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Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Vineyard visits with Bill Lee, Yaz, Tony C., and days gone by

One of my Vineyard visitors.

I had never heard of Nelson Chittum, who went 3-0 with a sterling 1.19 ERA for the 1959 Red Sox. Then I met him yesterday, along with Carl Yastrzemski and Bill Lee.

Each summer I pack up my lucky 2004 SUV with the Red Sox/Jimmy Fund license plates and drive/ferry my family to Martha's Vineyard for a last gasp of summer before Labor Day. Michelle  loves reading and letting her mind unwind from the daily challenge of helping her patients recover from strokes and brain injuries; Jason and Rachel, now 14 and 11, enjoy the final unstructured days before school.  

Me? I love the trip back in time.

The beaches and bike trains and Ben and Bills ice cream are all great, but my favorite moment of each year's journey may be the first few minutes Jason and I spend rifling through the baseball cards at the Chillmark Flea Market. They are split up into beat-up boxes marked "1950-60s" "1970s-80s" and "Red Sox." and we fly through them all -- putting aside those "possibles" we will consider for purchase. 

Little stickers in the top right corner of each card's protective plastic sleeve tell us what it will set us back, and Jason knows I'm seldom going to spend more than $5 for any given card. It's not Honus Wagner I'm after here, but a few moments of my childhood -- and Jason's. 

Before my eyes, my son has quickly become a full-fledged teenager. He grew about 8 inches in the last 8 months, and his voice dropped from tenor to bass. His body is filling out, taking him from the "before" photo in the old Charles Atlas ad much closer to the "after." He recovered from major leg and hip surgery in February faster than anyone expected, and spoke in front of 1,500 students and family members as his middle-school salutatorian in June.

Jason, before time took over.

In two weeks he will be a freshman at Newton North High, my alma mater, and plans to join the wrestling team and the theater program. Other than the three or four games we go to together at Fenway each year, baseball is very far from his mind. I've tried rekindling his interest, but he'd rather talk about movies, music, or even politics than the Red Sox pitching rotation. I'm slowly accepting it.

For those couple minutes at the flea market, however, both of us are 8 year-olds enthusiastically mining for gold. Ken Goldberg, who owns the cards along with a treasure-trove of road signs, books, and other items, stands back and watches. I am sure he has seen this countless times before -- fathers, sons, and the occasional mom and daughter thumbing back through the decades.

I collected baseball cards feverishly through my grade-school days, picking up most of them at Garbs drugstore by the Boston College trolley stop. Friends -- Greg Rutan and Kim Myers most spring to mind -- would accompany me on these trips, and we'd look over our loot while devouring ice cream sundaes next door at Brigham's. We'd always hope for Red Sox, of course, and barring that a star like Munson or Palmer or Foster. 

Ken helps bring me back.

It was the same with me and Jason when he was a little kid. We'd haunt the few remaining baseball card stores left in the Metro West area, and split our time buying new packs and looking through oldies. He devoured baseball history books and covered his walls with posters of Big Papi, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and (of course) Jason Varitek.

Then, one by one, the stores starting closing, reflecting a generation of kids that was moving increasingly online or onto "faster" sports like basketball and football. My son's interest waned along with the public's; he was a mediocre ballplayer, like his old man, and probably stayed in Little League one year longer than he wanted to for my sake.

Now Jason is a self-professed nerd who spends his time writing and playing intricate online computer games with friends all over the world. The posters and books in his room are changing along with his interests. My nephew is the baseball star; Jason is the star of Katan. 

Until we get in front of Ken's table.

"Look -- a '75 Yaz!" Jason yells, at the same moment I pull out my 1960 Nelson Chittum (I'm a sucker for any card with that old smiling Red Sock logo). A confident-looking 1978 Bill Lee -- that summer, I remind Jason, would not turn out well for him or the team -- comes out next. 

He spots a '65 Tony Conigliaro, where the 20-year-old stares out at the camera with a steely resolve. The card is bent and faded, giving it no real value, but Jason knows better: this is Tony C. in all his young, handsome glory, before the Gods of Fate beat him down.

Forever young.


Friday, August 14, 2015

New Fan Offering at Fenway: Push-Ups with the Panda

More stretching is in Sandoval's future.

In what they hope will be a productive and fan-friendly effort to help rotund third baseman Pablo Sandoval shed some pounds, the Red Sox are rolling out a new fan initiative during the homestand starting tonight:

Push-Ups with the Panda.

Before each inning the Red Sox take the field, the barcodes from five tickets will be announced to the crowd and listed on the center field scoreboard. Those fans holding tickets with matching codes will be invited onto the field to do 20 push-ups with Sandoval. 

"Sandoval's mobility at third base has been a disappointment," says general manager Ben Cherington. "Balls we saw him get to during the playoffs last year are finding holes, and at the plate he's not whipping the bat around at the same rate either. He's a great guy, but he's just too damn fat."
Hmmm....snow cone....

In another move geared to help Sandoval, Cherington says the team is considering installing a water fountain by the third base coach's box. Sandoval had to leave a game earlier this season due to dehydration, so it is hoped that walking by the fountain each inning will prompt him to stop for a quick sip.

"We checked with the league office," says Cherington. "Although the water fountain will be in foul ground, balls bouncing off and then caught will be outs. This might help us too when it comes to Sandoval's mobility issues."

Sandoval could not be reached for comment, but shortstop Xander Bogaerts thinks these would both be good moves. 

"I'm running myself ragged out there trying to get to the balls that Pablo can't," says Bogaerts. "I've worn out three pairs of cleats already. Maybe the extra water and extra exercise will get me some extra rest too."

Friday, August 7, 2015

The greatest Larry Lucchino Fenway Park story of them all

Lucchino at Fenway, before the trophies.

Outgoing Red Sox President Larry Lucchino has long been credited as the man who saved Fenway Park from the wrecking ball, but he never even visited Yawkey Way until 1986 -- and that first trip has a compelling backstory.

The Red Sox were on their way to an American League pennant behind the ascending Roger Clemens, and Lucchino was vice president and general counsel of the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles had won a World Series just three years before, but in '86 were a struggling club heading to a last-place finish behind Boston in the AL East.

Not good medicine. 

Lucchino had other things on his mind than the standings that spring. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells that required him to undergo a bone marrow transplant and other painful procedures. Since his mentor Edward Bennett Williams, the acclaimed trial attorney and Orioles owner, had been treated at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, that's where Lucchino went as well.

A member of the Orioles board of directors had donated a satellite dish and had it installed on the Dana-Farber roof so that Lucchino could watch Orioles games during the weeks he was in the hospital. Still, he longed for a true hardball fix only attainable by a pass through the turnstiles.

After 37 days under hospital quarantine Lucchino was finally cleared to spend some time outside. His care team at Dana-Farber, led by Drs. Tom Frei and Lee Nadler, warned him that he should stay away from crowds. His cancer treatments had severely weakened the young baseball executive's body, and left it dangerously susceptible to infection.

On this Saturday afternoon, however, the only place in Boston Lucchino really wanted to go was less than a mile away -- where 30,000 people and their germs would be tightly packed together amidst cigar smoke and beer.

Fenway Park.
Fenway bleachers: germs galore.

Despite his years with the Orioles, Lucchino had never been to the oldest ballpark in the major leagues. A hard-nosed lawyer used to doing whatever it took to succeed in court and life, he now had the necessary connections to make such an outing medically feasible. He approached Red Sox president John Harrington for help, and Harrington secured a private box at the ballpark where Lucchino could watch that day's game while safely separated from the multitudes. 

Although he can't quite remember Boston's opponent, Lucchino knows the visit took place in June of 1986. A quick look on reveals that Boston's only Saturday home games that month were against Milwaukee (a 2-0 loss on June 14) and the Orioles (a 7-2 win by Clemens on June 21). Since it's hard to believe Lucchino would forget if his own team was the opponent, and that Clemens went to 13-0 by beating them, my money is on the Brewers.
Fenway as Lucchino first saw it.

Whatever the case, the ballpark made an immediate impact on Lucchino -- even if the game did not. Growing up a working-class kid in Pittsburgh, he had spent many afternoons in the early 1960s watching his favorite player (shortstop Dick Groat) and his beloved Pirates at Forbes Field -- like Fenway, one of the classic ballparks built in the second decade of the 20th century. 
Forbes Field, Lucchino's childhood haunt.

A middle-infielder with his own big-league aspirations (he was All-City at second base), Lucchino loved how close fans at Forbes were to the field. He felt the same intimacy at Fenway, where the venue, with all its quirky angles and the great Green Monster wall in left field, was as much a part of the experience as the game itself.

"I was impressed -- very impressed," Lucchino would tell me of that first visit. "Little did I know that I would be back there in a couple of different ways."

His first major reconnection to Fenway would come just a few years later. After the death of his boss and longtime friend Williams to cancer in August 1988, Lucchino was part of a group that purchased the Orioles prior to the 1989 season. The team had shared cavernous, all-purpose Memorial Stadium with the Baltimore Colts football team since the 1950s, but the new ownership group was committed to constructing a baseball only ballpark.

Memorial Stadium, past its prime.

By this point president and CEO of the Orioles, Lucchino headed up the project. He bought in an expert in urban planning and architecture, Janet Marie Smith, and made her vice president for design and development of the new park. 

During the next four years, Lucchino worked alongside Smith to create and bring to life a blueprint that would transform the way modern baseball venues were constructed -- taking them away from the cookie-cutter, multiplex, stark behemoths of recent vintage and back to the days when each team's identity was formed largely by an instantly recognizable home. 

"We proposed it in the documents as a 'traditional old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities,'" Lucchino says. "It was to be irregular, quirky, asymetrical for sure, with intimate seats as close to the action as possible."
Janet Marie Smith, a great Lucchino signing.

They used as their models three classic locales: Forbes Field, Lucchino's childhood haunt; Ebbets Field, the cozy, double-decked home of the Brooklyn Dodgers; and Fenway Park. Only Fenway was still standing.

The result, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, was a revelation from the moment it opened in 1992. It had charm, accessibility, an asymmetrical playing field, and even its modern necessities like luxury suites and a high-tech scoreboard were given an antique feel.
Camden Yards, death knell to cookie-cutters.

Camden Yards was a game-changer, delighting three generations of fans and starting a new ballpark boom across the major leagues. The cookie-cutters have been replaced with beautiful jewels like Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Coors Field in Denver, At&T Park in San Francisco, and Petco Park in San Diego -- the last of which Lucchino also oversaw while president and CEO of the Padres.

Fenway, despite its history and influence on the retro ballparks, was slated for the scrap heap as well, with then-Red Sox president John Harrington leading the charge for a bigger venue that could command higher revnue. When fans suggested Fenway be renovated instead, Harrington found architects who claimed it would literally fall down if such work was attempted. 
Harrington (left) never got "New Fenway" built.

Fenway never fell. Harrington and the Yawkey Trust sold the team to a group led by John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino in December 2001, and Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith began working their magic. While the team was winning three World Series in 10 years, Fenway was improved in almost every way imaginable -- including seats on the Green Monster, wider concourses, unobtrusive upper-decks, and even removal of the dreaded men's room troughs. 

Today, while Lucchino's days at the top of the Red Sox masthead may be numbered, Fenway Park is on the National Register of Historic Places -- assuring that the oldest ballpark in the major leagues will be standing for decades to come. Along with the three gleaming trophies in the lobby of the front offices on Yawkey , that's a nice legacy for the kid from Pittsburgh.