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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just call him Lefty Wakefield

As Tim Wakefield continues to run into bad innings and bad luck in his quest to join the ranks of 200-win pitchers, he can take comfort in knowing he's in good company: 70 years ago, another Boston hurler struggled to reach a major milestone.

Robert Moses "Lefty" Grove was 41 years old and nearing the end of a brilliant career when he suited up for the 1941 Red Sox. He had gone just 7-6 for Boston the year before, a record which left him seven wins shy of 300. Like Wake, Grove had a great lineup behind him featuring Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Cronin, and although he had next to nothing left on his fastball, he started off strong and notched victory No. 299 at Philadelphia on July 3.

The All-Star Game at Detroit interrupted Lefty's quest, but the southpaw seemed poised to reach the magic circle when Boston faced the Tigers in Motor City on July 11. Amazingly, just 4,083 were on hand at Briggs Stadium, and they saw a great duel between Lefty and Bobo Newsome of the Tigers. Both pitchers hurled complete-game six-hitters, but Newsome got slightly stronger support in a 2-0 win. Grove, famous for his surly disposition in defeat, likely knocked around a few things after this one.

Lefty's next chance came at Chicago on July 18, and again he pitched well enough to win -- allowing just two earned runs in a complete-game effort against the White Sox. Unfortunately, errors by Foxx and outfielder Lou Finney led to two more tallies and a 4-3 White Sox win. Sportswriters and fans pondered whether "Old Man Grove" would ever get the big one.

Before Grove next took the hill on July 25 at Fenway against the Indians, manager Cronin told him "Pop, this is a nine-inning game. I'm not taking coming out to get you." As a Friday afternoon crowd of about 10,000 watched on, the visitors took a 4-0 lead after three innings, but Cronin was true to his word. Grove kept battling, and eventually the Sox came back to win with a four-run seventh -- the key hit a two-run triple by Lefty's best buddy, Foxx. The old man pitched a complete-game 12-hitter.

Just the 12th 300-game winner in history, Grove took the game ball for safekeeping, as he had from each of his previous 299 big-league victories. Cooperstown requested it, however, so Lefty obliged -- and with his set now broken up, gave out the other 299 to kids around his neighborhood.  He never won another game, and retired after the season.

Fans hope Wakefield has at least eight victories left in his rubber arm -- enough to overtake Cy Young and Roger Clemens atop the list of Boston's all-time winners -- but right now they'd settle for just one. Next stop on the Wake Watch: Texas on Thursday.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blood on the Diamond

The scary incident last night in which Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a hard one-hopper off Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak's face -- leaving Smoak with a broken nose and potentially more injuries -- got me thinking about moments in which blood has been spilled on the Fenway diamond in this manner.

One jumps immediately to mind. On Sept. 8, 2000, I was watching the Sox-Yankees game on TV when Red Sox reliever Bryce Florie was hit flush in the face by a Ryan Thompson line drive. Florie went down in a heap behind the mound, and scenes of his bloodied, stunned face (he suffered multiple broken bones and a severely damaged eye) were played over and over on ESPN and NESN during the next several days.

 Florie, to his credit, returned to pitch in Boston the next year, but he was ineffective and released in August. He never pitched in the majors again, but he also didn't gave up, hanging on in the minors for several effective years. Here's a nice video about his last comeback, for the '07 Macon Music of the Independent League (Warning: there is footage of his 2000 injury):

Of course the other big one people think of is Tony C. It's been described in countless books including mine so I'll just reflect on it a bit here. I interviewed Billy Conigliaro for Fenway Centennial, and he told me that the entire family was at the August 18, 1967 game when his big brother and future Red Sox teammate was struck by a Jack Hamilton pitch. I had always assumed that everybody knew right away how serious the injury was, but Billy's memory indicates this was not the case. "He got hit all the time," explained Billy C. of Tony, who crowded the plate. "We just figured he'd get up and brush it off like he always did." Tony did get back up, with brilliant results, but it  took a lot longer this time -- his next game at Fenway was in April of '69.

Another near-fatal incident started on the Fenway diamond but wound up in the stands. On August 7, 1982, Boston first baseman Dave Stapleton hit a foul ball into the second row of box seats by the Red Sox dugout that struck 4-year-old Jonathan Keane of Greenland, NH in the head. It was apparent very quickly that Keane needed help, and it came from an unexpected source. Rice sprinted into the stands, grabbed the boy, and ran carrying him into the Red Sox clubhouse --  where Keane was examined by team physician Arthur Pappas and then loaded into an ambulance headed for Children's Hospital Boston in two minutes. Rice played the rest of the game with blood on his jersey, and responded to reporters' inquiries after the game by posing his own question: "If it was your kid, what would you do?"

Keane suffered a lacerated skull and a laceration over his left eye, but in time he recovered and returned to Fenway to throw out the first pitch at a later game (with Rice at his side). Pappas credited Rice's cool head and quick actions for saving the boy's life, and all who saw the drama unfold had one more reason to respect the future Hall of Fame slugger.

Were you at any of these games? Have your own scary Fenway memory to share? Let's hear about them.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is Jacoby the new Lynn...or the new Nomar?

It's official. Not counting Kevin Youkilis -- who has a one-of-a-kind cheer -- the Red Sox player getting the loudest and longest applause from Fenway crowds these days is Jacoby Ellsbury.

Yesterday, after picking up their "HELP US OBI-WAN JACOBY!" K cards outside the park, fans serenaded their newest idol with raucous applause as he led off the bottom of the first against CC Sabathia. Ellsbury answered with a fly out to deep right, but by the end of the day he would have six RBI besides his name on my scorecard. Twice in the game, first with a three-run homer off Sabathia in the third and then with a two-run single in the eighth, he gave the Red Sox the breathing room they needed to re-tie the Yankees atop the AL East. In his last two at-bats, fans greeted the sweet-swinger speedster with standing ovations.

Fans, bloggers, and sportswriters are justifiably gushing over Ellsbury's breakthrough season, which now has him on pace to finish with nearly 30 homers and more than 100 RBI from the leadoff spot. Dan Shaughnessy called him "the new Fred Lynn" in today's Boston Globe, but as much as I loved watching Lynn at Fenway, I think a much more apt comparison for Ellsbury's 2011 production would be the rookie season of another leadoff guy everybody seems to have forgotten: Nomar Garciaparra.

Look it up. Before he was moved down to the middle of the order, Nomar batted first for Boston in 152 of his 153 games played during 1997. The American League Rookie of the Year set a MLB record with 98 RBI from the top spot, and led the AL with 209 hits and 11 triples. He finished second on the club (behind Mo Vaughn) with 30 homers, and also had 122 runs scored, 44 doubles, and a .306 average -- all figures right in line with Ellsbuy's current pace. And while he was never in Jacoby's class as a base stealer, Garciappara managed to swipe 22 that year.

The two seasons almost mirror each other (except for triples), yet I have not seen one reference made to Nomar's rookie year when assessing Ellsbury. Perhaps the Lynn comparisons are more logical from a purely visual standpoint -- given both men are movie star handsome and roam the Fenway outfield -- but in terms of sheer numbers and their spot in the order, it is the freshman campaign of Boston's former iconic shortstop which serves as the best reference point. Besides, you need only hear the first name of Nomar or Jacoby to identify them; you can't say that about a guy named Fred.

Does Ellsbury have two batting titles in his future? Will he become the face of the franchise like Garciaparra? Only time will tell; for now, fans can enjoy watching a terrific season continue unfolding.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Go the F*ck to Sleep – After “Sox in 2”

               Like countless other night owls and insomniacs, I had taken advantage of NESN’s “Sox in 2” feature numerous times before this morning. There had always been one caveat, however: I knew the final score.
 I enjoyed watching a game in the timeframe the architects of baseball had intended – two hours or less – but either before or during the rebroadcast I had already learned the end result. Whether I watched or listened in “real time” or caught the final score on the news or net, there was no mystery waiting for me at 2 a.m. This allowed me to channel surf with no concerns I’d miss something magic like the time I saw word of Carl Yastrzemski’s 3,000th hit come scrolling along the bottom of a long-forgotten sitcom (Happy Days? Laverne and Shirley?) after I had badly timed a surfing session – or maybe you’d call it a dial-twist -- back in September of ’79.

But last night was different. When I went into my daughter’s room to read a few pages of “Judy Moody” around 9:50 p.m., the Sox trailed the Yankees 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh. After several pleas of “just one more page” I managed to get her light off and then promptly fell asleep at the foot of her bed. By the time I awoke it was 11:56 p.m. and I went to check for the final score from Fenway. Then I stopped myself. What if I actually watched “Sox in 2” all the way through without knowing the final score? Could I do it? I vowed to try.
Hunkering down in front of my bedroom flat screen with the volume down low (sleeping wife) and a pile of unread magazines at my feet, I breezed through the first six familiar innings with a little surfing thrown in (the last 30 minutes of “Secretariat” – another case where I knew the ending). I started paying more attention in the seventh, of course, and as the Sox tried to break through against the New York bullpen and Steven Tyler adjusted his ridiculous cowboy hat for the umpteenth time from behind home plate, I stopped myself just before checking my iPhone for emails and started congratulating myself for a job well done. I was going to make it to the end clueless and content.
Then, in the top of the ninth, I made a cardinal sin of “Sox in 2” mystery viewing – I looked at the clock. It was 1:51 a.m. when Russell Martin flew out to Crawford for New York’s third out, and by the time the Sox came up against Rivera it was already 1:53 and counting. I knew based on the timeframe that this game was not going into extra innings – in fact, it was likely the Sox were going to go down quickly or win in dramatic fashion. There was no time for any other conclusion; the show was going to be over in seven minutes, and even a series of singles off the Sandman would take longer than that. But while some of the mystery had been revealed, watching the DVD clock just below the screen actually added another layer of excitement to the proceedings. If the Sox were destined to win on a walk-off, who would deliver it – and how?

Papi grounded out, but then Crawford reached on an infield single. 1:56. Salty was called out on strikes. 1:58. Reddick stepped in and I thought, “OK, this is it. He has to either homer or get out. Nothing else fit the timeframe. One strike. Two strikes. I leaned forward as Rivera leaned back, and there it was at 1:59… a called third strike.

Things didn’t turn out like I wanted, but I was still proud of my efforts. I felt like calling my brother-in-law, who has made a fall ritual of DVR-ing Michigan football games, avoiding all electronic and human contact, and then watching the Wolverines in peace and commerical free after his three kids have finished their Saturday slew of soccer games or other activities. I thought back to the summer of 1997 when I had concert tickets in town the same night as Roger Clemens’ return to Boston with the Blue Jays. I put in a video cassette and went to the show (long since forgotten), figuring I would have another great performance to watch when I got home. I had a momentary shock around 10:00 when Dan Shaughnessy walked in and sat down a row in front of me; knowing he must have come from Fenway, I avoided looking at him lest his facial expressions or lips give a clue to what had transpired. What he actually recognized me and said hello, I quickly yelled, “Don’t say anything, Dan!” and he smiled. He must have known what I was up to.
 And after a radio-free drive home, I made some popcorn, sat down, and watched the Rocket mow down his old teammates. After Clemens fanned Mo Vaughn to give him 16 Ks through 8 innings, I grabbed the phone to call a buddy I knew was watching until I realized it was 2:30 in the morning. Ah, there is a kink in the system – you have to have a friend watching “Sox in 2” to enjoy any mid-game analysis by phone or text.
I won’t be needing “Sox in 2” today, as I’ll be over at Fenway watching the Sox try and even things atop the East against Sabbathia. But with a babysitter due at 7:00 and my wife making dinner plans, I am kind of hoping that Lackey and Co. can speed things up a bit without the magic of video.