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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Forget David Ortiz, the guy Hanley Ramirez needs to get on speed dial is Jim Rice

They'll be tougher off the Wall. (USA Today)

Some good-natured ribbing took place on Sports Radio after Hanley Ramirez's press conference today, when the new Red Sox left fielder admitted that he has yet to speak this week with new teammate David Ortiz -- his "big brother" in baseball since Ramirez first signed with Boston back in the early '90s. 

Hopefully the two will connect soon, but if Ramirez really knows what is good for him, he'll meet up with another Red Sox slugger early and often in the months to come:

Jim Rice.

Forty years ago, rookie Rice came to Boston and earned himself a spot in the 1975 starting lineup with his prodigious bat. Rice was such a great hitter that the Red Sox moved six-time Gold Glove-winning left fielder Carl Yastrzemski to first base and planted Rice in front of the Green Monster. 
The '75 Sox outfield (L-R): Rice, Lynn, Evans

The rookie certainly didn't remind anybody of Yaz in those early days, but Rice worked as hard at his fielding as he did his hitting. Coach Johnny Pesky hit him hundreds and hundreds of fly balls, and the result was that Jim Ed became a very competent outfielder -- especially at Fenway.

In 1983, while he was winning the American League home run (39) and RBI (126) titles, Rice was also tied for second in the majors with 21 outfield assists -- many of them coming on balls hit off the Wall that he turned into outs at second base. 
Rice has his eyes on this one. (Getty Images)

Sox manager Ralph Houk said of Rice's fielding, "I don't think people realize just how good he is; he gets to most balls, and especially those hit to his right. I don't know of anybody who is better than he is playing the wall." No less an authority than Peter Gammons said Rice deserved a Gold Glove that year.

From behind the desk at NESN, Rice still looks like he could snap a bat in half with a check-swing. Chances are he could also show Ramirez some of the tricky bounces one encounters in left field at Fenway, both in the real digs at Yawkey Way and down at Fenway South in spring training. Rice didn't have the luxury of a practice Monster in Florida when he was playing; hopefully Ramirez will take advantage of it.
Rice still looks good. (NBC Sports)

Another area where Ramirez could take a lesson from Rice is toughness. During his three peak offensive years of 1977-79, the future Hall of Famer played in 481 of Boston's 484 games. It took real trips to the disabled list to knock Jim Ed from the lineup; last year Ramirez was sidelined in 23 of LA's first 103 games by finger, thumb, hand, shoulder, and calf injuries without ever going on the DL.

Ramirez may never be a Hall of Famer, but if he wants to live up to his press conference promise to play hard and well for Boston, he can take a lesson in both areas from the Cooperstown inductee who is around Fenway every day.

Or he could always try what the last Ramirez to play left field at Fenway did -- steal Wally's glove!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hold the Panda: Red Sox should shoot for Lester, not Sandoval

Men in Demand. (Getty Images)

Now that the Red Sox have reportedly made offers to both Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval, I have some simple advice for John Henry and Ben Cherington:

Go for the old World Series hero, not the new one.

Jon Lester's achievements for the Red Sox have been well-documented here and elsewhere. The left-hander as dependable as I-93 traffic jams for all but one chicken-and-beer-addled season, a virtual lock for 15-18 wins, 200 innings, a 1.300 WHIP and a 3.50 ERA. The 2014 season was actually his best, with a career-best 2.46 ERA, 1.102 WHIP, and 219.2 innings for Boston and Oakland combined after his trade deadline swap to the A's with Jonny Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes.

As for the postseason, Lester was lights-out for Boston. He pitched best on the biggest stage, with a 0.43 ERA in 21 World Series innings as a key hurler on the 2007 and '13 champs and a 2.57 ERA overall in 14 postseason games (84 innings). He did stumble late in his "play-in" start for the A's this October, but I would still take him on the mound in October over just about anybody short of Madison Bumgarner.

Lester has proven he can play in Boston, the rumors are he still wants to play in Boston, and the Fenway fans love him. He has the makeup and strong, healthy body to keep winning for years to come. A sound investment.

What Lester doesn't have is a cute nickname that lends itself to marketing mania -- which brings us to Pablo Sandoval. The Panda is also a proven postseason standout, with a .344/.389/.545 slash line in 39 games that goes up to an absurd .426/.460/.702 in 12 World Series contests. He has helped the Giants to three world championships in five years, a feat even more impressive than Boston's three-in-ten run. He is a winner, no doubt about it, and fun to watch.

He is also, however, a guy who has not been an especially impressive regular season performer during his career. He has never had more than 25 homers or 90 RBI -- reaching both those high-water marks in 2009, his first full year -- and his OBP has has gone down each of the last four seasons. Last year it was .739, which placed him just sixth among National League third basemen and 40th in the NL overall.

Are those numbers deserving of the six-year, $120 million contract he is reportedly seeking? That's a stretch, and even if the Sox were inclined to take a leap of faith that Sandoval can reach another level, there is something else to consider:

His waistline.

Hope that is sugarless gum. 

There is a reason they call him Kung Fu Panda and not Pablo the Panther. Sandoval has a roly-poly body that screams quick decline. He can hit fastballs and field the hot corner with the best of them right now, but as we've seen from guys like Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard and Boston's own Mo Vaughn, the slide down from elite status can be early and fast for big-boned sluggers.

Sandoval is 28; he would be 34 at the end of a six-year deal. It's unrealistic to think he'll be hitting as well once he gets there. For that matter, even if you're banking on just the first three years of said deal, his average regular-season line of 14 homers, 72 RBI, and a .280 average from 2012-14 seems unworthy of such a long, lucrative commitment.

It's fun to imagine what Sandoval could do hitting in front of or behind David Ortiz in 2015, or having his personality to enjoy around the clubhouse and Fenway Park. Every Boston fan under 12 would want a little panda sporting a Red Sox home jersey. Yes, the team needs more offensive punch and a way to keep Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, but it also needs dirt dogs of the type who won it all in 2013.

Ready for this at Fenway?(New York Times)

Given his past numbers and body type, Sandoval is not a sound investment. We're not talking David Ortiz here; the Sox expect the Panda to be performing at third base every day. There is also no guarantee, even with his postseason success, that Sandoval will take well to the daily grind of playing in Boston with its uber-demanding fans and media. San Fransicans love their Giants no matter what they do; look at how they worshiped Barry Bonds.

Jon Lester is an elite-level performer in the regular season and the postseason. He doesn't sell stuffed animals but he eats quality innings and can be a great teacher/role model for all the young pitchers the Sox have coming up. Sandoval might shine in the playoffs as well, but first his team has to get there.

It's guys like Lester who will get Boston there.


Monday, November 10, 2014

How a gift from Red Sox fans gave Boston Mayor Tom Menino strength and support

A man and his cane. (Boston Globe)

In the last months of his life, after his retirement from office and before his death from cancer on Oct. 30, Boston Mayor Tom Menino was almost never seen in public without wielding a very distinctive-looking cane he was given exactly one year ago today.

It was fashioned from a genuine Louisville Slugger baseball bat, with Menino's name and the years of the last three Red Sox World Series championships emblazoned on its barrel. The mayor liked to point out with pride that the 2004, 2007, and 2013 titles were all won during his administration, and he had several Sox players autograph the bat -- including '04 pitching ace Pedro Martinez and various members of the '13 champs.

The "bat cane" went everywhere with Menino, including his stays at Brigham and Women's Hospital and his chemotherapy treatments next door at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. When mourners passed by his open casket at Faneuil Hall last week, they could see the unique walking stick lying beside him. Afterwards, the mayor's press secretary, Dot Joyce, was seen carrying it out of the hall.

"When they showed Angela [Menino's widow] on TV walking up the steps and into their home that night, you could see she was carrying the cane," says Lynne Smith, the Red Sox super-fan famous for her extraordinary outfits, including a Fenway Park hat with working lights and Citgo sign. "That was so hard for us to see. We knew how much he  cared about it."

That Smith noticed the cane during its brief TV appearance was no surprise. It was she and her husband, Gary, who had ordered the very special walking stick for Menino, and then presented it to their friend at a charity event last Nov. 10.

The Smiths and the Mayor -- friends and fans.

"We got the idea when we went to the [2013] Red Sox-Tigers ALDS games in Detroit, and saw an elderly man walking with a baseball bat cane at Comerica Park," says Smith. "Gary and I just looked at each other and said 'Menino' at the same time. We knew it was something the mayor would love, so we asked the man where he had gotten it."

It turns out there was a retired firefighter named Rick Just who made the Little-League-sized Louisville Slugger canes -- available at -- as a one-man operation out of his DeLand, Florida home. After the Red Sox won the World Series, the Smiths contacted Just with their request for a Menino model.

When they gave the cane to the mayor last November, "his eyes just lit up," recalls Lynne Smith. "You could tell he liked it."

John Henry views the cane. (Tom Fitzsimmons)

Menino had already been using a cane for a variety of health reasons, including a broken leg in April 2013 and his bone-weakening cancer treatment this year. He was not happy with the walking sticks he had, however, including one that had been used by the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy but was too long for the mayor. As a result, he wasn't going out as much. 

This changed once he got the bat cane. Suddenly this Red Sox fan who signified "Boston Strong" as well as anybody was proud to walk the streets with its assistance, and loved showing it off. 

A familiar sight during the last year. (Boston Globe)

"It was extremely important to him, and he would not leave the house without it," one of his Dana-Farber social workers explains. "It made having to use a cane feel like a source of strength, because it was connected to his Red Sox pride."

Probing reporters asked Menino where he got the bat cane, and at first he would only say it was "from friends." Finally he relented and told them, and when Lynne and Gary went on the record with Just's name, the firefighter-turned-craftsman was inundated with orders.

"He was so appreciative, he insisted on making a bat cane for me," says Lynne Smith. "Louisville Slugger gave him a pink one at my request, and he inscribed it to,  'Lynne Smith #1 Red Sox Fan.'" Like the mayor's version, it lists the 2004-07-13 championships, and is one of her most cherished Sox-themed objects in a home filled with them. 

 Lynne loves her pink bat.

While Menino's bat cane did not prove magical for the 2014 Red Sox, it was not for lack of effort. It went to spring training in Florida with the mayor, and on many trips to Fenway Park during the summer. It even made it to the White House when the mayor accompanied last year's title-winning Sox to a celebration with President Obama. Lynne Smith made sure to call Rick Just and tell him, "One of your bats is in the Oval Office."

The last time the mayor ever visited Fenway was with current Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, for the final game of Boston's dismal '14 season. As always, the cane was by his side. 

"Angela told us that the mayor just carried himself differently with the cane," says Lynne Smith. "Once he went to a school and a little boy took the cane and didn't want to give it back, and one time the airlines gave him a hard time and said it was a weapon. But he always got it back."

Menino's last Xmas tree lighting (Olga Khvan)

The Smiths got a deeper sense of how important their gift had been when several members of Menino's staff approached them at the mayor's funeral on Nov. 3 to say how much the cane had meant to him. 

"It was a random act of kindness," Lynne Smith says now. "We gave it with love, and just hoped he would have some fun with it.

"We had no idea it would take on a life of its own."