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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Where does Ellsbury's 2011 rank among all-time Red Sox lead-off seasons?

We're all wondering what Bobby Valentine's Opening Day lineup is going to look like, and while the new skipper isn't divulging anything yet, there is speculation among fans that Jacoby Ellsbury will be vacating the lead-off spot. If he does, he'll be a tough No. 1 man to top.

The Sox were a major disappointment in 2011, but Ellsbury -- already a proven hitter and two-time stolen base champ -- emerged as a superstar. The fleet center fielder batted .321 with 32 homers, 39 steals, and 105 RBI, great numbers for anybody but outstanding for someone who spent 144 of his 158 games atop the batting order. When the rest of the team was free-falling, he hit .358 with 8 homers in September.

Throw in his Gold Glove, and it's no surprise Ells was runner up to Justin Verlander in the MVP voting. How does Ellsbury's season rank among the best by Red Sox leadoff man in history? Let's take a look at the Top 10:
10. Patsy Dougherty, 1903: When talking great Sox leadoff men, it makes sense to start with one of the first. Dougherty patrolled left field for Boston at the old Huntington Avenue Grounds, and in 1903 he helped the Sox (then known as the Americans) to the AL pennant with a .331 average and a league-best 195 hits and 107 runs scored. 

He wasn't done yet. In the first modern World Series that followed, Dougherty hit Boston's only two home runs as the Sox prevailed in eight games over Pittsburgh. 
9. Jerry Remy, 1982: The Fall River, Mass. native was just 25 when he first suited up for the Red Sox, but injuries prevented the speedy, steady second baseman from a lengthy career. The '82 season was an exception, as the 5'8" Remy managed to get into 155 games and bat .280 with 16 steals from the top of the order.
8. Rick Burleson, 1977: The "Rooster" did not have the speed of a prototypical leadoff man, but this slick-fielding shortstop with a rifle arm was the Dustin Pedroia of his day—a 165-pound hell-raiser who was always at the center of the action. In '77, setting the table for a powerful Red Sox lineup that led the majors with 213 home runs, Burleson hit .293 with his usual stellar defense.
7. Harry Hooper, 1918: Hooper covered the right side of Boston's "Golden Outfield" that also included left fielder Duffy Lewis and center fielder Tris Speaker. A consistent .280 hitter with speed and outstanding defensive skills, Hooper led off for four World Series champions in Boston—more than any other Red Sox player.

In 1918 he hit just .235, but was among the American League’s top 10 in doubles, triples, runs scored and stolen bases as Boston claimed its last Series win of the pre-curse era. In 1971, Hooper made the Hall of Fame.

6. Wade Boggs, 1984: Wade Boggs usually batted second or third in the Red Sox lineup, but in '84 the future Hall of Famer was predominantly
in the leadoff spot in front of sluggers Dwight Evans, Jim Rice and Tony Armas. 
This was actually an "off" year for Boggs at the plate, as The Chicken Man batted .325 to finish third in the American League. It was the only year between 1983-88 that he didn't win the AL batting title, but he still had his customary 200 hits and 100 runs scored—good enough numbers to make this list.

5. Billy Weber, 1934: Among the first of many players purchased by new Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey in 1933-34, third baseman Werber (on left above, with manager Joe Cronin) had a terrific debut season at Fenway—leading the AL in batting, stolen bases and runs scored for most of the '34 season atop the Boston order.

A broken toe suffered when he kicked a heavy water bucket in the dugout after a bad at-bat slowed Werber down late in the year, but he still finished with a .321 average, 200 hits, 41 doubles, 10 triples and a league-best 40 steals. He later topped another impressive list, achieving status as the oldest former major leaguer before his January 2009 death at age 100.
4. Dom DiMaggio, 1950: Usually considered by those who saw them all play to be the best defensive player among the three slick-fielding DiMaggio brothers—and one of the best center fielders in history—Dom was also an exceptional leadoff man for the great near-miss Red Sox teams of 1946-50.
The 1950 season was no exception, as the "Little Professor" led the AL with 131 runs scored, 11 triples and 15 stolen bases while batting .328 setting the table for buddies Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr. If it had not been for the three years he spent in the service during World War II, Dom might have joined Bobby, Ted and brother Joe in the Hall of Fame.
3. Tommy Harper, 1973: After Werber's 40 steals in 1934, it took nearly 40 years for another Red Sox player to crack the 30 mark in one season. When he did, Harper was far from finished.
The left fielder swiped 54 bags as Boston's lead-off man in '73, breaking Tris Speaker's 1912 team record of 52 and leading the American League. Harper also hit with power, cracking 17 homers and collecting 71 RBI. Like Speaker, his team steals record would stand a long time—until obliterated by Ellsbury's 70 in 2009.

2. Nomar Garciaparra, 1997: Before he became a chiseled Sports Illustrated cover boy, Nomar Garciaparra started out his big-league life as a lean leadoff man during his rookie year of 1997.
Everybody knew he had a strong glove, but the shortstop amazed everyone with his bat. He had 30 home runs and 98 RBI—the latter a record for a leadoff batter—and led the AL with 209 hits and 11 triples. He also scored 122 runs, had 22 stolen bases and had a 30-game hit streak. "Nomah" was a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year, and his days as a leadoff man were soon over.

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, 2011: It's hard for a No. 1 batter to top a year like Nomah had in '97, but Ellsbury gets the edge for his '11 campaign.
In becoming the first 30-30 man in the 110-year history of the Red Sox, Ellsbury led the AL with 364 total bases and compiled a .552 slugging percentage. And while he couldn't edge out Justin Verlander for MVP, he was a runaway choice for AL Comeback Player of the Year after playing in just 18 games during 2010 due to injuries.
Will Ells be back atop the Boston order in 2012, or will his potent bat tempt Valentine to drop him down a few slots to the middle of the lineup? As of early March, Bobby V. isn't saying.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tek, Wake, and the March to Middle Age

Clearing snow off my windshield in the shadow of Fenway Park, I listened to Jason Varitek’s retirement speech on the cranked-up car radio. Tek’s voice cracked at the mention of his daughters and teammates, and I felt something crack inside me as well.

At the time I thought it was just sadness over a second two-time Red Sox champion hanging up his spikes in as many weeks. In retrospect, I realized it was something far more meaningful.

As a just-miss baby boomer born in April of 1967, my life as a Sox fan can be measured through the careers of four special players.

From the time I played with hot wheels through the time I got my first real wheels, Carl Yastrzemski was spinning his bat and tugging at his pants in the Fenway batter’s box. The spring after Yaz hung up his cleats in ’83, a brash young flamethrower from Texas emerged to provide great thrills for the next dozen years – blowing away batters as I moved through high school, college, and my early years as a sportswriter. 

I was often far from Boston in those days, but even in the sticks of Jamesville, New York, or Frederick, Maryland, a glance at a newspaper pitching line that started with “Clemens” was all I needed to feel the rush of Yawkey Way. I eventually scored a big-city job and a relationship I thought would last forever; when the latter didn't, I left the former and returned to Boston and the next phase of my life.

This was the summer of '95. Rumors were swirling that Clemens would be leaving town at season's end, and I was among the horde giving him a standing ovation as he left what would be his last Fenway start that September. But as one pitching stalwart departed, another emerged.

Tim Wakefield was more flutter than fire, but he still made hitters look foolish in starting his Red Sox career 14-1. He was also just a few months older than myself, and since he looked and acted more like a “regular guy” than a star ballplayer, I took an instant liking to him. He took my mind off my heartbreak.

Just a month after Wake and the Sox were bounced from the playoffs that fall, I met my wife. And just a month after we got engaged in June of '97, Boston GM Dan Duquette made the heist of the decade in picking up pitcher Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek from the Mariners for underachieving bullpen ace Heathcliff Slocumb.
Wakefield and Varitek would remain with the team through the next 15 seasons -- a period of dramatic change for the team and myself. I got married, bought a house, and watched the birth of my children just a few blocks from Fenway. I didn't name my son Jason (born in spring training of 2001) after Boston's gritty catcher, but I didn't mind if some people thought so. And when the Red Sox rallied to beat the Blue Jays the night of my daughter's August 16, 2004, birth, and on the next day as well behind a Varitek home run, it started a 22-3 stretch I deemed "The Rachel Effect."

Rachel and Jason were both watching with me when Varitek leaped into Keith Foulke's arms that October, and again when Tek and Jonathan Papelbon danced for joy three years later. Wakefield was also a big part of those World Series teams, of course, and my respect for him grew as I became a firsthand witness to the time and joy he brought young cancer patients in the Jimmy Fund Clinic at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This, I explained to my kids, was the sign of a real hero.

Most people hoped their trips to Fenway coincided with a Pedro Martinez or Jon Lester start, and while I certainly enjoyed watching these men at work, I also loved seeing Wake take the hill. You never knew what you were going to get, nor did the batters, but his efforts were a lesson in determination. Varitek was also a pleasure to observe, as much for his take-charge attitude behind the plate as for his clutch hitting.

Long before most people took notice of his growing victory total, I began telling my kids and anybody else who would listen that Wakefield had a chance to win more games than any other Red Sox pitcher. After all, I implored, fellow knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm had lobbed them up until he was nearly 50. I also had high hopes for Varitek managing to scrape together enough homers and All-Star selections to merit Hall of Fame consideration.

Neither of them quite reached these goals, but even if they don't make it to Cooperstown they both hold a special place on my list of all-time favorite Red Sox. Just as Yaz defined my youth and Clemens my early adulthood, Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield carried me through to the cusp of middle age. I have far less hair and a few more pounds than in '97, but plenty of great memories.

Thanks for the ride.