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Friday, October 25, 2019

How I helped bring big-league baseball back to Washington

Nobody has seen this in DC in a while. (AP photo)

With the first World Series game in Washington, D.C., since 1933 just hours away, it's time to share the tale of the role I played in making it all happen.

The year was 1994. I was a young stringer at the Washington Post, working the Sports desk by day and covering minor league, college, and high school games on nights and weekends. Baseball was my favorite sport, but the closest big-league team, the Baltimore Orioles, was an hour away. The second incarnation of the Washington Senators had left town for Texas more than 20 years before, and summers in DC were spent waiting for football season to start.

Then one day the phone rang in the Sports department (yup, people really called the Sports desk in that Jurassic era). It was an Orioles fan, irate that the team's D.C. ticket office had closed. I didn't know there was such a place, and asked him where it was; it turns out it was only a few blocks from the Post's 15th and L offices.

Where I took the call in '94 - since torn down.

During my lunch break, I walked over and checked it out. Sure enough, there were was a CLOSED sign on the door of an otherwise nondescript storefront on 17th and L, with posters of Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson in the window. Before online ticket brokers got heavy into the market, most folks got tickets the old-fashioned way -- at the ballpark or at an office like this one.

Now DC residents no longer had the latter option. A few angry fans milled around out front; a real mini-mutiny.

I wrote a story about the incident that was one of my rare front-page-of-the-Sports-section articles, and the result was a stream of phone calls into the Sports desk complaining about the closing.

They must have called the Orioles PR office too, because the store was quickly reopened. Staff writer and Orioles beat man Mark Maske got to write the follow-up story, but I didn't mind. It was cool enough that my reporting had helped spark action. Even Orioles owner Peter Angelos got involved.

Cal was a big DC draw in '94.

The incident proved what I already knew from covering the minor leagues for the Post; Washington was a football town, but there was still plenty of baseball fans in DC hungry for a big-league club. They were willing to drive an hour to Baltimore to see one, and helped fill several minor-league ballparks in Maryland and Virginia as well.

When the Redskins went from a perennial contender to an awful club in the mid-1990s, and the basketball Bullets and hockey Capitols were stumbling along at mediocre or worse, the yearning in DC for a winning team in ANY sport was high. During the MLB strike of '94, my minor league coverage briefly took over large portions of the Sports section when Baltimore's Class AA Bowie Baysox club made the Eastern Division playoffs. It was the closest thing to big-time baseball in either DC or Baltimore that summer. 

The best pro baseball club near DC, c 1994.

A little over a decade later, long after I had returned to my native Boston, Washingtonians finally got their own baseball team when the Expos relocated from Montreal as the Nationals. The Redskins still stunk, and slowly DC brought back the fans it had lost to the Orioles in previous decades.

Now, it appears, that transformation is complete. And when the first pitch is thrown tonight, I'll be watching with a little bit of pride.

After all, I helped show Washington could be a baseball town.

Friday, September 20, 2019

In lost season, Red Sox found a new ace: Eduardo Rodriguez

Seen often this season: E-Rod gets a hand (AP)
Earlier this summer, Eduardo Rodriguez was asked what he attributed to his rapidly rising star on the Red Sox pitching staff. In slow but thoughtful English, which has improved along with his game, the Venezuelan left-hander said that rather than trying to emulate the three Cy Young Award winners who preceded him in Boston's starting rotation, he was now focusing more on himself -- on being the best he could be as a pitcher.

E-Rod's insights, which seemed astute at the time, have grown increasingly sagelike as this hugely disappointing Red Sox season has continued.

Those three Cy Young winners who helped Boston to the 2018 World Series title -- Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Procello -- have all fizzled due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has quietly put up the kind of numbers that traditional fans and the analytics crowd can all appreciate.

If you still believe that victories by a starting pitcher have relevance, E-Rod is your man. His 18-6 record after yesterday's victory over the Giants would look just as impressive in 1990 as it does today, and with two starts left he still has a shot at 20 wins -- a magic figure that has largely gone the way of the dodo and $1.50 bleacher seats.

His Twitter feed says it all: E-Rod is PUMPED!

Rodriguez is no Jake deGrom when it comes to ERA, but his 3.53 mark was good for 7th in the American League entering tonight despite the hardship of being a lefty who calls Fenway Park home. He has kept his team in games all season, and the Red Sox are 24-8 in his 32 starts. In games started by anybody else, they are 56-64.

Some people cite Rodriguez's tremendous run support in downplaying his success. For much of the season, Boston scored more often with E-Rod on the mound than any other MLB pitcher. But that is certainly not his fault; in fact, it's a trend any pitcher would covet. The aim of the game is to score the most runs and win. When Rodriguez pitches, the Red Sox usually do both.

Even more impressive is this: During the long, slow march to the end of Boston's championship reign, as his rotation-mates have floundered and flamed out, Rodriguez has shone brighter. He is 10-2 in his last 15 starts, with a 2.21 ERA and 6.2 WAR -- marks that would earn him heavy Cy Young consideration of his own were he to continue them over a full campaign. He's got something to prove, and it shows.

No one is going to confuse Rodriguez with Sale when it comes to strikeouts, but not trying to mow everybody down seems to agree with E-Rod too. He's no slouch in the department -- with 199, he ranks 9th in the AL -- but given the choice between heat and control, he seems content on the latter. Pitching to contact means quicker outs, which is keeping him in games longer.

Home and away, Rodriguez has caught on.

This might be the single most important change in Rodriquez circa 2019. Last year, when he went a solid 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA, E-Rod was known as a six-inning pitcher. This season he has gone 7+ innings eight times, and is 6th in the league in innings pitched. The decision to limit the workload for Ming vase mates Sale and Price in spring training backfired, in that both pitchers failed to last deep into the season before getting injured; E-Rod, in contrast, has been E-Long in August and September.

If Sale and Price were doing the same, even with the team's horrendous April, Boston would likely be pushing for the playoffs the final week of the regular season -- rather than playing out the string.

No less an authority than Red Sox pitching legend Luis Tiant cites this as the key to Rodriguez's rise: manager Alex Cora is giving him the chance to pitch out of more tough situations, and E-Rod is gaining confidence in himself. "If you don't give somebody the chance to get out of a jam now," asks Tiant, "when will he ever learn?"

The secret is out: E-Rod is for real. (LaVida Baseball)

Rodriguez is learning now, and along with everything else, he has age on his side.

Modern baseball is a sport where being 30 years old earns you a warning label come contract time, and Boston has three graybeards in Price (34), Sale (30), and Porcello (30). Rodriguez, in contrast, is just 26, an age that throughout the game's history has usually coincided with the start of a player's physical and statistical prime. In other words, while the "Big Three" of Boston's 2018 champs are trying to regain their standing as dependable hurlers come 2020, Rodriguez should be getting stronger and better.

As Boston fans count down the final days of a forgettable campaign -- and cheer for E-Rod to reach 20 wins, 200 strikeouts, and 200 innings -- that's a thought they can hang their Hot Stove hats on.

E-Rod is after it (Barry Chin/Boston Globe)

Saturday, August 3, 2019

As Yankee Stadium weeped, teary Luis Tiant stood tall

On this night in 1979, Tiant took the hill.

Luis Tiant was always known as a big-game pitcher with the Red Sox, right up until his last must-win shutout on the final day of the '78 season. He didn't get to throw as many do-or-die contests with the Yankees, but 40 years ago today, on August 3, 1979, a heartbroken El Tiante shined throughout what he later called "the toughest game of my life."

The previous day, just after the Yankees returned from a road trip, shocking news quickly spread across the sports world: New York catcher and captain Thurman Munson had been killed at Akron-Canton Regional Airport while practicing takeoffs and landings in his private jet  He was 32 and left a wife and three young children.

In just half a season with the Yankees, Tiant had already grown close with Munson, the team's tough-as-nails leader. Maybe it's because Luis spent parts of the previous eight years throwing to the only receiver in the American League considered Munson's peer at the position -- Carlton Fisk -- and was used to working with a strong personality behind the plate. All business on the mound, Tiant loved his new catcher's win-at-all-costs attitude.

Fisk and Munson were heated rivals said to hate each other. Tiant doesn't buy it.

"They didn't hate each other -- they respected each other, and they were competitive with one another because each wanted to be number one," Tiant recalls today. "When their teams met up, they talked often about catching and how hurt they always were."

Fisk and Munson mix it up.

One fact, forgotten to time, seems to support Tiant's view. Munson's widow, Diana, later said that only one non-Yankee player sent a personal note to her home in the days after his death: Carlton Fisk.

When it came to New York's August 3 home game against the first-place Baltimore Orioles, nobody would have questioned it if the Yankees canceled or postponed the contest. But Diana said that her husband would have wanted his teammates to play, and so they did -- with a weary lineup still in shock. Some veterans were too broken-up to take the field, but manager Billy Martin didn't have to worry about his starting pitcher.

A moment of silence for their captain. 

It was Luis Tiant's turn in the rotation, and even at nearly 39 years old, El Tiante never said no to a challenge.

In Boston, his bravado and brilliance went hand-in-hand. He had long been The Man, the undisputed ace of the staff. On the Yankees, however, that role was held by rail-thin, flame-throwing Ron Guidry, with 20-game winner Tommy John #2 behind him. Tiant, as sage a hurler as the game had ever known, was no longer a top gun, but he was still capable of great performances.

Initially, he did not think this was going to be one of those nights.

"There was a service before the game," he remembers. "Every starter stood out at his position except catcher Jerry Narron; the spot behind the plate was left empty until the game started. There were some prayers, someone sang "American the Beautiful," and when they put Thurman's picture up on the big scoreboard...WOW. I was crying on the mound, and the fans stood and cheered for nearly ten minutes. At one point they all started changing Thurman's name, and I felt like they were never going to stop.

The Stadium rocked as Munson's image glowed.

"Then I had to pitch!"

He says he's not sure how he got through the game, but wound up going eight innings and giving up just two hits. One, a home run by John Lowenstein in the second inning, wound up the only run of the contest. Scott McGreggor, with ninth-inning help from Tippy Martinez, got the win for the Orioles. He was a very close friend of Munson's and cried throughout the game.

"I wanted to win for Thurman so bad," Tiant says today, "but that's the thing about baseball. Even when you should win, sometimes you don't. But God gives you the strength to keep fighting."

Forty years later, fans and players still remember that game -- and how Luis Tiant showed great heart while hearts around him were breaking.

Is it any wonder why Tiant remains one of the few men to play for the Red Sox and Yankees to be universally loved in Boston and the Bronx?

Luis Tiant quotes from Son of Havana: A baseball journey from Cuba to the big leagues and back

Monday, May 27, 2019

Bill Buckner, gritty warrior who spurred 1986 Red Sox to A.L. pennant, dead at 69

Another clutch hit for Bill Buckner.
Thirty-five years and two days ago, the Red Sox traded Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley to the Chicago Cubs for Bill Buckner. The trade was a key to Boston winning the 1986 American League pennant.

Eckersley, battling back and shoulder injuries as well as personal demons, was struggling along with a 5.01 ERA at the time of the May 25, 1984 deal. He would show sparks of brilliance in Chicago, but really wouldn't return to All-Star status until a move to the bullpen. Brumley, then a minor leaguer, was a lifetime .206 hitter in the majors. Neither he or Eck would likely have helped the '86 Red Sox.

Buckner, however, played a major role in Boston's AL championship that year. He had 102 RBIs in 1986 -- 50 before the All-Star Game and 52 after it. The Red Sox entered September in those pre-Wild Card days in first place, but just 3.5 games ahead of second-place Toronto. It was Billy Buck who helped Boston pull away as the team's best hitter in the final weeks. He batted .315 with 8 homers, 22 RBI, and a .938 OPS in September and October.

So please don't add a comment below saying that Buckner cost the Red Sox the '86 World Series. If it was not for him, a guy who played hard and well despite being in immense pain, that club most likely would never have gotten as far as it did. 

THAT should be how Boston fans remember him, with headlines like the one above. Not for that other thing. But there is always going to be that other thing, and that will be in most of the headlines.

When my son told me a few minutes ago that Buckner had died at age 69, a robust man felled by the rare disease of Lewy Body Dementia, my thoughts like everyone else's returned to 1986 and the moment that unfairly condemned this All-Star and borderline Hall of Fame-caliber player to years of abuse. 

This was before Boston was Titletown, when the Red Sox were closing in on 70 years of heartbreak instead of going for their fifth world championship in 15 years. Buckner took the jokes and the boos and the taunting that came his way after his error in Game Six of the 1986 World Series as best as I can imagine anybody doing, and when it got too tough for his wife or kids to handle he moved west to Idaho. It was there he found peace, before dying in his native Vallejo, California this morning with his family by his side.

I wish he had enjoyed that peace for far longer.

Buckner at peace, coaching for Class A Boise.

First some more facts: Buckner was already a former batting champion and All-Star with a .295 lifetime batting average and just shy of 2,000 hits when the Red Sox picked him up in 1984. He continued to perform like an All-Star in Boston, batting 299 with 110 RBIs and 201 hits for the 1985 Red Sox despite hitting just 16 home runs. He usually batted third or fourth because he was so adept at moving runners along. At first base, he was a solid defender who was especially strong at scooping up low throws. 

He did this at less than his peak physically. Once one of the fastest runners in the National League, who roamed the outfield like a deer, Buckner severely injured his left ankle playing for the Dodgers in early 1975 and it hampered him the rest of his career. He managed to play more than 1800 games after the injury, often at an elite level, but his days as an outfielder were over.

The logical spot for Buckner was at third or first base, but the Dodgers had Ron Cey and Steve Garvey entrenched at those spots. So Buckner was traded to the lowly Cubs, where he took over at first, became a fan favorite, and won the 1980 batting title. 

Jeff English started his fine biography on Buckner for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) with a definition:

GAMER 1. A player who approaches the game with a tenacious, spirited attack and continues to play even when hurt; a competitor; a player who doesn't make excuses. The term is a compliment, most especially when it comes from another player.

That was Buckner. He played nearly every day, with no whining, despite the pain. Entering 1986, he was only 34 and already had close to 2,200 hits; 3,000 and Cooperstown still seemed a very real possibility. Bone spurs in his left ankle were bothering him so much by this point that he announced he would be having surgery after the '86 season. In the meantime, there was a pennant to win, so Buckner spent hours wrapping, unwrapping, and icing his left leg before and after games. He played in 153 of Boston's 162 contests that regular season -- and three of his days off came after the Sox wrapped up the title.

By the playoffs, unfortunately, he could no longer produce despite the pain -- which only got worse when he hurt his other leg in the League Championship Series against the Angels. He hit just .214 in the ALCS, and .188 in the World Series. But Bill Buckner DID NOT lose the '86 World Series for the Red Sox any more than Bob Stanley or Rich Gedman or John McNamara or anyone else did. What Buckner did do was his best despite injuries that would have put a lesser man on the bench. 

Peter Gammons described Buckner's gritty effort that postseason for the Nov. 10, 1986 issue of Sports illustrated: 

"He crawled like an alligator into one base. He went after a pop-up, fell down and did a backstroke trying to make a catch in Game 4. He scurried on hands and knees to take the first base bag with his glove. He limped out for the national anthem, bat in hand, just in case he needed a cane. He wore a high-topped right shoe for the Achilles tendon he pulled in the seventh game of the playoffs, but it was the pain in two parts of his left ankle that had created the original limp and had necessitated nine cortisone shots since April." 

This underscores why Buckner should have been on the bench when Mookie Wilson came up in the tenth inning of Game Six, but also why he was not. Buckner was not going to ask to sit down -- because even at less than his best, Billy Buck felt he could do the job. The manager did not put Dave Stapleton in at first base with a two-run lead in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game Six, even though he had done so in similar situations during the playoffs. Whether he did it so Buckner could be on the field for the title that never came is irrelevant. It was a mistake, but it wasn't Buckner's mistake. 

Buckner never ducked responsibility. 

The ground ball that went through his legs and allowed the winning run to score that night was his mistake, and he never did anything less than stand up and take blame for the error -- the final miscue in a chain of bad events that cost Boston that game.  He then went out and had two hits in Game Seven, including a single to start a two-run Red Sox rally in the eighth that nearly tied the contest. But they didn't tie it, and the Mets won the game and the series -- leading to all those awful Bill Buckner jokes that made their way across the country in those pre-internet days. 

I was a stupid 19-year-old college kid ranked into oblivion at Syracuse by Mets fans, and I admit I told some myself. Just thinking about my behavior then makes me sick, even if everybody else in my dorm was doing it.

Buckner never deserved the abuse, but it never let up, until Buckner was traded to the Angels the next summer. Boston fans did give him a standing ovation when he made the team in 1990, and another one when he threw out the first ball before a World Series game decades later, but as far as I'm concerned both these gestures were far too little too late. The damage was done.

"I'll be seeing clips of this thing until the day I die," Buckner told the Wall Street Journal in 1998 of his infamous error. "I accept that. On the other hand, I'll never understand why."

Neither do I. And if there was anybody who deserved to live to a ripe old age bouncing grandchildren and great-grandchildren on his knee -- or tossing them pitches in the backyard -- it was Billy Buck.

In his November 1986 piece on Buckner for Sports Illustrated, Peter Gammons related an incident that occurred after Buckner's post-World Series ankle surgery:

"I just want to tell you that you'll always be my inspiration," said a small boy who ducked into Buckner's hospital room Wednesday night. "Thanks for a great season." Then the boy disappeared."

I wish I knew who that kid was; if I did, I'd call him up now and give him my appreciation for doing at a very young age what the rest of us lunkheads did far too late. 

Thank Bill Buckner for representing Boston so well.

Hearing the cheers on Opening Day, 2008