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Respect For Rice Overdue

Rafael Palmeiro will be elected to the Hall of Fame, regardless of the fact that he was caught by Major League Baseball’s new drug testing policy, which showed that he took steroids to boost his numbers on the field. He is certainly not the first player in baseball to have used a performance enhancer to try and better himself at the plate, with Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti both admitting in recent years of widespread use of steroids by themselves and former teammates that saw home run totals climb into the stratosphere. The latter paid the ultimate price last fall when a cocaine overdose, likely fueled by his reliance on illicit drugs to keep that high that he felt playing baseball all those years alive, took him from this earth at the tender age of 41.

Palmeiro’s career numbers are indeed impressive, having recently passed the magical 3,000-hit mark and the 500 home run mark in 2003. Given that he is signed to play through the end of next season, it is quite possible that he could manage to hit enough home runs to qualify as only the third player in major league history to have a minimum of 600 home runs and 3,000 hits, joining only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays in that respect. The numbers are impressive, especially when you consider that Palmeiro has never held a batting or home run title in his 20 seasons playing in the majors. Unfortunately, the recent ten-day suspension will hang over his head for years to come, tarnishing an otherwise unblemished record.

Of course, there are others in recent years whose names will someday show up on the ballots of the baseball writers whose reputation are modestly stained; Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa come to mind, although there is no concrete evidence that they have used illegal performance enhancers. Although it’s true that McGwire admitted to using androstenedione during the 1998 season as he and Sosa chased Roger Maris’s 37-year-old home run record, at that time it was not a banned substance as it is now, so he essentially gets a get-out-of-jail free card. So don’t be surprised to see them get elected, either.

Being a Boston fan, I can’t help but think about former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, a player that I admittedly only caught in the latter part of his career. It’s not hard to look at his numbers and be impressed. Had he not debuted in the same season as rookie teammate Fred Lynn, he would have easily walked away with American League Rookie of the Year honors and perhaps even the MVP as well after batting .309 with 22 home runs and 102 RBI. From 1977 through 1979, his numbers were almost equal in every season, averaging .320 with 41 home runs and 128 RBI. In 1978, he collected 406 total bases, the only American League player since the legendary Joe DiMaggio in 1937 to have more than 400 in a season; three times, he led the AL in home runs and twice finished number one in slugging percentage.

Rice was the classic power hitter in the lineup; though only 6-foot-2 and weighing in at just over 200 pounds, he used his short stroke and his strong wrists to drive balls all over the yard. From 1975 through 1986, he was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball as he averaged .304 with 29 home runs and 106 RBI. When he finally called it a career after the 1989 season, he had amassed 382 home runs, 2,452 hits, and 1,451 RBI; all three place him in the top 100 of all-time in MLB history. One would think that would be enough to get his plaque hung alongside the likes of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, two other Red Sox greats and among the only players he trails in several offensive categories in team history.

Yet Rice still waits outside the gates, perhaps silently wondering if the last few, injury-plagued seasons hurt his chances. Had he not tried to play through injuries to his knees in those seasons, he might have built on those numbers even more, finished on a high note, and found his way to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility in 1995. However, when you consider that he put nothing more in his body other than perhaps a few vitamins, those numbers today are that much more impressive when compared to the baseball stars today that are pumped up on more than adrenaline. Rice is probably not the only star from his era that has been overlooked; Andre Dawson is one other player that comes to mind who put up great numbers but was nagged by injuries late in his career that probably hurt his chances.

Enshrinement in the Hall of Fame should not come easy; being a player of that caliber in any sport means that you were one of the best ever to play. For years, the baseball writers who voted for these ballplayers have generally turned a blind eye towards passing judgment on that player’s ethical conduct because, for the most part, the numbers have been all that mattered. Thus, Palmeiro and his contemporaries will be given a pass and honored among other past greats of the game, even with concrete evidence that they tampered with their bodies to give themselves an edge on the field. Yet, knowing that, perhaps players like Rice who were the power hitters of their era should be given a pass for, well, just being human.

2005 Mid-Season Review

If defending a World Series championship were easy, we’d already be planning the October parade route through Boston, but winning a title for the first time since Woodrow Wilson was president means that there are 29 other teams looking to knock you off your perch. It’s been another interesting first half for the club and, for the first time in a decade, the Red Sox sit in sole possession of first place in the American League East at the All-Star break and would like to stay there for the rest of the 2005 season. With this being the traditional half-way mark of the baseball season, it’s time to take stock in how this team has done to this point and hand out some type-written hardware.

Team MVP: Matt Clement
First runner-up: Johnny Damon

The loss of Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe in the Red Sox rotation looked even worse on paper when free agent and former Boston prospect Carl Pavano decided to take an offer to play with the Yankees. Clement was the only other viable option available on the free agent market but seemed like a risky option. However, with Curt Schilling out of action for most of the first half, the eight-year veteran has filled in nicely as the club’s substitute ace, earning ten wins in 18 starts and posting a 3.85 ERA, which leads the team in both categories; in contrast, Pavano is 4-6 with a 4.77 ERA in 17 starts and currently sits on the disabled list. Even though he was added at the last moment, the first-time All-Star selection for Clement was well-deserved; through the first half of the season, he has by far been one of the better pitchers in the American League.

Team Goat: Keith Foulke
First runner-up: Mark Bellhorn

Foulke solidified the closer role last season and throughout the playoffs; however, for as good as he was last season, he has been almost as bad this season. Although he is on track to match his save total from last season, his other numbers are cause for alarm; his walk total already equals last seasons total and he has given up seven more earned runs this season (27) than he did all last season (20). His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) average is 1.56, better than 50% higher than last season’s average, and the opposition is hitting .289 against him compared to just .208 last season. Fans no longer feel confident when he enters a game; four blown saves and recent arthroscopic surgery have deepened those concerns.

Biggest Surprise: Jason Varitek
First runner-up: Mike Timlin

People in Boston already knew that they had an All-Star catcher behind the plate before this season; being part of last season’s championship team made it evident to the rest of baseball. Varitek will make the first of what will hopefully be a few starts for the American League before he calls it a career and he is more than deserving of that recognition after the first half he enjoyed, especially at the plate. Though he has struggled somewhat in the past couple of weeks, his .301 average is nearly 30 point better than his career average; in fact, Varitek was batting .328 and better as recently as a month ago and his numbers will likely climb again. He has also hit 17 doubles and 13 home runs, which has him on pace to match or exceed career highs. Maybe the Sox should have given him that “C” sooner to wear on his chest.

Biggest Disappointment: Ramon Vazquez
First runner-up: Alan Embree

Boston envisioned that Vazquez would serve as this year’s version of Pokey Reese but that never materialized. Although the opportunities came few and far between, with only 27 appearances and just two starts since the start of June, Vazquez was just awful at the plate, batting just .197 before getting optioned to the minors nearly a week ago and then getting traded to Cleveland. As expected, he showed promise with the glove but, without the bat, he made it difficult for the Red Sox to keep a spot reserved for him on the bench.

Second Half Outlook
Keep your eyes forward

Boston enters the break at 49-38, two games ahead of Baltimore and 2-1/2 games better than New York. At the same time last season, they were 48-38 and seven games behind the Yankees for first place in the East. Last season, it seemed like a hopeless cause; this season, it feels more like guarded optimism. Exhilaration has gone hand-in-hand with the usual scattered struggles or setbacks and it is still unclear whether this year’s crusade will match the success of last season’s campaign.

One advantage for the Red Sox in the second half this season is that, after spending what seemed like an eternity on the road in the first half, playing 49 of the first 87 games this season away from home, Boston will get to play 43 of its remaining 75 games at friendly Fenway Park, where they enjoy the best winning percentage in baseball at home since 2003. Right after the All-Star break, they get to start at home with seven games against New York and Tampa Bay, and then follow a week-long road trip with four series out of the next five at home; that means home-field advantage in 19 out of the first 29 contests to begin the second half. Without being overlooked, Boston also gets help from the schedule makers in the second half with 12 games against Tampa Bay, six against Kansas City, and six against Detroit.

Boston also gets what will be like a mid-season acquisition when Schilling rejoins the team after the break. The team may start the second half with the 38-year-old ace, whose ankle should now be fully healed, coming in from the bullpen but, by the end of the month, he will likely be moved to the starting rotation. Should he come back and pitch like he did in 2004 for the Red Sox, it will definitely pick up a few extra wins for the patchwork rotation which did admirably in the first half.

For the Red Sox, winning the East for the first time since 1995 may be the only ticket to the post-season dance this year; the wild card race at this point is packed pretty tight, with five teams within two games of the leader in that battle and nearly equal competition from the Central division. That should equal an interesting September, as the Sox will play home-and-home series against the Orioles and the Yankees, which includes a showdown at Fenway against New York over the final weekend of the season. The Red Sox seem to match up well with the Yankees, winning five-of-nine thus far with two series already played in New York, but they need to play better in the second half against Baltimore and Toronto, who sport a combined 14-8 record against Boston. Do so and Boston will reach the playoffs for a third straight season, something they have never accomplished as an organization.

There’s No “I” In This Team

At least it’s not as bad as last year when, from day one following a disappointing end in 2003, all the talk focused on the numerous potential free agents on the Red Sox roster and who, if any, the organization would sign to new contracts at the end of the 2004 campaign. Whether it centered on the disgruntled Nomar Garciaparra, the egomaniacal Pedro Martinez, or the temperamental Derek Lowe, the media had its hands full trying to juggle these questions along with Boston’s magical run to a post-season championship for the first time since the end of World War I. Instead of focusing on the field, as most fans were, they were too busy fiddling with some magical decoder rings that are apparently issued with press passes these days, trying to decipher the language from both sides of the issue, the players and the organization, and second-guessing the motives of each party. Surely, they thought, one of these three would be back, or the team would be hard-pressed to remain competitive with the Yankees, who threatened to break the $200 million payroll threshold.

Fast-forward to the present and, with none of these aforementioned players still wearing a Red Sox uniform, Boston sits at 41-30, one win better than the club’s record at this time last season. The loss of these key players have been, for the most part, offset by smart management decisions made by Theo Epstein, who spent his third off-season putting his spin on this organization’s building legacy. With free agents like Edgar Renteria and Matt Clement plugging some of the gaps and seasoned Red Sox players like Jason Varitek still tasting champagne on their lips, it’s been another up-and-down first half but Boston remains hungry to repeat the success of 2004, even with the final outcome still lingering high in the air.

So, of course, with nothing else to interest them as mid-season approaches, it must be time to start talking about free agent possibilities again. This year, the Red Sox again have more than a few guaranteed contracts coming to a conclusion at season’s end, perhaps none bigger than that of center field Johnny Damon, who was a key member of last season’s championship squad and has continued to dominate at the plate over the first half of the season. He might even have the opportunity, if he is not voted in by the fans, to make the American League All-Star roster representing Boston for the second time in his four seasons here.

With his deal, signed by Dan Duquette just before the former general manager got the boot by the new ownership, drawing to a close, the 32-year-old Damon and his agent, the notorious Scott Boras, a “bulldog” as described by one of his other clients, Varitek, are looking for a five-to-six year guaranteed contract. Although no dollar figures have been give, it is likely that he will command considerably more per season on the free-agent market than the $8.25 million he is due to collect by the end of the season.

It is possible that Damon will remain in Boston if he is willing to take the “hometown” discount and accept a contract with shorter terms and only a moderate increase in salary with club options for later years. On the other hand, he also represents the Red Sox through the Major League Baseball Players Association, which endorses the free market system for its players and therefore does not encourage members to negotiate contracts in this manner. Having been elevated to celebrity status since showcasing his talents during last year’s playoff run, he knows that he should be able to command top dollar, even if legions of loyal Red Sox followers want to see him finish out the remainder of his career in Boston, and it will be difficult for him to pass up lucrative opportunities.

As head coach Bill Belichick and vice-president of player personnel Scott Pioli have proven with the New England Patriots over the last five seasons, it is not the value of the individual but rather the collective whole that determines the success of its team, evident by the three Super Bowl victories over than span. Great players like Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy whose demands would have been met less the organization feared a backlash by its fan base have, without much fanfare, been shown the door. Egos are checked outside the clubhouse and players have seen the benefit of putting the team before the individual, knowing that the collective contributions of each member are proof positive of continued success.

I have no other objective this season as a Red Sox fan except to continue to bask in the glow of Boston’s championship for as long as it lasts and see if Boston can win back-to-back titles, even with the knowledge that a few team members may be wearing another uniform next season. As is the nature of sports in the 21st century, the days of a player remaining with one organization for an entire career are fading, for better or worse. It’s a harsh reality for those who remember the days of placing a name to the face of an organization, like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, or Cal Ripken, players who never knew the feeling of changing loyalty to a club.

I’ve followed the Red Sox faithfully for more than twenty years; even if they never win another championship, they will always have my unwavering support. That’s not to say that I have no respect for those who wear the Boston uniform; I cheer as loudly as everyone else in the Red Sox family when one of our players makes a diving catch, helps turn two to end an inning, or drives home the game winning run in the ninth. However, as represented by the fact that home uniforms for my beloved team do not have the names of each player sewn above the number on the back, my loyalty will always be to the name on the front of the jersey.

That’s The Way Love Goes

It’s not easy being a sports celebrity in the Boston metropolitan region, no matter whose uniform you wear; if there was just one word used to describe the fan base in this area, it would be intense. One day, you’re given a parade downtown along with the key to the city; the next day, you wouldn’t win an election for dog catcher. The banter on the airwaves suggest that fans here tend to expect nothing less than perfection on the field; when a player suddenly slips a few notches below the level that we expect them to player, it doesn’t take long for the media to begin questioning how good a player he is, no matter what he’s done in the past. That is soon followed by every arm-chair quarterback and fantasy league manager offering every possible, off-beat solution to the problem, most of which involve shipping that player in an air-tight container to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

So when the unofficial Red Sox head cheerleader, first baseman Kevin Millar, came to Edgar Renteria‘s defense last weekend and told the club’s fan base to stop giving him so much grief, it wasn’t long before the assault began. As expected, Millar got grief for trying to stick up for his teammate and even more grief for highlighting the fact that his level of play thus far this season had been sub par at best; meanwhile, Renteria continued to hear it from everyone within earshot regarding his lack of offensive output and clutch hitting.

If nothing else, the veteran shortstop has learned quickly in just his first few months in a Red Sox uniform that becoming a member of one of the most storied franchises in baseball means the eventual discovery that Boston fans are among the most passionate sports fans in the world. Every season, we turn on our radios and televisions or make our way to Fenway Park and cheer for our beloved Sox in numbers. We study the box scores, review the upcoming schedules, and follow the team from the very first game right down to the very last out on the last day of the season. Generations of fans from Boston and beyond have stood behind this team and relentlessly cheered every year for that season to be the one that a long-awaited championship was finally rewarded to our team.

The fascination with the Sox is so intense, players who otherwise might have had a rather quiet major league existence find their lives forever changed when they put on a Red Sox uniform. Sam Horn, for instance, played just over a hundred games with Boston over three seasons and accomplished very little in his baseball career, but his name is synonymous with one of the World Wide Web’s most popular chat rooms. Dave Roberts, another player whose career has been relatively quiet, will be remembered until the end of time for his stolen base in the bottom of the ninth in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series that led a moment later to a game-tying run and the beginning of something very magical for Sox fans.

As odd as it sounds, Red Sox fans boo players because they support the team. Go to Tampa Bay or Milwaukee and I bet the home team hardly hears a discouraging word from the crowd during the games, no matter the situation; at least, that would be the impression I’d get looking at those half-empty stands. Boston, however, loves its team for better or worse and, for every time they jeer a player during a prolonged slump or a bad outing, they cheer even louder when he redeems himself with a diving catch, a timely hit, or a quality start. Manny Ramirez, Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth – all of these players went through rough stretches in their careers and the fans were quick to give them an earful. In the end, however, when their fortunes turned, those same fans were the ones who applauded these efforts the loudest.

Radio and television shows with overly-opinionated hosts don’t really do it for me because, often times, the discussions border on the level of immature blather; they seem to exist only to work up listeners over the frustration of watching a player struggle on the field, whether or not it has hurt the team. Often time, these diatribes border on the harsh and insensitive and that doesn’t seem fair to our players. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry when a guy suddenly goes cold at the plate but, like most fans, I am quick to forgive and forget the next time he sends a pitch into the Monster Seats to tie the score or makes the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth. From being a Red Sox fan for many years, I can fully appreciate the fact that a season has its ups and downs and a streak of bad fortune can turn quicker than the tide.

It’s been a week now and, since his 0-for-4 performance last Sunday, Renteria has been on an unbelievable tear; over his last six games, he has gone 16-for-24 to raise his average from .239 to .295. In that time, he’s had three or more hits in four of those starts, two home runs which include a grand slam in Saturday’s thumping of the Yankees, and scored seven runs while knocking in six. When the Sox return to action tonight against the Orioles at home, expect the young ballplayer to hear a resounding cheer throughout Fenway Park and beyond when his name is announced during the pre-game ceremonies and when he makes his way to the plate for his first at-bat. Though it’s unlikely that his recently hitting display will continue, he should finally understand tonight just what it means to play for this club and its fans and that should feel very good indeed.

Start Me Up!

When the news broke that Red Sox pitchers Curt Schilling and David Wells, considered the number one and three starters in the rotation, respectively, would miss weeks due to injury, Boston had lost four-of-five and was falling far behind Baltimore and Toronto in the East. Never mind the fact that the Yankees who, with a rotation spearheaded by Randy Johnson that looked so good on paper to begin the season, had slipped nearly into last place alongside Tampa Bay; suddenly the Sox were scrambling to replace these two players and held hope that free agent acquisition Wade Miller, still a week away from joining the rotation after rotator cuff surgery last season, would be ready to immediately jump into the fire. With the odds stacked against them, would it be possible to stay afloat near the top of the standings, or would the Sox slowly sink down into the depths with New York while the division turned upside-down?

As they did last fall when the team was down to its last outs in the American League Championship Series in October, it was the unlikely of heroes who turned around the fortunes of the team. Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, and Bill Mueller have morphed into Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, and Matt Clement with support from relative unknown Geremi Gonzalez, journeyman John Halama, and Miller. Since losing in Texas on 29 April to start a seven-game road tripe, the team has won ten-of-twelve, including five-of-six at home in the last week, and gone from an even .500 to a record of 23-15; on top of that, the rotation has won eight starts in that same span.

Wakefield, the longest-tenured member of the club, won two starts, including number 118 with the Sox on Monday; that put him in sole possession of fifth-place all time for wins in a Red Sox uniform. He allowed just three runs in each of his two starts and lasted better than six innings in both games; that improved his record to 4-1 while giving Boston enough opportunity to better Detroit and Oakland.

Arroyo, who many thought would be forced back to the bullpen once Miller joined the staff, was even better and is making a case to keep the number five spot. In three starts, he allowed just five runs, four earned, on 11 hits and six walks while striking out 17 in 21-2/3 innings of work. His record on the season is a perfect 4-0 and those three starts dropped his ERA more than a run to 2.91; even more impressive, Boston has not lost in his last 16 starts going back to last 15 August.

Clement, the new kid on the block, is looking like another gamble by general manager Theo Epstein that’s paid off in dividends. He’s won two of his last three starts and would have earned his fifth win on Wednesday to lead the staff in that department were it not for a ninth-inning meltdown by closer Keith Foulke. In 20 innings, Clement’s efforts have been nearly identical to Arroyo’s; he’s allowed five runs, four earned, on 14 hits and six walks while striking out 14. With a record of 4-0, his ERA has also dropped a run in that span to 3.06.

Of course, the efforts of the other starters cannot be overlooked, either. Gonzalez, who was plucked from the minors after Schilling went down, has pitched no less than five innings in two starts, allowed just six runs on ten hits and three walks while striking out 13 batters, and has one win to his credit. Halama, in his one start, allowed just two runs on four hits in five innings of work while striking out two for the win. Miller, who started Sunday against Seattle in the second game of a double-header, allowed just two runs on three hits and one walk while striking out six in a no-decision.

Look at it another way: in those twelve games, the starters have pitched 70-1/3 innings, an average of just under six innings of work, and allowed just 23 earned runs for a 2.94 ERA. When you count just Wakefield, Arroyo, and Clement, the averaged just under seven innings of work and 2.30 runs in each start. Without looking through the numbers, I’m sure that there are several teams in both leagues that would love to have three starters in their rotation matching those figures.

That’s not to say that the Red Sox aren’t looking forward to when Schilling and Wells both return from the disabled list. Schilling, who was brought to Boston before last season to make good on the promise to bring a long-awaited championship to this club, is the anchor of the staff and should be a key ingredient to another run. Wells, who may return sooner than expected from his sprained right ankle, has proven already that he still has what it takes to win ball games. It’s hard to imagine that this run of quality starts by Red Sox pitchers would carry through the season without these two returning to the rotation. Still, if Boston is to return to post-season play, fans will look back on the season and remember this key stretch at a time when the odds seemed out-of-favor for the Red Sox.

Fenway Park Forever

For just once, the little guy won, and I’m not speaking to last year’s amazing run to a World Series title by the Red Sox. I refer instead of those fans of Fenway Park, Boston’s majestic old ballpark, who launched a campaign that opposed the former owners’ plans to tear her down in favor of an exact replica but with all the amenities of the modern sports facility. Save Fenway Park!, a grassroots campaign, was launched in 1998 soon after these plans were announced and most individuals familiar with Fenway, including yours truly, viewed them as another far-reaching group just looking to stir emotions when it seemed obvious that a new facility was the answer to the park’s shortcomings. I was most interested in losing those cramped seats and obstructed views in the grandstands where I have sat on many evenings hoping that this would be the year.

Fast-forward seven years later; suddenly, with several changes made to the park over the past few years by a new Red Sox ownership, there is renewed commitment to the oldest active park in the majors. With a championship team playing to a packed house every night, the organization announced in late March that the club would remain at Fenway for generations to come. As John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino stood before the media publicizing a foregone conclusion, you could almost hear the soul of the park breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Fenway Park may be the most aesthetically-pleasing park in major league baseball today, although I admit that I may be slightly biased in that opinion. True, it still has shortcomings that will never be solved even with extensive renovations, but perhaps that is part of the attraction. Enter the gates, circle underneath the grandstand to find your section, and then climb the concourse to emerge to perhaps the most inviting site: the clay infield, the fresh-cut grass, and that left field wall that arises high above the playing field, beckoning batters to try and scale its heights with a perfectly-executed swing of the bat. Foul lines hug the walls as the park wraps itself right around the action on the field, with the attention of nearly 35,000 pairs of eyes on every delivery to home plate and the outcome that follows.

Less than two weeks ago, we were witness to an ugly incident in which a fan not only interfered with play in the right field corner near Pesky’s Pole but, on camera, appeared to take a swing at an opposing player. That fan was subsequently ejected from the ballpark and ultimately lost his season ticket privileges, a move made by the organization to make an example of that individual for trying to smear the spirit of the game. While some might see the punishment as harsh or extreme, the purpose was to save the intimacy of the park. While the owners want to keep fan interaction as a part of Fenway’s attraction, they don’t want fan interference to detract from its beauty.

Witness one hundred years ago when the Red Sox, then commonly referred to as the Americans, played at the old Huntington Avenue Grounds just across the tracks from the South End Grounds that the old Boston Braves called home. It was not uncommon for fans to stand along the foul lines and wrap themselves around the infield dirt. How often do you suppose that fan interference played a role in deciding the outcome of those games? Even after moving into Fenway Park in 1912, fans use to sit on what was known as “Duffy’s Cliff” in left field, the slight incline in front of the left field wall as the action took place.

These days, at many other ballparks around the majors, the average ticket holder sits far away from the action, so much so that you need binoculars just to recognize who’s playing where. Even those who get front-row seats usually find themselves with generous amounts of foul territory that buffer them from the action. That’s part of what makes Fenway such a unique place to watch a ball game; that intimate feeling, even with the addition of several thousand seats before all is said and done, has not vanished. The place where we watch today’s players like Curt Schilling, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Manny Ramirez is not much different from the time that saw such greats like Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Carl Yastrzemski cover the field. While the names have changed, the aura of Fenway is still there.

Over the years, baseball stadiums have come and gone, like Ebbets Field, Sportsman’s Park, the Polo Grounds, and Tiger Stadium; some day, they may be joined by other storied stadiums like Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and our beloved Fenway Park. For now, the Red Sox have realized that while Fenway, like a classic car, may not have the attractions of these modern stadiums, but it’s the simple beauty of the old girl that continues to bring fans through the turnstiles.

Pride Of The Yankees

Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2005 is when I became a fan of the New York Yankees. Now, before anyone threatens to strip me of the privileges of being a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, my loyalty to the home team has not changed. My favorite T-shirt still reads: I’m a fan of two teams, the Red Sox and whoever is playing the Yankees. I still have tickets in hand to see them play at Fenway Park a half-dozen times this season. David Ortiz is still my papi. Above all, I will always root for the Red Sox regardless of whether I have to wait another 86 more years to see them bring home a World Series title (and if I’m still alive at the age of 116, it will be worth it).

No, I became a fan of the Yankees that day because the organization proved that they are a class act. As Boston players, coaches, trainers, and even the team masseuse came out of the dugout one by one to collect their World Series rings and then raise a championship pennant for the first time since the start of the 1919 season, New York players, coaches, and even general manager Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein’s counterpart and George Steinbrenner’s whipping boy, either sat on the bench or stood on the top step in the opposing team’s dugout and respectfully watched the entire ceremony.

New York manager Joe Torre, for whom I’ve always held the highest regard, respectfully applauded his counterpart, Terry Francona, when the Boston skipper’s turn came to accept his ring, and Francona would later note that the simple gesture gave him a lump in his throat. Then, the loudest applause from the Yankees, and undoubtedly from the crowd on hand, came when 85-year-old Johnny Pesky, a fixture in the Boston organization for over sixty years, came out to be given his long-awaited piece of history. Torre was quick to tip his cap, having been a friend of “Mr. Red Sox” since he was a player with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pesky was managing the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Then later, as customary pre-game introductions were made for the home opener, the 33,702 Fenway fanatics in attendance, who had booed nearly every member of New York as usual, greeted closer Mariano Rivera with some of the loudest cheers ever given to an opposing player in a Yankees uniform. Of course, these cheers were in part because the usually-dependable Rivera, who has 336 career saves to his credit, had blown his last four save opportunities with the Red Sox, including two in the post-season series last fall that allowed Boston to climb all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit to win the American League pennant before moving on to the World Series. Rivera could have taken a page from recently-departed Sox pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim and given the crowd a one-fingered salute, but he instead broke into a huge grin, chuckled, and graciously acknowledged the crowd’s appreciation for his “services” with a tip of his cap.

It would have been simple enough for the Yankees to remain in the visitor’s clubhouse and pass the time as they waited until it was necessary to show up for the pre-game introductions. With 26 world championships to their credit, it would be easy to argue that Boston has a long way to go to match the success that New York has had for nearly a century of play. Still then to watch your biggest rival celebrate a championship that might have been theirs had Dave Roberts not stolen second base in the ninth inning of Game Four in the ALCS might not sit well with most teams. Just last season, baseball was replaced by base-brawl between these two clubs when Boston’s Jason Varitek and New York’s Alex Rodriguez, who came within a few million dollars of becoming a Red Sox player himself, exchanged words and then punches, turning an afternoon at the ballpark into a wild spectacle.

No one from the Red Sox organization instructed the Yankees to show up and no one would have expected them to make an appearance; from a Boston fan’s perspective, it would probably have been dismissed or, to the misguided delight of some, seen as a sign of petty jealousy. Instead, New York put aside any trivial differences from the past, checked their collective ego at the door, and demonstrated something is hard to find these days: sportsmanship. Winning championships is old hand for New York but, to be a true champion, it was only proper for them to recognize when someone else achieved that success.

My favorite T-shirt will be ready for all of those visits to Fenway and, when the Yankees are in town, I’ll still loudly boo each player’s name as it is read by the announcer because it’s part of the ritual that’s been handed down from generation to generation. I’ve been a fan of the Boston Red Sox through thick and thin and this loyalty will never die; most of all, I’d like to see them win a few more championships at the expense of those boys from the Bronx. However, with everything that we’ve experienced as we’ve soaked in that long-awaited title over the past six months, we should remember what the New York ball club did for us on Opening Day. That straightforward, thoughtful act by their bitter rivals did not go unnoticed by those wearing a Boston uniform and, with a bit of luck, it was not lost on the fans as well.

2005 Season Preview

It’s almost with sad reserve that we open the 2005 season after Red Sox fans enjoyed the fruits of a successful 2004 campaign. Yes, Boston will often be referred to as the defending World Series champions this season but, for all intent and purpose, last season’s amazing accomplishment doesn’t count for anything in this year’s standings. Still, with renewed enthusiasm, this team is looking to realize something even more astounding: repeating as champions for the first time since the Red Sox won back-to-back titles in 1915 and 1916. The team returns looking pretty much the same as last season’s squad, even with a few additions and subtractions, so how will this season compare to last? Hopefully we answer some of those questions here.

How much with the loss of Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez hurt?

Both guys played key roles in the 2004 post-season; Lowe was the winning pitcher in all three series-clinching games and Martinez dazzled in his only World Series appearance. They also combined to win 30 games during the regular season and both stayed healthy for the entire season. Only time will tell if Matt Clement, Wade Miller, and David Wells will be able to combine their efforts to repeat, but we have to remember that the Sox also have one of the best lineups at the plate. While the win totals were impressive, both Lowe and Martinez had their earned-run averages jump considerably, combining for a 4.59 ERA. Lowe’s 5.42 ERA was almost three runs higher than his stellar 2002 campaign numbers, and Martinez’s 3.90 ERA was almost double his Red Sox career average. The point is that, barring an unlikely drop-off in production at the plate, the Sox will continue to win, even with these two wearing different uniforms this season.

Should we be concerned with Curt Schilling missing the opener?

If you believe Schilling, the only reason that he is heading to the DL to start the season is because he needs another week or so to work on his mechanics. His infamous ankle, which was surgically repaired last November nearly a week after the World Series ended, is not the problem; it has fully healed and trainers gave him the green light early enough in spring training that he would otherwise be in the Bronx next Sunday night to open the season for Boston. Luckily, the Sox have enough off days during the first two weeks of the season to go with a four-man rotation and Schilling should be available before the schedule becomes more demanding.

Has Edgar Renteria stabilized the shortstop position?

Renteria should cement himself in that position for many years to come, especially given that the Sox signed him to a four-year contract at $10 million per season. He is a year younger than fellow Colombian Orlando Cabrera, whom he replaces in the Red Sox lineup and a couple years younger than Nomar Garciaparra, who seemed to be a permanent fixture in Boston until last year. Like Cabrera, he is a Gold Glove winner and has flashed the leather many times this spring, already winning over the hearts of Red Sox fans. He also adds more punch in the lineup, with a lifetime batting average of .289 and 10 or more home runs each season over the last six years. Prospect Hanley Ramirez, who impressed coaches and the front office this spring, waits in the wings in Portland but don’t be surprised if he’s never seen in Boston, so long as Renteria performs as expected.

What more can we expect from David Ortiz this season?

There is just so much beauty in that man’s swing, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Looking at his statistics from last season through the regular season and into the playoffs, it’s just amazing what he has done since the Sox picked him off waivers from Minnesota. Last year, “Big Papi” amassed 41 home runs and 139 RBI, spending more than three-quarters of the time in the DH role, and his post-season heroics earned him MVP honors in the American League Championship Series. This spring, it’s evident that his powerful stroke has not diminished, even if he’s taken off a few pounds during the off-season. Terry Francona expects to use him as the everyday DH, so there’s no reason that he can’t continue to compile the numbers that make jaws drop everywhere.

Who will be the surprise of the season?

Jay Payton grabbed headlines when he was traded to Boston in December for Dave Roberts, but perhaps overlooked in that deal was the acquisition of infielder Ramon Vazquez. The four-year veteran from Puerto Rico, who has averaged 78 games in that time, plays all four infield positions and sports a .979 fielding percentage. Remember how valuable Pokey Reese was for Boston last season? Perhaps he might not get as many opportunities as Pokey, who took advantage of Nomar’s absence for the first half of the season, but he should prove valuable as a late-inning defensive replacement. Plus, when one of the veterans needs an off-day to recover from aches and pains, Vazquez should prove adequate with a .262 lifetime average.

Will Adam Stern remain with Boston for the entire season?

Being a Rule V pick-up, Stern would be shipped back to the Atlanta Braves if the Sox are unable to find a permanent place for him on the major league roster. Unfortunately, there are five Red Sox outfielders in front of him: Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Payton, and Kevin Millar. Adam Hyzdu has already been sent packing this spring for that very reason. Barring an injury to one of the fore mentioned players, Boston will not jump through hoops to retain his services, so expect him back with Atlanta by mid-summer.

Isn’t Francona deserving of an extension now?

Francona managed in his first year at the Red Sox helm to win a World Series championship, something that no Boston manager had done since Ed Barrow, also in his first season as manager, in 1918. To some, that would seem like reason enough to sign him to a new contract right now; however, the Red Sox front office is not going to rush to get him guaranteed for anything past the current length of their agreement with him, at least through this season. Should his fortunes continue, then it’s possible that he would be granted an extension after that, as well as a statue right next to Ted Williams‘s, but both Francona and the Sox are content to let sleeping dogs lie for now.

Will they or won’t they?

It bears repeating that all roads to the championship will lead through New York and the Yankees spent the winter reloading the arsenal as usual. However, the Red Sox are just as strong themselves and should be able to rise to the challenge once more. Winning the division has become inconsequential thanks to the Wild Card draw; Boston should do well enough again to earn at least that prize and make the playoffs. As long as they play to their potential and Francona continues to make smart coaching decisions, the Red Sox should get another chance to meet a National League opponent in late October for all the marbles.

Mr. Schilling Goes To Washington

Was I the only one who found it odd that, among the current and former Major League Baseball players who were issued subpoenas late last week to testify in front of a Congressional committee on St. Patrick’s Day, the person who was likely voted “Least Likely To Be Using Smack” by his high school classmates got served? It was no surprise to see Jose Canseco and Jason Giambi on that list and there is just cause to call upon the likes of Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas, and Sammy Sosa, but Curt Schilling? Last time he was in Washington, he was offering President Bush a Red Sox jersey with Alan Embree’s number 43; this week, he better be sure to bring enough for everyone on the panel or someone’s feelings may get hurt.

Besides Schilling’s inclusion, there was one other surprise: Barry Bond’s exclusion. So instead of bringing the one player who happens to be the most central figure in the whole issue on steroid use in baseball, there picking on a player who has spoken out against the use of steroids and could better use his time getting healthy for the upcoming season. There are also several other players who would appear to be more worthy candidates, including the likes of Gary Sheffield or Benito Santiago, but Washington officials believe that Schilling’s obvious intelligence and knowledge of what goes on in the baseball community would provide better testimony. I could scratch my scalp until it bleeds and not come up with a reasonable explanation for this logic; even Schilling has questioned out loud why he has been lumped in with this group.

Now let’s be sure that we understand this. Bonds has hit about a bazillion home runs over the last six seasons and, in 2001, set the single-season mark with 73 tall jacks, some of which are still waiting to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Eighteen months ago, Bond’s personal trainer, with whom he had shared a friendship since childhood, was confronted by federal agents who claimed that they had plenty of evidence to prove that he had supplied steroids to, among others, the San Francisco slugger who now sits a dozen home runs shy of passing Ruth in career home runs. I have only one question from my seat on this panel of outside observers: does Bonds have a “Get Out of Answering Questions from a House Government Reform Committee” card up his sleeve that’s not included in my version of Monopoly?

Actually, if you think about it, after witnessing his superhuman performance last October, perhaps there is reason to believe that Schilling is hiding something underneath that clean-cut exterior. His ankle was being held together with toothpicks and glue and yet he somehow managed to effectively pitch in two crucial games to help Boston win the American League pennant and the World Series. Maybe, along with the stitches and the painkillers, Dr. Morgan used this great anti-inflammatory cream he picked up from an undisclosed West Coast source that not only promised to perform medical miracles but, unlike most comparable products, didn’t reek of that awful Ben-Gay smell.

Honestly, it isn’t clear what the purpose of these hearings are except to point out to the last half-dozen people or so in the United States unfamiliar with the situation that baseball players have been using performance-enhancing drugs for the past several years. I’m not trying to downplay the significance of that last statement and my past columns have expressed a wanting for baseball to clean up its act, but hasn’t there already been at least one other congressional hearing on this subject? I seem to recall that, in that session, Senator John McCain from Arizona told Major League Baseball to put its house in order or that the government would do it for them. Why weren’t the players asked to join Bud Selig and Donald Fehr back then?

Unfortunately, I just don’t see what parading all these players in front of some government representatives is going to accomplish; the only person who may benefit from this is  Canseco, who may sell a few more books with testimony that is sure to be damning. The announcement of these hearings come almost on the heels of that book’s release and if it took a tell-all book by a less-than-reputable character to raise the hackles of Congress, then something is amiss. Plus, do they honestly believe that these players are going to possibly incriminate themselves by admitting to any use of performance enhancers, legal or otherwise, during their careers? Or that a player, like Schilling, is going to rat on his fellow players, some of whom he is going to possibly see again this season, even if he strongly believes that what they did was wrong? There’s a good chance that we are going to see ballplayers taking the Fifth more often than they would in the clubhouse before a Game Seven.

It has been pointed out that Congress has the responsibility to regulate commerce – let’s not forget that baseball has enjoyed antitrust exemption for over eighty years – and that it has the right to call into question any enterprise that engages in suspicious activities. For those who may have missed that high school civics lesson, Congress also represents people from every corner of the United States and they have a responsibility to the American public to find out everything that goes on with baseball on and off the field. My problem is that I don’t believe that the members of the panel really thoroughly studied the issue; otherwise, the list of witnesses coming to Washington this week would make better sense. Maybe it will all become clear on Thursday but I, for one, would feel that Schilling has more to answer down in Fort Myers than he does in front of a House Committee.

The Hall Won’t Heed The Call

Yesterday, the Veterans Committee from the Baseball Hall of Fame voted on whether any former players that had not been elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America deserved induction and, of the twenty-five candidates on the ballot, not one of these legendary figures made the cut. Two former greats, Ron Santo and Gil Hodges, were the closest to gaining entrance with 65% of the vote, eight votes shy of enshrinement. Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat, two other luminaries from the game, gained just a little more than half the vote. Meeting biennially, the committee was revamped after the election of former Pittsburgh great Bill Mazeroski in 2001; there was the argument that his career numbers were hardly worthy of the standards necessary to sit alongside names like Ruth, Williams, and other immortals. By not electing a single player to join Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg this July, the outcome makes it two straight shutouts served by the committee, as no one was elected in 2003.

The Hall hails these results and those of recent BBWAA ballots as proof that it has set higher standards for induction, meaning that punching your ticket to immortality won’t happen if you don’t meet considerable merit. Then there are those who believe the Hall has suddenly become an elitist organization that has set the level of expectations for membership too high. Whatever the case, it is quite obvious that, for too long, the metrics used to decide whether a candidate should be elected have been inconsistent and this, in turn, has only added to the confusion. Obviously, there is more to being worthy than just wearing your heart on your sleeve for twenty-plus seasons; you need to have numbers, honors, and a show of consistency to pad that resume. Yet there are players out there with all that who still find themselves on the outside looking in through locked gates while believing that they have what it takes to be given the key.

Jim Rice, to me, is a perfect example of a former player who is more than deserving of having his plaque alongside the greats of the past. For well over a decade, the former Red Sox great was a constant force at the plate, averaging nearly .304 with 29 home runs and 106 RBI. He also finished in the top five in the AL MVP vote six times during that stretch, winning his only award in 1978 when he stroked 46 home runs and drove in 139 RBI, best in the league that year, while hitting .315 and finishing less than twenty points behind league-leader and future Hall of Fame inductee Rod Carew. Unfortunately, there are two things that seem to hurt Rice; one, that he struggled in his last three seasons at the plate, and two, that he was never a favorite of the writers, who saw him as callous and aloof.

Rice is not the only player that has been mysteriously locked out; Bert Blyleven is another example. The former pitching great finished his career with 287 wins and an ERA of 3.31 and was 5-1 in the post-season with two World Series rings to his credit. He won fifteen or more games in a season ten times and is fifth all-time in strikeouts with 3701. Blyleven’s problem seems to be that he played most of his career for teams that never received much media attention, like Minnesota and Cleveland. Had he pitched in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles, some believe he would be a lock.

There are plenty of other examples, too. Kaat won 283 games as a starter, pitched three seasons in which he won 20 or more games, and collected 16 consecutive Gold Gloves at his position (tied with Hall of Fame great Brooks Robinson for most ever in a row); why is he still not there? Andre Dawson’s career numbers include 2774 hits, 438 home runs, and 1591 RBI, and he collected Rookie of the Year honors, an MVP award, and eight Gold Gloves during his career; why is he still absent? Jack Morris won 15 games or more in 13 seasons and also collected three World Series rings and a World Series MVP award; does he not deserve this distinction?

Nonetheless, the fact remains that there will always be nominees, often times a sentimental favorite, who fail to make the cut; both fortunately and unfortunately, the popularity of a player cannot be the measuring stick to decide if they will get the nod. Often, numbers are thrown around that define whether a candidate is an automatic entry, such as 3000 hits, 500 home runs, and 300 wins; these are all numbers that, of the tens of thousands of players that have put on a major league uniform, only a few have matched in a solid baseball career. So when a player has failed to amass these numbers, then you must dig deeper into his statistics and determine whether he has performed at a level in his career that makes him a worthy candidate.

As someone with a great interest in the history of the game, the Hall of Fame is an embodiment of its remarkable heritage. For a player to have his name preserved for years to come as a representation of baseball excellence is one of the highest accolades in sports; therefore, voters have a responsibility to make these choices based on standards that are evenhanded and constant. Until the Hall begins to demonstrate some consistency and fairness in its selection process, it will be difficult for those outside this circle to understand why some legendary players are still waiting for the call from Cooperstown.