and press while playing in the shadow of Stan Musial's Cardinals that a year later he would send 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel up to the plate as a pinch-hitter. There were no "little people" on the 1950 Browns, but the Sox still had their way with them -- winning the first two games of the weekday series by scores of 20-4 and 29-4.

Boston had a devastating lineup including Ted Williams, Vern Stephens, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Billy Goodman that was enroute to compiling an incredible .302 team batting average, but this was unlike anything the Fenway Faithful had seen before. The 49 runs and 51 hits the Sox collected in the first two games of the series set major league records, as did the 29 runs and 60 total bases in the June 7 contest alone. Boston had been white-hot in the week before the Browns came to town, scoring 11 runs in consecutive games against the Indians and 17 and 12 against the White Sox. If ever there was a time to bet your paycheck on the home team, it would seem to be for the June 8 finale. It was "getaway day" for St. Louis, and it's hard to imagine a team wanting to get away more. (In 1954, in fact, they'd leave the midwest altogether and move to Baltimore.)

It only took three batters and a Williams homer for Boston to build a 2-0 lead against Browns starter Ned Garver, and the Sox led 4-1 after three innings. But Garver was a better pitcher than his team deserved -- he would be the first hurler to win 20 games for a last-place, 100-loss club the next year -- and he gutted it out through seven innings and helped his teammates earn back some of their dignity with a 12-7 victory. Ned even hit a home run, and the loss seemed to have a damning effect on the Sox. They dropped eight of their next nine games, including a four-game stretch in which they scored just five runs.

What does it all mean? Don't count your runs before they go up on the Wall, or as Yogi Berra would say:  "In baseball you don't know nothing!"

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How I lost my girlfriend to Dwight Gooden: a cautionary All-Star Game tale

From the BR Archives

It was July of 1984, and the first Red Sox team of my lifetime without Carl Yastrzemski in its lineup was struggling along at under .500 and nearly 20 games behind the Tigers. By the All-Star break it was clear that the Sox had no shot in the AL East, but my mind wasn't really on baseball anyway.

This was shaping up to be the best summer of my life. A few months before I had turned 17 and gotten my driver's license, and my brother had bequeathed me his beloved 1973 Olds Delta 88 convertible. Despite rusting floorboards and a leaky roof, this royal blue behemoth  was among the coolest and most recognizable cars  at Newton North High School. I dubbed it The Cruising Vessel in deference to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and felt sure it would land me a girlfriend just like Brad Hamilton's. I was far from the coolest guy on campus -- picture a mop-topped Ben Stiller in the early scenes  of "Something About Mary," but the car gave me a new found confidence that would quickly pay dividends.

Driving home one day just before school let out in June, my buddy Marc and I passed two girls we recognized as among the best-looking sophomores in school. We asked them if they wanted a ride home, and this being The Cruising Vessel they naturally jumped right in. A few days later we took them out for a Saturday night drive, and the car worked its magic. This was the first time I had ever dated a girl from my own school, and I envisioned several months of summer bliss followed by a triumphant senior year of walking down halls hand-in-hand with the lovely Miss X.

While I was daydreaming about kissing in the corridors, another teenager just a couple years out of high school was blazing his way across a much bigger stage. Mets rookie Dwight Gooden was striking out batters at a rate no 19-year-old (or few pitchers of any age) had approached before. By the break he already had  133 whiffs in just 111 innings, and nobody was surprised when he was named to the National League All-Star squad. I was aware of Gooden's feats but did not plan to see him perform n the Mid-Summer Classic; my mother was going to be away for the night, and Miss X and I would have the house to ourselves.

Then it happened. Somewhere in the middle of a marathon makeout session I reverted to my Stiller-esque awkwardness and felt a compulsion to reach for the remote and turn on the game. Maybe I was nervous about trying to work my way around the bases (I was mostly a singles hitter at this point), or maybe I just wanted a brief respite before I continued blazing my way to manhood. But when the old Zenith warmed up and I saw the thin, pinstripped Gooden striding the mound, I momentarily forgot all about Miss X and watched the Doc do his thing. When Gooden struck out Lance Parrish, the play-by-play broadcaster (it wasn't Phil Rizzuto, but it should have been given the situation) informed us that NL pitchers had now fanned four straight batters -- Fernando Valenzuela having struck out the side in the previous inning.

After Gooden punched out Chet Lemon, references were being made to Carl Hubbell's five straight strikeouts in the 1935 All-Star Game. Granted, Parrish, Lemon, and the next guy up (Al Davis) were no Boggs, Brett, and Carew, but this was still a little piece of baseball history in the making. Gooden bore down, I leaned forward, and when Davis swung and missed for strike three I pumped my fist and spun around. That's when I noticed Miss X, the smile gone from her beautiful face and her eyebrows raised in what could only be interpreted as polite bafflement. I quickly switched off the game, but it was too late. The mood was gone, and not even Lionel Richie was going to bring it back. When I dropped her off that night I got a peck on the cheek, and a few days later the game was over. My September dreams were dashed.

Gooden would haunt me again a few years later when his Mets did in the Red Sox in the World Series, but by this point I had learned my lesson. Until I had either sealed the deal or knew a girl was a bonafide baseball fan, I was keeping my clicker in my pocket no matter how big the game.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Send in the Bard!

You could practically see John Farrell chuckling in the Blue Jays dugout during the top of the ninth on Tuesday as Curt Young left the pitching mound alone.

No one takes Jonathan Papelbon out of a game. Farrell (with Pap below) didn't have the guts to do it when he was pitching coach, and neither does Young. In fact, Papelbon has not been taken out of a game without blowing a save since 2007.

Jonathan Papelbon under the watchful eye of Farrel, last year.
Now Papelbon technically didn't blow the game Tuesday, and he didn't blow it last night, either. Both times, however, he let runners cross the plate and put multiple players into scoring position. Tuesday was especially ugly and the rockiest save I have ever seen in my life. He lucked out on some fast fielding by Darnell McDonald, and the call of the home plate umpire who saw Edwin Encarnacion as out and not safe at home plate. From where I was, Encarnacion slid his leg past Jason Varitek before he was tagged, but that’s not how the umpire saw it. If the call had gone the other way, he would have two blown saves by now and not one.

Am I saying that I don't like Jonathan Papelbon? Not at all -- I think he's a superb closer. Last year was his worst so far, and he still only blew eight of his forty five opportunities.  But forty-five is the second-to-highest number of regular season save opportunities he's ever had. Maybe it’s time we started using him a bit less?

"Closer-in-Waiting" Dan Bard.
It's not that we need to use him less -- but rather, that we can. Why continue to pitch Papelbon in every single save situation when our “closer-in-waiting,” Dan Bard (at right), has matured to the point where he can assume some of the closer duties? 
Why waste a natural closer who can pitch upwards of 100 mph on the 8th inning? Why not share the 9th and not give Papelbon the opportunity to blow as many saves as last year. I would hate to hear people start booing when “Shipping Up to Boston” begins to play, lets save him from ever having to hear it, too.

As Boston fans, we are quick to jeer as soon as players we regularly follow with blind adoration begin to fail. If Big Papi is in a slump we call him “Big Pop Up.” When JD Drew isn't playing the way he could, or is suffering from injuries, we call him “Nancy.” As of yet, I haven't heard any word play regarding Papelbon's name, and honestly I can't think of anything clever that doesn't involve gynecology, which is even more reason why we should prevent this from ever happening.

Regardless of the player, once they begin to play well again, the familiar posters will return and flood the park. It doesn't matter how many times Ellsbury broke his ribs, the second he's back up in the majors the “Marry Me Jacoby!” signs resurface. As soon as Ortiz is slugging again, his pop ups are forgotten and the whole house is cheering. And sometimes, when he's playing well, we remember to say nice things about JD, too.

Like the song that plays three minutes after Papelbon successfully records a save, says:
“Don't blame us if we ever doubt you, you know we couldn't live without you...”

Red Sox fans are quick to see flaws in our players. So even for the sake of our fickle fanbase alone, we should give Jonathan Papelbon a few nights rest.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fireworks at Fenway in '77

Fenway was never a ballpark that went in for post-game fireworks, but on July 4th of '77 the nylon-uni Boys of Zimmer put on their own pyrotechnic display with eight homers in a 9-6 victory over the brand-new Blue Jays. All the shots came between the fifth and eighth inning, and included two for Scott, two for Lynn, and one each by Rice, Hobson, Carbo (a pinch-hit shot, naturally) and Yaz. This was back in the days when Fenway bleacher brawls seemed to increase with the temperature, and with thermometers pushing 90 and a Monday off from work it's a safe bet there were plenty of fists flying as well as baseballs on Yawkey Way.

The slugfest came just after a June stretch in which the Red Sox hit 33 homers in 10 days to strike fear into the heart of Billy Martin's Brownshirts. But while Rice (39), Scott (33), Hobson (30 from the ninth spot!) Yaz (28), and Fisk (26) all wound up topping 25 homers back when that really meant something, the Sox would finish up just short by year's end due to a thin pitching staff whose top winner was relief ace Bill Campbell.

Do any of you have memories of the slugging summer of '77? Did you catch a tater from Boomer, see one of Carbo's three pinch-hit shots at Fenway, or chat with Bill Lee from the bleachers? Feel free to comment below or shoot me an email at and maybe you'll be our next guest blogger.