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Monday, May 27, 2013

The One Thing I Don't Miss About Terry Francona

Tito is at it again.

As expected, Terry Francona received a tremendous welcome back from Red Sox fans and players at Fenway Park this past weekend. I was among those cheering, but Tito's return also reminded me of the one thing that drove me crazy about the best manager in team history: 

Here's a hint -- it rhymes with brew.

Francona's bulging cheeks made it clear that his love of chewing has not subsided with his move from Boston to Cleveland. It seemed like nearly every time the Fenway cameras panned to the visitor's dugout during the Red Sox-Indians series, Tito was either leaning over to spit or reaching behind the far left wall to grab something else to stuff in his mouth. On those rare occasions when he was doing neither, his face resembled a cross between Popeye and Don Zimmer.

Zimmer's cheeks could rival anyone's.

I'm not 100 percent sure what it is Francona is chewing -- smokeless tobacco, bubble gum, or a combination of both (I know that sounds gross, but a lot of guys do it). I recall that years ago while with the Red Sox, Tito expressed an interest in quitting tobacco and even made a bet that he'd give a big check to the Jimmy Fund if he couldn't kick the habit. I'm not sure how that came out but he's clearly still putting something in there at a rapid rate.

Why does this disturb me so much? First off, it's just plain gross. I remember when my brother chewed and carried a Dixie cup everywhere to spit in. He's since quit the habit, thank goodness, but I've never forgotten the vile smell or the look of his half-filled cups. Seeing Francona in action reminds me of those days.

Tito in action for Boston.

Then of course there is the bad impression it makes. Since it's unclear at quick glance whether Francona is chewing tobacco, there are countless kids across New England (and now Ohio) who have undoubtedly emulated their favorite manager by getting in the dipping habit with the real thing. My 8-year-old daughter prefers a generous wad of Big League Chew bubble gum when she's playing softball, but teenagers (especially boys) will likely opt for the "real stuff" found in smoke shops and many pharmacies.

If you don't know about the health concerns of chewing tobacco, let's put it this way -- if you are a fan of your jaw, tongue, and cheeks, you shouldn't be dipping. Bill Tuttle, a big league outfielder who usually looked like he had baseballs in his cheeks, died at age 69 after oral cancer had claimed a big chunk of his face. He devoted his last years to preaching on the ills of tobacco, and hopefully lots of kids got the message. 

Here's Tuttle before....

and after his career....

Recently, USA Today baseball writer Paul White mentioned in a column that Francona is once again trying to quit. To check his progress, I situated myself directly across the diamond from the visitor's dugout at Fenway last Saturday and looked in at Francona through a pair of trusty WWII-era binoculars. My reconnaissance mission did not determine the source of Tito's bulging cheeks, just that he is spitting and stuffing as much as ever.

On the lookout for gum or dip.

All of us who loved the guy for the joy he brought Boston (and now Cleveland) can only hope that it's Big League Chew he's reaching for more than the bad stuff.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sox in Six: Most Electric Red Sox Pitchers of Last 50 Years

Buchholz's record is still unblemished.

In leading the Red Sox to victory in Chicago during the final game of a nine-game road trip last night, Clay Buchholz ran his early-season record to 7-0. 

Buchholz's white-hot start, which includes a 1.73 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 72.2 innings, is one of the best in franchise history. It also has Red Sox fans wondering -- is the wiry right-hander ready to join the list of elite pitchers in Red Sox annals?

These are the guys who didn't just win big games, but had the ballpark buzzing before they even walked in from the bullpen. 

Today's Sox in Six focuses on the most electric Red Sox pitchers of the past half-century:

Dick Radatz
Mickey Mantle gave Radatz his nickname -- "the Monster" -- after striking out for what seemed like the 100th straight time against the big right-hander. 

Actually, Mickey whiffed 44 times in 63 at-bats against Radatz, but you get the idea. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds (and likely larger), Radatz was a menacing figure on the mound, and he had the stuff to back up the big shadow he cast.

As a reliever with the Red Sox in the 1960s, Radatz was so overpowering that he drew standing ovations each time he came in from the Fenway bullpen. No matter what the score, fans would wait around to see if the Monster would make an appearance.

The Sox of this era were awful, but Radatz was still one of the best pitchers in baseball -- going 40-21 with 78 saves from 1962-64 with a 2.17 ERA and 487 strikeouts in 414 innings. In the era before closers and set-up men, he'd often pitch two or three innings for several nights in a row. 

The Monster flamed out before Yaz and the Impossible Dream team of 1967 revived Boston baseball. It's hard to imagine how good this guy could have been on a decent team.

Luis Tiant
Tiant was the David Ortiz of the 1970s Red Sox, a big-hearted jokster who was a clubhouse leader and a cold-hearted killer in the clutch. 

The Cuban righty with the crazy wind-up and a seemingly endless array of arm angles and deliveries won 20 games three times between 1973-76, and nearly pitched Boston to a title in the '75 World Series with two complete-game victories (plus seven more gritty innings) against the mighty Cincinnati Reds.

Posessing a Fu Manchu mustache and a visible passion for the game, "El Tiante" was a Fenway favorite who elicited loud cries of "LOOOOOOUIE!" from his adoring fans. Despite having lost his best fastball by his mid-30s he could still out-think the opposition and occasionally blow batters away.

Down the stretch of a season there was no one better -- as evidenced by Tiant's stellar .675 winning percentage in September/October. When Boston ownership let Louie walk after the '78 season, team captain Carl Yastrzemski lamented the loss of "our heart and soul."

Roger Clemens

Long before anybody was talking about steroids, Clemens was the heir to fellow Texan Nolan Ryan as the best power pitcher in the game.

"The Rocket" emerged from injuries early in his career to have one of the best seasons any pitcher could hope for in 1986 -- going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts (including a 9-inning record of 20 on April 29). Like Tiant, he nearly led Boston to a title before the nightmare at Shea Stadium that October. 

The "K" cards flew often at Fenway during Clemens' heyday, as he averaged 239 strikeouts between 1986-92 while going 136-63 with a 2.66 ERA and notching three Cy Young Awards (as well as the '86 MVP). When the Red Sox struggled with an anemic offense in the early '90s, the Rocket often carried the club on his broad shoulders but also lost plenty of low-scoring games.

His Boston years ended ugly, with a drop-off in performance and conditioning that GM Dan Duquette saw as the beginning of his end, and the doping revelations of recent years have perhaps forever tainted Clemens' image. At his youthful peak, however, there was no one better.

Pedro Martinez
Starts by Martinez at Fenway were more than just ballgames -- they were happenings. 

Saluted with thunderous ovations and the waving of countless Dominican flags, Pedro was slight in stature at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds but a giant on the mound. Like perhaps no pitcher since Sandy Koufax, he dominated hitters to the point where it almost didn't seem fair. 

Whether in a pennant race (17 strikeouts at Yankee Stadium in September 1999) or an exhibition (whiffs of five elite NL batters in the '99 All-Star Game), "The Dominican Dandy" delivered a great show. Just as Babe Ruth once out-homered entire teams, Pedro made a mockery of the ERA race by dwarfing all other pitchers in runs allowed (including a 1.74 to 3.70 edge over runner-up Roger Clemens in 2000).

Martinez's '99 season (23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts in 213 innings) was his coronation as the game's greatest hurler, and although injuries and careful managers kept his innings down in later years, he was still an elite pitcher on many occasions -- and a key part of the team that finally ended Boston's 86-year World Series title drought in 2004. 

Curt Schilling
Whether or not they liked his right-wing politics, fans loved the right arm of the big-boned pitcher who talked big and then backed it up. 

Brought in to put Boston over the top and finally take down the Yankees, Schilling delivered -- eclipsing Martinez as the staff ace and going 21-6 for the 2004 champs. He was a power pitcher in the Clemens mold, and he shined best on the brightest stage -- going 6-1 in the postseason and helping the Red Sox to titles in '04 and 2007.  

His ALCS and World Series work in 2004 was the stuff of legend, complete with a sutured ankle and bloody socks that earned him hero status throughout New England. Schilling's problems in the business world have largely tainted that image, as have his political slants. But no teammates are giving back their rings.

Jonathan Papelbon
It's been two years since the Red Sox let Papelbon leave as a free agent, and they are still looking to replace their most dominant reliever since Dick Radatz.

When Papelbon entered most games in the ninth inning to the upbeat sounds of The Dropkick Murphys' classic "Shipping Off to Boston," Fenway fans knew in most cases they'd be hearing the victory anthem of "Dirty Water" a few minutes later. The big right-hander with the steely stare had a blazing fastball and tremendous control -- walking just 15 and striking out 88 while recording 37 regular-season saves and the final out of the 2007 World Series.

Second only to Mariano Rivera as an elite American League closer from 2006-09, Papelbon registered an outstanding aggregate 1.74 ERA and at least 35 saves each year. A big ERA jump to 3.90 in 2010 led ownership to assume his best days were behind him, and Papelbon has been proving them wrong ever since.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Sox in Six: Why Red Sox Fans Should Ignore David Ortiz Steroid Rumors

Innocent until proven guilty.

"It's like when you're winning really big at Monopoly, and people think you're stealing from the bank."

This was my 8-year-old daughter's response when I asked her for an example of when someone doing well might be unfairly accused of cheating. I posed the question after reading Dan Shaughnessy's column in Wednesday's Boston Globe, in which he detailed his locker room steroids chat with David Ortiz the previous afternoon. 

Since Ortiz emerged from seven months on the shelf nursing a bad heel to hit .426 in his first 14 games back in the Red Sox lineup, Shaughnessy posed, it was only natural that people suspect steroids were fueling the comeback. Ortiz denied any doping, and while I give Shaughnessy credit for questioning the slugger to his face, I felt the exchange deserved a paragraph low in Tuesday's game notes rather than a bold, top-of-the-fold headline.

Why should Red Sox fans ignore the steroids talk surrounding Ortiz's big start? That's the subject of today's Sox in Six.

He's following the rules -- and passing the tests

Unlike his old buddy, Ortiz passes each test.

As Ortiz explained to Shaughnessy Tuesday, he's subject to the same random testing as all big leaguers:

"They test me all the time," Ortiz said. "They make you pee and the test your blood, too. This year I would say I've probably been tested five times, peeing. Blood, just once. That was in spring training. They don't warn you. They just show up."

This information is probably easy enough to verify. It has been speculated that conspiring ballplayers, trainers, and chemists are constantly exploring ways to beat the system, but the fact remains that Ortiz has been repeatedly tested, and found to be clean.

Being on the 2003 list doesn't make him guilty
Young Papi was careless.

After Ortiz initially avoided the steroid scandal that tarnished the reputation of other superstars including Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa, he faced his first doping accusations in May 2009 when it was revealed his name was on the sealed list of roughly 100 MLB players to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. 

The list was leaked by anonymous lawyers with knowledge of the results, who did not reveal which drugs had been detected in Ortiz's case. Within days of the news breaking Ortiz gave a heartfelt press conference in which he denied PED use but said he "definitely was a little bit careless back in those days when I was buying legal supplements and legal vitamins over the counter."

At the time Ortiz's name surfaced on the list, the New York Daily News reported that Ortiz could have been "one of eight players who were believed to have tested positive for a spiked dietary supplement in 2003, rather than for hard-core injectable steroids. The supplement 19-norandrostenedione was legal in 2003 and contained the steroid nandrolone, a hard-core performance-enhancing drug used to build muscle."

In other words, there is a good chance Ortiz did nothing wrong in '03, the year he joined the Red  Sox and had his first breakout season with 31 home runs.

His stats don't match a "typical" steroid user
Ortiz hits with more consistency today.

Ortiz has been a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy for a decade, with only two years in which his totals went up considerably (2005-06, when he had 47 and 54 homers). Most accused steroid users like A-Rod have seen their offensive output plummet in recent years with the introduction of random testing, but Papi has actually enjoyed a resurgence the past two seasons.

This was a big part of Shaughnessy's premise -- that "athletes do not get better as they mature into their late 30s." But if you look closely at Ortiz's numbers, they are not the result of his suddenly becoming stronger -- but rather his getting smarter.

Ortiz has improved as an all-around hitter 
Lefty or righty, pitchers feel Papi's power.

For most of his career, Ortiz had a tough time against left-handed pitchers. In 2004, for instance, he had 31 home runs and a .326 average against righties but only 10 homers and a .250 mark against lefties. By 2010 the disparity was worse than ever: 30 homers and a .297 average vs. righties, just TWO homers and .222 vs. lefties. 

Another hole in his game was Ortiz's inability to consistently hit the ball to left field. Like they had once done against Ted Williams, opposing teams exploited this by employing a "Papi Shift" in which the shortstop moved to the right of second base during Ortiz's at-bats and other infielders and outfielders also drifted in that direction. 

For years Ortiz struggled against the shift, but now he is rendering it useless. For the past one-and-a-half seasons, he has batted nearly .320 against lefties and is hitting the ball to left far more consistently. His pure power may not be at 54-homer strength anymore, but he's finding the holes and harming more pitchers.

He's lost weight, not gained bulk
A healthy choice for his career.

Compare a 1990 Barry Bonds baseball card with a 2002 Bonds card, and you have the poster boy for steroids. Whereas the young Bonds was trim and taut, the older version was bulky to a cartoonish degree.

Now take a look at Ortiz. In the past season, he's actually shed considerable pounds off his husky frame, which has helped him keep his bat speed quick and is not consistent with PED use. Unlike past big-boned Sox sluggers like George Scott and Mo Vaughn who fizzled quickly in their mid-30s, Ortiz realizes that stepping away from the table may be his ticket to a longer career and maybe even the Hall of Fame.

He's earned a large degree of trust
Like Brady, Ortiz commands respect.

During the past 10 years, only Tom Brady has achieved the cult status of Ortiz among Boston athletes. Big Papi has been a tower of strength on the field, a leader in the clubhouse, and a champion of the Jimmy Fund and numerous other charities. Like Brady, he's been his best in the clutch and a driving force on championship teams.

Red Sox Nation may never truly know if Papi ever cheated, or, if he did, whether he did so knowingly. In the meantime, it is no more fair to suspect him of juicing when he is hitting .426 than it is to claim he has come clean if he goes 1-for-14 -- as he has since his talk with Shaughnessy.

What is clear is this: if the Red Sox hope to have any chance of making the playoffs, they need a healthy and happy Ortiz in the middle of their batting order.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sox in Six: Balance, Daniel-San!

The Red Sox have found balance.

Remember that scene in The Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi has Daniel stand up in a row boat doing karate moves, then shakes the boat so he falls in? "Must learn balance, Daniel-san!" the  sensei yells, and while Daniel hates the chill and calls him crazy, the master's intent becomes clear a few scenes later.

Baseball is a game where titles are won by teams achieving a proper balance -- with pitching, hitting, fielding, and baserunning all playing a part. A team can always use a big star or two in the lineup or rotation, but role players who can jump in and produce when asked are also key ingredients.

As they stand today atop the American League East, the Red Sox are achieving this balance with the best record in baseball. What are the key reasons? That's the focus of today's Sox in Six: 

Passing the Buck to Buchholz

Buchholz has had near no-hit stuff this season.

Coming off yet another win last night at Toronto, Clay Buchholz is emerging as a staff ace capable of winning 20 games and maybe even a Cy Young Award.

His April was, quite simply, one of the best in Red Sox history. It was only the fourth time a Sox pitcher had five victories during the season's first month, putting Clay in the company of Josh Beckett (in 2007), Pedro Martinez (1999) and Babe Ruth (1917).

Including last night's seven shutout innings versus the Blue Jays, Buchholz ranks first in the majors in victories (6-0), second in ERA (1.01), and tied for fourth with 47 strikeouts in a MLB-high 44.2 innings. Not since Roger Clemens 2001 has a Boston pitcher had an ERA this low after six starts. 

Clemens, Martinez, and Ruth -- that's pretty good company. 

Strong Supporting Cast

Carp in contemplation.

As dominant as Buchholz has been, the true strength of the Boston rotation has been the lack of a weak link among the top foursome. Lester (4-1), Ryan Dempster (3.32 ERA), and Felix Doubront (3-0) have all been effective, going deep into games and piling up the strikeouts (the Sox had 255 in April, a team record). 

Even the fifth spot recently vacated by the oft-injured John Lackey has not been a total washout, with Lackey and Triple A Pawtucket ace Alan Webster turning in some solid efforts. Fellow fifth man Alfredo Aceves has been the only real disappointment, proving so ineffective and immature that he was sent to Pawtucket to (hopefully) regain his form. 

All told, Boston starters have an ERA hovering around 3.20 and a 16-4 record -- the best mark of any MLB starting staff. Giving the managerial reigns to a successful, well-liked pitching coach in John Farrell seems to be paying off for Red Sox ownership.      

The Lineup: Touching Them All 

Another run for the Red Sox.

While Boston pitchers keep opponents off the board, Red Sox hitters are racking up runs without the benefit of their traditionally large home run totals. 

Boston ranks just seventh in the AL (tied with Texas) with 31 homers, but is still scoring with abundance thanks to doubles (second in the AL with 61), triples (first with 9), and walks (third, with 101). Six regulars in the lineup are hitting .280 or better, and even .200 hitters Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks have had clutch hits to help win games.

The backups, when called upon, have been dependable. Outfielder/first baseman Mike Carp is hitting .480 (12-for-25), Pedro Ciriaco has provided his usual grit and versatility, and David Ross has shown pop in spelling Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher.

One would expect Carp to be leading the team with his lofty average, but that's not the case here because...

Papi is Channeling The Kid

Papi lets one rip. 

Each time the experts (and many fans) think David Ortiz's days as a huge factor in the Red Sox lineup are over, the big guy comes back to surprise us again.

A major heel injury sidelined Ortiz almost all of last year's second half, the bulk of spring training, and for the first 16 games of this season as well. Most figured it would take Papi several weeks to get back his bat speed, and his .222 average in a brief rehab stint at Pawtucket surprised no one.

What he's done since coming back to the big league lineup, however, has been nothing short of astounding. Not since Ted Williams has a Red Sox player returned from a prolonged absence with such ferocity. Ortiz is batting .487 in 10 games with 3 homers, 7 doubles, 15 RBI and a ridiculous OPS of 1.409. He also has a 22-game hitting streak dating to last year, the longest of his career.

Most hitters emerge from major injuries rusty at the plate. Papi is hotter than ever, a feat that Williams, the Hall of Famer acknowledged by many to be baseball's greatest all-time hitter, performed often during his career.

In 1941, for instance, a bad ankle hobbled The Splendid Splinter for a month during the end of spring training and the early season, but he batted .462 in his first eight games back en route to a .406 season -- the last .400 campaign in big league history.

After a Triple Crown season in 1942 (.356, 37, 137), Ted missed all of 1943-45 while a Navy pilot during World War II. He didn't skip a beat, however, coming back in 1946 to hit .342 with 38 homers.

Williams served his country yet again as a Marine fighter pilot during the Korean War, and missed most of the 1952 and '53 seasons. Unlike most big leaguers he rarely touched a baseball during his absence, yet returned late in 1953 and hit an incredible .407 with 13 home runs and 34 RBI in just 37 games.

So while Ortiz may be doing something astounding, it is not unprecedented in Red Sox history. Just ask the really old-timers at Fenway Park.

No Whining, Just Winning

 John Farrell -- still smiling after a month. 

Bobby Valentine received a nice bouquet of positive headlines when he was brought in to succeed Terry Francona as manager in 2012, but the good vibrations didn't last long.  

By the end of April, Valentine had already alienated one of the team's most popular players, Kevin Youkilis, by suggesting that the veteran known for playing hard and hurt was not putting forth his best effort. Given a chance to alter his comments, Bobby V stayed firm -- a stance that set the stage for a season of griping and sniping among the manager, players, and press.

This year's club epitomizes team harmony. The firing of Valentine and appointment of Farrell to replace him, had some pundits scratching their heads. His record in two years leading the Blue Jays was uninspiring, but Red Sox players (some of who knew him as the club's pitching coach from 2007-10) have quickly embraced his approach.

There has been literally no controversy in the clubhouse or elsewhere, a direct contrast to last year. Even those situations where problems could have emerged -- Jose Iglesias' demotion upon Drew's return from injury, despite a .450 batting average and sterling defense; Joel Hanrahan not getting back his closer's role upon his return from the DL -- have passed without incident.

Everybody is doing and saying the right thing, and those positive vibes are surely helping guys stay loose and productive. It also makes them more fun to watch than the dugout brooders of last year, because on this club there are....

No Stars, Just Success

Nava is in the thick of things. 

Yes, Ortiz is an elite player with more than 400 homers; sure Dustin Pedroia has a Rookie of the Year, MVP, and two Gold Glove trophies to his credit. Jon Lester has won a World Series clincher and appeared on several All-Star teams.

But while nobody is denying the importance these established veterans bring to the table, this is a Boston team seemingly devoid of superstar "types" -- the prima donnas that can bring down a ballclub. Papi is keeping things lose and relishing in the terrific start of new first baseman Mike Napoli -- currently leading all of baseball with 31 RBI and 14 doubles.

The breakthrough start by Daniel Nava, whose story is one filled with roadblocks to success, has been widely celebrated by his teammates, as has the re-emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury as a 50-steal threat. Everyone loves seeing Buchholz dominate, but relievers like Alex Wilson and Koji Uehara helped the club to a team record-tying 18 April wins. 

The club's improvement over this point last year is stunning. Boston was 11-14 and in last place in the AL East after 25 games in 2012, and didn't win its 18th game until May 18. There is still plenty of time for this club to falter as well, but right now the Red Sox look poised and primed to hang around.