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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Spiritual twin of 13-pitch Mookie Betts home run dates from a magical season

Thirteen-and-OUT! Maddy Meyer (Getty Images)

There has been much talk of lengthy at-bats concluding in home runs since Mookie Betts ended an epic 13-pitch duel with Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ by crushing a grand slam on Thursday night. Fans and media pundits seeking a comparable regular-season moment have come up with a few, including Dustin Pedroia's 12th-pitch blast for the 2007 Red Sox.

That season ended with a World Series championship -- just the sort of karma connection one is looking for in imagining Mookie's Green Monster-clearing shot as the catapult to a 2018 title. But 12 is not quite 13, and in fact no 13th-pitch homer by any Red Sox player can yet be found dating back to at least 1988 (when pitch-count data was first tracked).

There is, however, just such an at-bat that did result in a home run for a player whose team went on to a memorable postseason. It wasn't struck for Boston, which is probably why nobody in Red Sox Nation has come up with it yet.

When you're seeking good vibes, one can overlook such details. Credit for finding the spiritual twin to Mookie's shot goes to a friend with a zip code in Massachusetts but rooting interests that lay outside Boston.

Rob came of age as a baseball fan in 1968, when the Tigers rode Denny McLain's 31-win arm to a World Series title. He's been a Detroit diehard ever since, through many lean years and the occasional high points.

In 1984, as the first Yaz-less Red Sox club since the Eisenhower administration was slogging along at a sub-.500 clip, Sparky Anderson's Tigers gave their fans a thrill ride with a 35-5 start. Led by Hall of Famers Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, Detroit's deep roster featured a power-loaded lineup, excellent starting pitching and defense, and a reliever in Willie Hernandez who would capture both the Cy Young and MVP awards that year.

The '84 Tigers were a formidable crew.

It was a role player, however, who was responsible for what Rob and others claim as the most memorable hit of the regular season.

On June 4, in a nationally-televised AL East match-up at old Tiger Stadium, first-place Detroit and Toronto were tied 3-3 into extra innings. The Blue Jays were off to a great start at 34-16, nearly a .700 clip, but were still 4 1/2 games behind the white-hot Tigers. Toronto desperately wanted a victory to stay close. 

After the Jays failed to score in the top of the 10th, Detroit put two on with two out in the bottom of the inning. Up stepped Dave Bergman, who including that night had not homered in 99 plate appearances on the season.

Dave Bergman -- where it all happened.

All he needed to give his team the win, of course, was a single -- or even a walk -- but from the start he was swinging for the fences against Toronto pitcher Roy Lee Jackson.

"He was coming at me with fastballs and sliders, and I was taking my best rips," Bergman said later. "I was locked in; he was locked in. I really felt like I was going to hit the ball hard somewhere, and I'm sure he felt he was going to get me out."

Jackson reared back and threw, and Bergman swung. Again and again and again.

Jackson readies to pitch... and pitch... and pitch

The first five pitches were all hit foul, including one smash down the right-field line that briefly looked like a game-winner.

The sixth delivery was high, and Bergman laid off it for a ball. He didn't swing at the seventh either, which was just a bit outside -- prompting a groan of relief from the crowd.

After another foul, Bergman took Jackson's eighth pitch low, making the count 3-and-2.

Then came another foul ball. And another. And another.

Finally, on the 13th pitch, Bergman swung like a golfer in the rough at a low Jackson pitch and launched it into the second-deck porch in right field. It was Bergman's first home run in 100 plate appearances in 1984, and gave the Tigers a 6-3 win.

Bergman going all-out vs. Jackson.

Toronto never got so close to first place again, and Detroit ended the year with a 104-58 record and the AL East title. The Tigers then swept Kansas City in the ALCS and easily dispatched San Diego in a five-game World Series.

Bergman contributed just seven at-bats (and one hit) in the postseason, but all these years later his big moment of '84 is still credited as a launching point in Detroit's last world championship. He died in 2015, but is not forgotten.

Will Mookie's homer on Thursday work similar magic for this Red Sox team? Or will it be just a fond memory in a season that ends short of a title?

Time will tell, but for the next several months Boston fans can hope for the former.

Will Boston end the year like Detroit did in 1984? 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Mookie Betts hit three homers -- in case you didn't notice

Mookie goes yard -- did you hear?

Tune into either of Boston's sports radio stations day or night, and chances are you'll hear someone discussing the concurrent playoff runs of the Bruins and Celtics. Unless, of course, they are analyzing the relative merits of the Patriots draft picks.

The Red Sox have the best record in the major leagues at 22-8, and leadoff man Mookie Betts had his second three-homer game of the young season yesterday. Betts now leads all of baseball in batting (.365), slugging (.823), OPS (a Williamesque 1.274),.and runs (32), and with his usual stellar defense in right field has his sights set on an MVP award.

But despite an uptick in the TV ratings aided by the team's white-hot start, Betts and the Red Sox are flying low under the radar as Boston's other three major pro sports teams demand our attention.

Even the Red Sox are watching the Bruins.

Owners John Henry would certainly enjoy more hype around Fenway in the early going, but first-year manager Alex Cora likely has no complaints. The lack of focus on his club is affording him the opportunity to grow into his job without the media and fan scrutiny that normally comes with the job.

Take Tuesday. The Sox made four errors and left nine men on base in a 7-6 loss to Kansas City that also featured a blown save by closer Craig Kimbrel, but all fans were talking and tweeting about were wins by the Celtics and Bruins in their respective semifinal series the day before. It was the same thing Wednesday after Betts' big day.

This won't last forever, of course. Eventually, the local hockey and basketball teams will end their postseason runs, and the Sox will be back to front-burner status. There will be plenty of platitudes for Betts if he keeps up his heroics and much hyper-analysis of Cora's decisions. But for now, Mookie and Alex will no doubt enjoy their relative obscurity on the Boston sports landscape.

Don't get too relaxed, Alex. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Yawkey Way decision shows lack of creativity on part of Red Sox and John Henry

Jersey Street -- how is that better?

Judging from the on-air and online commentary, feelings are most definitely mixed on the Boston Public Improvement Commission's decision to rename Yawkey Way -- with far more negative sentiment than John Henry might have anticipated. I'm not going to pass judgment on Henry's reasoning for this move, because it's moot; Thursday's vote means the war is over, and Henry has won.

What baffles me is the lack of creative thinking on Henry's part. Faced with fans he had to know would view a name change as political correctness gone amok, the Red Sox owner missed the opportunity to push for the type of change that might win some skeptics over -- and generate additional positive buzz around the move.

The good old days ...?

By bringing back Jersey Street, Henry has effectively returned Fenway's home address to a time when stale cigar smoke wafted through the stands, the bullpen cart rolled across Joe Mooney's lawn, and drunken bleacherites yelled "Hey Uncle Ben!" at rookie outfielder Jim Rice.

Mail to Fenway arrived on Jersey Street when Jackie Robinson was told "don't call us, we'll call you" after his sham tryout in 1945, and it was where Boston manager (and sometimes GM) Mike "Pinky" Higgins reported for work when he vowed "They'll be no niggers on this club as long as I have anything to say about it." Under Yawkey's employ, he had his way longer than any other MLB boss.

Robinson did not leave Jersey Street smiling.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying everything about Jersey Street is bad. I'm sure lots of nice people have worked and lived on it. But if you're trying to bring about change, why not go all the way?

Here are five alternate street names that would have made for an upbeat ending to this saga -- and still could, if it's not too late for John Henry to get on the horn to the commission.

Bobby Doerr Boulevard: It's hard to think of a more universally respected or beloved Red Sox figure than Doerr, a Hall of Fame second baseman and coach with the club who died last November at age 99. Naming a street for him this year would be a wonderful way of honoring the memory of No. 1.

As an elder statesman, Doerr remained regal.

Ted Williams Way:  Yup, I know this was tried before back in 1991. In fact, I was standing a few feet away on the Fenway grass, working as a young freelancer shortly after college, when Teddy Ballgame was handed the street sign that bore his name and would soon be affixed to what was previously known as Lansdowne Street. Things didn't go as planned; folks kept stealing the Ted Williams Way signs, and the name never took. There is probably a whole generation of kids under 25 who never knew this attempted change ever happened.

But this August marks the 100th anniversary of Williams' birth. What better time to try again to name a street for the greatest hitter in Red Sox history -- and a two-time war hero and champion of the Jimmy Fund to boot. In a 21st century, twitter-fed world, I bet it would stick this time.

It didn't take the first time, but maybe now....?

Jimmy Fund Drive: I admit being a bit bias on this one. I've worked for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute since 1999, focused largely on the great work of its Jimmy Fund charity. I have seen up close many, many times the important role the Red Sox play in making the lives of cancer patients happier -- and how their efforts each summer in the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon generate millions in critical funds needed for research and clinical care. 

There is already a "Jimmy Fund Way" on Dana-Farber's main campus in the Longwood Medical Area, which Yaz and Mike Andrews dedicated in 1997 to honor the '67 Impossible Dream Red Sox. A Jimmy Fund Drive at Fenway would nobly honor the annual fundraising drives that the Sox make for New England's Favorite Charity.

A bridge for Papi - how about a street for Pedro?

Pedro Place: Other Red Sox greats have statues, why not give the best pitcher in team history his own street? The fact Pedro Martinez is also a man of color known for doing many great works on behalf of his Dominican countrymen and others makes him a worthy and fitting symbol of change in the post-Yawkey era. Besides, how cool would it be to say you were going to meet your buddies at El Tiante's on Pedro Place?

Red Sox Way:  This isn't very creative, but it is straight and to the point. It would help folks find Fenway when lost, and would symbolize what John Henry is trying to create here -- a new Red Sox way of going about business. 

If you're reading, Mr. Henry, my vote goes for Jimmy Fund Drive or Ted Williams Way -- just make sure those new street signs are bolted down tight.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Feeling down on the Red Sox? This should cheer you up...

Austin and Dustin (John Deputy photo)

My day job chronicling the goings-on at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Jimmy Fund allows me an inside look at the one-of-a-kind relationship between the Red Sox and New England's favorite charity. So on days  like yesterday when the Red Sox bullpen blows a four-run lead in the eighth inning, I try to remember all the good that the team does to lift the spirits of pediatric and adult cancer patients -- like this:

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Jimmy Fund Clinic’s 15th annual trip to Boston Red Sox spring training last month – delays and all.
While New Englanders were dealing with one of the snowiest, windiest Marches in recent memory, 42 clinic patients aged 13 and up hugged their families goodbye in the lobby of Dana-Farber's Yawkey Center for Cancer Care on a Friday afternoon and boarded a bus bound for Logan International Airport. Their final destination was Fort Myers, Florida, and JetBlue Park at Fenway South; accompanying them as clinicians and fellow adventurers were 12 doctors, four nurses, and six clinic staff.
In addition to meeting Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Chris Sale, and more than a dozen other Red Sox players during their excursion, the clinic group enjoyed watching an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles, cooling off on the water slide and lazy river at their hotel pool, and dining in a suite at JetBlue Park. When a Florida rarity – rain – forced the postponement of an all-clinic batting practice, the Dana-Farber crew improvised by heading to the local bowling alley for some indoor fun.
The yearly trip was conceived in 2002 by Todd Schwartz, who felt that he and fellow teenage patients would enjoy bonding away from the hospital and their parents. Schwartz did not live to see his dream come to fruition, but trip leader Lisa Scherber, director of Patient and Family Programs at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorder Center, says each sojourn south is a tribute to his wisdom.

Zack and Xander (John Deputy photo)

“After all these years, I still make it a point to step back and just watch when we’re on these trips,” says Scherber, “We know that even for those young patients who are nervous about being away from their parents, flying for the first time, or getting treatment away from the hospital, this is going to be a life-altering event – a chance to make wonderful memories and friendships with other kids who know what they are going through. We appreciate our sponsors including the WEEI Jimmy Fund Golf Tournament, JetBlue, and the Red Sox for making this incredible weekend happen.”
Even a delay in the clinic group’s return flight to Boston worked out. While waiting at the airport on Sunday night, the contingent spotted former Red Sox pitching legend Pedro Martinez – who came over and spent nearly a half-hour chatting with the group and signing autographs.

“We didn’t wind up getting back to Boston until after 1:00 am Monday, and eight of the kids on the trip had clinic visits at 9:00 am that same morning,” Scherber says with a laugh. “They were still on a high – we all were.”  
Brock and the Gang

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Another Hall of Fame honors Pedro Martinez for his deeds and recalls his classy words

Pedro earned his stripes in Montreal.

For Red Sox fans it was a single sound byte in a month-long stretch of magical, must-see video. Most probably didn't even hear it above all the screaming in living rooms, dorm rooms, and bars across New England. Fewer would recall it later.

Over the border, however, folks took notice -- and never forgot.

Pedro Martinez had just helped the 2004 Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. The triumph climaxed a seven-year run of domination by Pedro unseen before or since: a 2.45 ERA and 0.978 WHIP in regular-season play during an era when steroid-fueled sluggers ripped other pitchers to bits.

In his and Boston's crowning moment of glory, a champagne-socked Pedro took a moment in the raucous Boston clubhouse to thank the Montreal Expos fans that had embraced him as he grew to stardom with their team in 1994-97. The cash-strapped Montreal front office had sent Pedro to the Red Sox in a one-sided deal after his Cy Young season in '97, knowing it couldn't resign him. Now they were losing far more than a pitching ace.

Always an afterthought in hockey-crazed Canada, and saddled with a dismal stadium that citizens voted down replacing with a publicly-funded ballpark, Les Expos were moving south to become the Washington Nationals.

"I would like to share this with the people in Montreal that are not going to have a team anymore," said Martinez. "My heart and my ring is with them, too."

A moment shared.

He was speaking to a single Montreal reporter, but the 12-second clip soon went worldwide. The classy comments were Pedro's way of thanking those who had believed in him. Tommy Lasorda and the Dodgers may have thought Martinez lacked the strength and size to be a starter (swapping him to Montreal even-up for Delino DeShields), but Expos manager Felipe Alou and his organization gave Pedro the chance to prove he could. Now the country he departed after four years and a .625 winning percentage is thanking him back with its ultimate honor.

On June 16, Martinez will be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, along with former Blue Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby and baseball historian William Humber.

In a conference call with reporters after receiving the news on Feb. 1, Pedro expanded on why the honor meant so much. After his 1994 trade from the Dodgers, where his big brother and teammate Ramon had always looked out for him amidst the craziness that is LA, Martinez established his independence in Canada.

"At the time, I didn't know what to do in the streets," said Pedro. "Montreal helped me to become a man, because not only was I on my own, but doing it in a place where I felt really, really safe and loved by the people and embraced by the people that did not care what color you were, what you were wearing, how much money you were making. They were there to make you feel comfortable. So Montreal means the world to me."

Alou gave Martinez a chance.

Martinez always felt, as did many of his teammates at the time, that the Expos could have won the 1994 World Series. They were in first place with the best record in the MLB on August 12 when the remainder of the regular season and entire postseason were canceled by the 1994 baseball strike. Pedro, in his first year with the club, was 11-5 and on a five-game winning streak when the strike hit.

That's why when he finally won his first championship a decade later, Pedro wanted Montreal fans to know he wished it had been with them. His Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown may include a Red Sox hat, but he will always be remembered warmly by Canadians as more than just a baseball star. His brilliance went beyond the numbers, on and off the field.

Boston fans understand completely.