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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pedroia takes road Vaughn should have traveled

Get used to this guy; he'll be around a while. 

I was on my honeymoon, sitting in Hawaiian paradise with a cool drink in my hand and my wife of one week at my side. 

"What's wrong?" she asked, looking up from her chaise lounge. She had seen the look on my face, but I knew only a person who understood the significance of Bobby Sprowl and Mookie Wilson in Boston sports history would be able to fully understand my angst.

"Talks with Mo Vaughn have apparently broken down for good," I said, staring at the USA Today article in my lap.

She said she was sorry, and returned to her book. I'm sure Michelle really did feel bad for me, but the true significance of the moment was lost on her. 

Mo left his Monster seasons behind in Boston.

I had heard Vaughn say "it's not about the money" on a radio show a few months before, but now the Red Sox' All-Star first baseman who was coming off a .337, 40, 115 year (and a .993 OPS before people factored in this sexy stat) had spurned an offer of five years and $62.5 million to resign. As a free agent, he planned to see what else was out there. 

Nearly 15 years later, I still remember the emptiness I felt as I searched around the pool for someone in a "Thanks Yaz" painter's cap with whom I could commiserate. I had no luck, but since I'm still married I guess i got over it somehow.

Cano could break the bank; that's OK with Petey.

In signing an eight-year contract extension this week, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia did more than secure his own place of employment through 2021. He made a statement: even though he would have likely stood to make much more than a $14 million average annual salary were he to wait until his Yankees counterpart Robinson Cano signed his next deal as a free agent deal this coming winter, Pedroia decided to stay put. 

More money would be nice, I imagine he thought, but why take a chance on blowing something so great? In Boston he has a team that is almost always competitive, a passionate fan base that loves him, and a ballpark very well-suited to his talents. None of this would be guaranteed were he to leave, even if his pockets were better lined.

Pedroia knows he has a good thing going.

 It was the same case with Vaughn all those Novembers ago. He had the perfect Fenway swing, an MVP award on his wall (like Pedroia), and popularity that crossed all color lines (not quite as easy a feat in 1998 Boston as it is today). 

Vaughn even had a number -- 42 -- that was a magical baseball digit and would be his until he retired even as it hung in right field to honor Jackie Robinson. Had Mo stayed in Boston until he retired, there is good reason to speculate the Sox would have placed a second "42" next to Jackie's to signify Vaughn's great career.

Instead, claiming a lack of respect from general manager Dan Duquette, he went west -- signing the largest contract in major league history ($80 million over six years) with the California Angels. 

Mo as an Angel; not very heavenly.

One of the most beloved athletes in Boston, a man who thrived on the energy at Fenway an embraced the city's long and rich baseball history, was going to a city where the fans showed up in the third inning, left in the seventh, and spent the four in between drinking frozen daiquiris.

I don't think he ever came out and admitted it, but Vaughn likely knows he made a big mistake leaving Yawkey Way. He suffered a severely strained ankle injury falling into the home dugout at Anaheim Stadium in pursuit of a fly ball during the 1999 home opener, and missed all but nine games that year. Two decent seasons followed that fell far below the previous lofty standards that had earned him the mega deal. 

Mo as a Met; not a good match.

A trade to the Mets did not help. After slogging through one-and-one-half dismal campaigns at Shea, hurt by a broken hand and an expanding waistline, Vaughn retired due to chronic knee pain in 1993. Once seemingly a lock for 400 home runs, and possible Hall of Fame inclusion, he was out of the game at age 35 with just 328 homers.

Of course Vaughn could have suffered his ankle and hand injuries in Boston, but it certainly appears he left his good karma and elite production at Fenway. Pedroia wants none of that. 

Petey could have made more money had he waited out the Red Sox for a year until Cano signed -- and then used him as a benchmark for his worth. But Pedroia appears to understand the importance of staying put and building on his legacy. If he stays in Boston through the length of the deal, Pedroia still be calling Fenway home when my 8-year-old daughter is a high school senior. 

Then, perhaps a few years later, there will be another number -- 15 -- hanging in right field:

Room for one more?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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

From the BR Archives
Doc's fastball could nearly outrace my car.

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. 
The Cruising Vessel (pre-duct taped seats)

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. 

Brad cleans the original Cruising Vessel

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. 

Gooden had it going in '84.

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.
Not quite my yearbook pic -- but close.

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 (Alvin 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. 
Alvin Davis -- No. 5.

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.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What on earth do Jose Iglesias, Ted Williams, and Manny Ramirez have in common?

These day, the AL's top rookie is all smiles.

Ted Williams. Manny Ramirez. Jose Iglesias. 

One of these things is not like the others -- right?

At first glance, most definitely. Williams and Ramirez are both members of the elite 500 home run club, with slugging and OPS marks that rank among the highest in MLB history. If it wasn't for steroids Ramirez would be a lock to join Teddy Ballgame in the Hall of Fame -- provided Manny ever stopped making comebacks.

Iglesias, in contrast, has hit exactly two major league home runs in 85 games spread over three major-league seasons -- which isn't too surprising considering he hit six in 294 minor league contests. Last year at Triple A Pawtucket he batted a so-so.266, and after a September promotion to Boston went a pitiful 8-for-68 (.118).

Jose is, or was, the classic good-field, no-hit player -- as much a magician with his glove at shortstop as Williams and Ramirez were with their bats. The big question about his chances of sticking with the Red Sox was whether his defense would compensate enough for his anemic offense.
After a 62-150 start in 1941, Williams finished at .406

Now that's all changed, and Iglesias has inexplicably joined Manny (in 2001) and Ted (in 1941) as the only players in the 112-year  history of Boston's AL franchise to achieve an early-season batting feat of red-hot proportions.

A batting average of.400 or better after his first 150 at-bats of the year.

Think about that. The Red Sox have spent more than a century at hitter friendly Fenway Park, home to such expert batsmen as Tris Speaker (a .383 average in 1912), Jimmie Foxx (.360 in '39), Wade Boggs (.368 in '85), and Nomar Garciaparra (.372 in 2000) -- not to mention Ramirez and Williams -- only twice entering 2013 had anybody gotten off to that fast a start.

Had you asked everyone which player on this year's Opening Day roster had a chance of doing it, Iglesias might have been the consensus last choice. 

Despite his fantastic defense, he only made the team because of an injury to projected starting shortstop Stephen Drew. Iglesias went 7-for-12 in the opening series of the year at New York, but experts said it was a fluke. General Manager Ben Cherington apparently agreed, because once Drew was cleared to play Iglesias was sent down to Pawtucket after seven games, a .450 batting average, and a growing list of Web Gems. 

On paper, Drew -- an eight-year veteran with pop in his bat and a steady glove -- was still considered the better player. The Sox were not paying him $9.5 million for the season to sit on the bench, and naysayers pointed out that the majority of Iglesias' early-season hits had been dinky grounders or bloops that found holes. Back in the minors, he actually regressed, hovering around the Mendoza Line at .202 through 33 games.
At Pawtucket in May, Jose was all-field, no-hit.

Then the inexplicable happened. Drew slumped, third baseman Will Middlebrooks got hurt, and Iglesias was recalled on May24 to fill a roster spot. He went 1-for-3 with a run scored that night, playing third and batting ninth. The next day he spelled Drew at short, went 3-for-4 with a double, and raised his average to .484.

Iglesias has been starting ever since, predominantly at third, and Middlebrooks has been dispatched to the minors to play every day and shake off his sophomore slump. As adept at the hot corner as he was at shortstop, Iglesias has made just two errors all year and snatched up every ball hit anywhere in his zip code. He's even played three flawless games at second base.

The bloops and bleeders of April are now line drives and shots to the gaps, as he has shown more patience and aggressiveness at the plate. His average was still a ridiculous .451 in mid-June, and stayed over .400 all the way until July 6. Named "Rookie of the Month" for June, he is now a front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year. 
Iglesias (scoring) is at the center of the Sox uprising.

A mini-slump (.270 over the last 10 games) has "dropped" Iglesias down to .384, but he's still had at least one hit in 40 of the 50 games he's played -- in which Boston has gone 33-17. He has 10 doubles and a .917 OPS, and nobody is talking about whether Iglesias can hit MLB pitching anymore. He runs hard out of the box and is a fan favorite.

What's next? Will Iglesias' drop-off continue as pitchers get more of a book on him? Will he find himself back on the bench if Middlebrooks returns from Pawtucket and Drew continues his recent resurgence (.364 over nine games). It seems unlikely.

In a way, Iglesias' fortunes mirror those of his team. The Red Sox, 69-93 last year and picked by most experts for another last-place finish in the AL East, currently possess the best record in baseball at 58-37. Nobody expected it, and no one knows how long it will last.
Will it last? Time will tell.

For now, however, it's a ride everyone -- especially Jose Iglesias -- is enjoying.