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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pedro Cerrano and Jo-Bu key Red Sox resurgence

This guy deserves a Bobblehead night.

The streets outside Fenway Park were quiet during Monday's day off, but Fenway Reflections has learned that a special visitor was seen on Yawkey Way who may have had a direct impact in Boston's 7-4 victory over the Rays Tuesday night.

Pedro Cerrano.

For those of you who may not remember him, Cerrano was the power-hitter from Cuba whose two-run homer in a one-game AL East playoff game against the Yankees helped the Indians to the 1989 division title -- a season documented in the movie Major League. Cerrano was a great fastball hitter who had trouble with curves, a dilemma he resolved with the help of his beloved voodoo God Jo-Bu (and some rum, cigars, and sacrificial chickens). 

Cerrano and Jo-Bu were at Fenway Monday in an attempt to wake up Boston's sleeping bats, and apparently the intervention worked. Although Boston entered Tuesday's game in the bottom half of the American League in batting, on-base-percentage, and home runs, the Sox blasted 13 hits enroute to their third win in four games.

Victorino was thankful to Jo-Bu.

"Jo-Bu came through for us, no doubt about it," says right fielder Shane Victorino, who led the attack with a 4-for-4 night including a double and two RBI. "That's what I like about this team; we're willing to try anything in order to win."

Boston (13-14) now is just one game away from reaching the .500 mark for the first time since it was 2-2 on April 4. In contrast, the 2013 Red Sox were 18-7 and in first place by 2.5 games entering play on April 30. The Sox are currently in third place, 2.5 games behind the East-leading Yankees.

Jo-Bu and home cooking may be just what the witch doctor ordered for Boston. In addition to their current eight-game homestand, the Red Sox are in a stretch in which they will play 19 of 30 games at Fenway Park -- where they had a .654 winning percentage en route to winning the 2013 World Series. Including last night's win, the Sox are just  6-8 at home this season.

Middlebrooks' return should help.

Another key to a hopeful Boston resurgence is good health. The activation of third baseman Will Middlebrooks and Victorino from the Disabled List during the past few days gives the team its projected starting lineup for the first time all season, and enables manager John Farrell to use his strongest defensive outfield with Victorino in right, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center, and Jony Gomes in left.

Now if the Sox can get starting pitchers Clay Buchholz (6.66 ERA) and Felix Doubront (6.00) turned around, they may be able to stop the runs to Popeye's for more Jo-Bu offerings.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Can Jacoby, Tar-Gate jump-start Red Sox-Yankees rivalry?

A new villain is born.

Watching Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda get ejected from Wednesday night's game for turning his neck into a one-stop lube shop, and fans continue their series-long booing of turncoat Jacoby Ellsbury -- a tactic that didn't slow the red-hot hitter one bit -- almost made it feel like the good old days at Fenway Park.

Old, as in 2003-2006.

Back then, the rivalry between the Sox and Yanks was at its Athens-Sparta heights. In addition to some epic regular season and ALCS battles, there were specific incidents and individuals that further electrified the match-ups and heightened the hatred for Boston fans. Among them:

The turning point.

The A-Rod-Varitek fight on July 24, 2004, spurred on when Alex Rodriguez didn't take kindly to Bronson Arroyo pitching too close to his pretty face, and got a face-full of Jason Varitek's mitt for mouthing off. After Tek's smack-down the Sox went 46-20 (.697) the rest of the regular season to make the playoffs. 

The A-Rod-Arroyo interference incident in Game 6 of the '04 ALCS, when Rodriguez visibly smacked a ball out of the pitcher's hand while running down the first-base line -- costing his team a late-game rally and launching a thousand photo-shopped pictures in which a purse was hung on his arm. We all know how that series turned out.

Ah yes, the good old days.

Johnny Damon's defection to New York after 2005, in which Jesus became Judas and eventually helped the Yanks to another title. On the positive side for Boston, this did provide a home for young Ellsbury in center field.

The ninth-inning showdowns between the Sox and legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, which on a few memorable occasions went Boston's way.

And, of course, other familiar foes like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina, and Jason Giambi. Some were easier to boo than others, but you never needed a scorecard to know most of the New York roster. Class or no class, they were a known enemy.

Now, with A-Rod on the suspended list, only Jeter remains in pinstripes from those glory days. The lineup New York used to wipe out the Red Sox 14-5 last night included the likes of Yangervis Solarte, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, all newcomers to the rivalry. Jeter and Ellsbury, of course, were atop the order combining for 5 hits and 5 RBI.

And then there was one.

Pineda picked up a 10-game suspension for his Wednesday-night antics, but he'll surely be back in the rotation when the Sox and Yanks next meet in late June. 

Will the energy that ran through Fenway last night when he got tossed carry over into that game? 

Will New York follow suit and have Boston pitchers inspected for pine tar? 

Will the Sox use the embarrassment of last night's 5-error, 4-hit, Mike Carp-pitching fiasco to spur them on to a hot streak, as they did after the Varitek-A-Rod fight in 2004?

If Sox fans want any chance of seeing their team back in the postseason, they had better hope the last comes true. It's still early enough to turn this season around, but Boston does not have the superstars necessary to dig themselves out of too big a hole.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday: In 1976, the Bird was the Word

Two golden boys.

He flashed like a yellow-curled beacon across the baseball sky, a brief blip of innocence and fun before free agency and million-dollar contracts changed the game forever. 

Mark Fidrych. Just saying the name still makes me smile. The Pride of Northborough, Mass., debuted for the Tigers this week in 1976, and died this week in 2009. His sore-armed career in the majors lasted only 58 games, but he's still right up there with Dwight Evans, Luis Tiant, and Pedro Martinez in my pantheon of all-time favorite players.

Maybe it's because I was a rookie too in '76, also playing for the Tigers as a 9-year-old in the Newton Central Little League. I could barely throw the ball straight, but in my genuine woolen uniform -- I think the league phased them out after that spring -- I could stand in front of the mirror and pretend I was The Bird. 

Rookie on the rise.

Forty springs on, I can still recite his rookie stats from memory: 19-9, 2.34 ERA, 250.1 innings, 24 complete games in 29 starts. But numbers only begin to tell the story.

Fidrych, then a wide-eyed 21-year-old with parts of just two seasons in the minors, didn't start his first game for the Tigers until May 15 because manager Ralph Houk wanted to work the youngster in slowly. But The Bird -- named after Big Bird on Sesame Street, of course -- only knew one speed: full-tilt. 

Beginning with a two-hitter against Cleveland, he went 8-1 over his first two months, including back-to-back 11-inning complete games and a dismantling of the mighty Yankees on ABC's "Monday Night Baseball" that made him a national phenomenon. Teammates and fans loved watching him pitch, because he did so with precision (just 53 walks), passion, and a train to catch after the ninth. 

He was a man on a mission -- to win and have fun doing it.

Man at work.

The Bird appreciated every second of his time on the field. If a teammate made a great play, he ran over and shook his hand. If the mound needed some tending, he got down on his knees and did it himself. He claimed he didn't talk to the ball, but the fact we all thought he was when he jabbered to himself was good enough.

Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson let the lanky, 6-foot-3 rookie start for the American League in the All-Star Game over the likes of Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, and his own ace Luis Tiant, and it was the natural choice. When it came to pleasing fans, nobody did it better; Fidrych packed ballparks wherever he went, and Tigers attendance rose 39 percent from the previous season despite the team's lackluster 74-87 record. 

The Bird was the Word. Girls dug his locks, scooping them up after his haircuts. Rolling Stone put him on the cover. He even got to meet Frank Sinatra, which didn't mean much to him but delighted his mother.  

Bill Lee never got this gig.

Fidrych finished second in the AL Cy Young race to Palmer (he was robbed), and had a limitless future and a new three-year contract for $50,000 a year. Then, in the blink of a slip on the outfield grass while shagging flies in spring training, it was all but over. He injured his knee, requiring surgery, and then after coming back with a string of seven complete games in eight starts mid-way through 1977 suffered a dead arm from which he never recovered. 

Shoulder woes plagued him from this point on, robbing him of his control and his glory. By 1983, after umpteenth comebacks with the Tigers and a last-ditch effort for the Red Sox at Triple A Pawtucket, Fidrych called it quits at the ripe old age of 28. 

Last gas.

He went back to Northboro and became a commercial truck driver and farmer. He later had his own trucking business, mostly doing construction, and hung around the local diner. A working stiff with a wife, daughter, and no regrets he let folks know about.

Occasional "Where Are They Now?" articles appeared to catch us up on The Bird, but the first time Fidrych made real headlines after his retirement was on April 20, 2009, when word spread that he had died at 54 in a freak accident -- apparently crushed after his truck fell on him while he was working on it. 

I dug out my old 1976 Tigers team photo. There I was in the front row, with a Timex and Bill Lee glove on my wrist and a grin on my face.

The future limitless. 

Birds at rest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Oh Yeah, The Red Sox Won

Not to be forgotten. (Associated Press)

Originally posted 4/17/14

Last night I actually forgot the Red Sox had a ballgame. It was completely out of character, but also completely understandable.  

As a Bostonian far from home, my thoughts the last two days have been dominated by the horrific events that took place Monday at the marathon finish line. I grew up a few blocks from Heartbreak Hill, and have been cheering on friends and strangers in this great race all my life. More times than I can count, I've thought of running it myself.  

Now, like New Yorkers who can never completely separate themselves from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, those of us who love the Boston Marathon will be forced to make room in our memories for what transpired this week. We will cheer again, but there will always be sadness and fear ready to creep in. 
Boston Strong in Cleveland (Boston Red Sox)

I learned about what happened like most people, in bits and pieces. It was just after 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon when I signed onto my iPhone for a brief look at the Red Sox and marathon results. Vacationing with my family in Washington, D.C., I needed a quick fix of the Patriot's Day fun we were missing.

On, along with details of a Sox victory over the Rays and the men's and women's marathon winners, there was a small account of "loud noises" at the race's Copley Square finish line. I didn't think much of it, and only mentioned it briefly to my wife and brother while in line with our kids waiting to enter the Museum of American History.
A few hours before the horrors unfolded. 

I was curious enough to check my phone again a few minutes later, however, by which point the game and race had been knocked from the online headlines by the horrors unfolding on Boylston Street. Trying to stay composed for the sake of the two 8-year-olds in our party, the adults took turns swapping phones during the next two-plus hours as the news grew increasingly grim.

By the time we left the museum at 5:30 p.m., there were sirens sounding through the streets as Washington went into a semi-lockdown mode. We had plans to meet an old friend for dinner that night, but wound up staying in and ordering pizza; transfixed by the footage and eyewitness accounts on CNN, we forced ourselves to switch over to pay-per-view and the silly diversion of "Here Comes the Boom." It was nice to laugh along with the kids. 
Kind sentiments from Tito's team.

Now, after more than 36 hours of Copley Square coverage, I am trying to get myself focused back on the Red Sox -- both as an additional escape and to help fill the pages of Fenway Reflections. I'll be back home tomorrow and will be starting a regular weekly column with odds and ends about the team.

It's clear Red Sox Nation is ready to cheer again even while the crying goes on. Tuesday afternoon my wife saw online that "Sweet Caroline" would be played that night at Yankee Stadium during New York's game against the Diamondbacks. Then she read me one of the comments beneath the story, and I had another welcome laugh.

"Nice thought," the reader mentioned, "but the Yankees still suck."
The feeling was mutual -- for most. (NY Daily News)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Signs of life -- but still concerns -- as Red Sox hit the road

Like the weather, the Sox have yet to heat up.

Before Big Papi's big blast yesterday bailed them out, the Red Sox were a few outs (and a few feet) away from a 1-5 homestand to start the Fenway Park season. As David Ortiz and his mates head into Yankee Stadium hoping the good vibes can continue, here are some reasons to believe -- and be concerned -- about what we've seen from John Farrell's team so far:

The starting pitching has been (mostly) very good. Jake Peavy was the best he's ever been for Boston yesterday, and he, Jon Lester, and John Lackey have all shined in the early going. Felix Doubront turned in one stinker, but he's always going to be up and down. The biggest anxiety, of course, surrounds Clay Buchholz, but Farrell insists his woeful debut was due more to fixable control issues than the shoulder woes that put him on the shelf for three months last season. Tonight's start versus the Yanks will show us more. 

Can Peavy keep it up? It would be nice.

Double plays have been a killer. Last season the Red Sox made a living playing opportunistic baseball. This year they've blown a lot of opportunities due to twin killings. The Sox have grounded into a MLB-worst 17 double plays, nearly three times the league average of 6, including five in the first six innings of Tuesday's 10-7 loss to Texas. This is one place the Sox really miss Jacoby Ellsbury's speed, but even plodders should be able to refrain from hitting grounders to the left side with men on base.

Even when slumping, they're getting on base. You can't hit into double plays if you don't get on base, of course, and the Sox are getting on nearly as well as ever. Their on-base-percentage of .349 ranks fourth in the majors and just .004 behind AL-leading Minnesota, and they are doing it with a largely patchwork offense due to the injuries to Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks. When these two return, and the New England weather heats up, the OBP should rise higher still.

Fly ball to Nava...hold your breath.

Outfield defense has been shaky. Last year Boston had Gold Glovers Ellsbury (CF) and Victorino (RF) plugging the gaps; this year, with Ellsbury gone and Victorino on the DL, the Sox have gone primarily with Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Daniel "Every Fly an Adventure" Nava in right. The drop-off has been considerable; while Sizemore and Bradley have both made nice plays, they lack Ellsbury's running speed and years of institutional knowledge. Hopefully they will get a better feel for Fenway and Victorino can take Nava out of his misery.

Learning on the job, Bradley is starting to shine.

We've seen the future, and it's exciting. Win or lose, still-official rookies Bradley and Xander Bogaerts have been a joy to watch. Bradley has great baseball senses, and is coming around at the plate -- including in the clutch. His game against Texas Monday was a thing of beauty, and while he works on making such events a regular occurrence, Bogaerts appears to already be there. Poised and polished well beyond his 21 years, he appears enroute to a freshman season somewhere between the Rookie of the Year campaigns turned in by Dustin Pedroia in 2007 and Nomar Garciaparra in 1997. 

We've also seen a bit of a World Series hangover. Although the near-comeback from an early 8-0 deficit Tuesday and yesterday's win are encouraging, Boston has played largely lifeless baseball in the early going. The three-game sweep at the hands of the Brewers felt like 2012, right down to the large sections of empty seats in the late innings. This, perhaps more than anything else, is troubling.

Will the fire-in-their-eyes Sox of 2013 show up tonight at Yankee Stadium? We shall see.

Sox need to tap their beard-bonding energy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why Opening Day reminds me I'm aging like Fenway dirt

This shirt is eight years older than Xander.

Another Opening Day at Fenway Park is nearly upon us, which also means it's my birthday week (actually, it's my birthday day). In many ways this is a nice congruity, since the beginning of a new baseball season also signifies the start of spring and (hopefully) better New England weather -- but it also calls attention to just how old I'm getting.

How does my first Fenway sojourn of the season remind me that I'm aging faster than cheddar cheese on a bleacher seat in August? Let me count the ways.

1. Most players are young enough to be my kids. I'm 47 today, so this is a relatively new phenomenon. Still, it's downright depressing to think that not only am I no longer a like-aged peer of the guys on the field, but most of them would now be apt to look at me like an old man -- their old man. 
I was 21 in 1988 -- old enough to be Will's dad.

2. Nobody playing for the Red Sox is older than me. As long as the Sox had Tim Wakefield, I was safe from this indignity -- since Wake was born exactly eight months before me. Now my closest contemporary on the Boston roster is Koji Uehara, born one day after my eighth birthday (Happy almost-birthday Koji), unless you count the coaching staff. I don't like to count the coaching staff. 

3. I've got sneakers and concert t-shirts older than Xander Bogaerts. This one speaks for itself. In fact, I was already out of college and well into my third newspaper job before Bogaerts entered the world in October 1992. 
If I was 21, I'd be smiling too.

4. I fill out a uniform -- too much. Ever make fun of the coaches and managers whose big guts droop over the belts of their uniforms? Me too, but not anymore.

5. Who the hell is that guy in right field? Without my glasses, I can't read the names on the backs of uniforms, which means I'm a slave to the JumboTron when it comes to identifying opposing players. I can recognize the Red Sox by their numbers, of course, but now those are starting to get blurry too.
The (not so) Ancient Warrior

6. "Old Man Yaz" was younger than me. This puts things into perspective, doesn't it? Captain Carl Yastrzemski was dragging his creaky bones around the American League at the ancient age of 44 by his last season, or three years younger than I am today.

7.  During spring training, the Red Sox played against Yaz's grandson. This one kind of makes my head spin. I mean, I was happy for Yaz and all, but it's still depressing.
 Yaz's grandson is playing? Oy vey...

8.  When planning out which games I'm going to, I check my kids' schedules. Parents, you know what I'm talking about here. Once the conflicts were house parties; now they are birthday parties. 

9. I sometimes turn on the Channel 5 News at 11:23 to catch the scores from Mike Lynch, or reach for the phone to call the Globe hotline. Yeah, I know every MLB box, video highlight, and updated batting average is on my iPhone, but old habits die hard.
My 1985 electronic scoreboard source.

10. I have a tough time staying awake for West Coast games. Or writing blog posts after midnight. Happy birthday to me.