Shop Boston Celtics Gear at Fanatics.com

2004 Mid-Season Review

Well, you certainly cannot look back on the first half of the season and wonder if it would have been the Yankees that were seven games back at the break and thinking wild card had the Red Sox had the lineup that was drawn on paper by Theo Epstein during the off-season. However, even as it stands, Boston enjoyed what, for many teams, would have been a successful first half: ten games above .500 and poised to make a run at a playoff spot in October. There are 76 games left to play in the 2004 season; as we enjoy the All-Star break, we look back on the studs and duds of the first 86 games.

Team MVP: Manny Ramirez
First runner-up: Curt Schilling

Even though this is his fourth season in Boston, it almost seems like we are meeting Ramirez for the first time, and the faithful are enjoying his company. The suddenly easygoing left fielder is enjoying a banner year: his .344 batting average, 26 home runs, and 77 RBI are tops on his team and have him at or near the top of the American League leader board. Not only is he a legitimate AL MVP at this point, he has a chance to become the first batting Triple Crown winner in nearly forty years. It’s hard to imagine that he was nearly sent packing over the winter; never have the cheers been louder when he comes to the plate or he makes a sensational catch in left field.

Team Goat: Derek Lowe
First runner-up: Kevin Millar

Perhaps he feels that he is being picked on, but Lowe has certainly not carried himself well enough on the field to be worthy of a multiyear deal that his agent, Scott Boras, is looking to get him this off-season in the $11 million per year range. His ERA of 5.57 is one and a half runs per nine innings higher that Tim Wakefield‘s as a starter. His seven wins do not look good next to eight losses in seventeen starts. It’s true that his defense has not always been there to support him; the 21 unearned runs scored against him are the most on the team. Still, he should be doing better than this and he knows it; hopefully we will see him turn things around in the second half.

Biggest Surprise: Pokey Reese
First runner-up: Johnny Damon

When Boston signed this two-time Gold Glove winner, they knew that they should expect greatness in the field and he has not disappointed. If you went through a reel highlighting the ten best plays of the first half by the Red Sox defense, we’re certain that he would be in better than half of those. With a career .250 batting average, you would not expect him to contribute much at the plate, but he has driven in 26 and scored 50 runs. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we will see him anywhere but in the number nine spot in the lineup and, with Nomar Garciaparra back from injury, his playing time will be limited, but everyone knows how valuable he’s been to this team; those cheers for him whenever he comes to bat are backed with respect for his efforts.

Biggest Disappointment: Cesar Crespo
First runner-up: Byung-Hyun Kim

He was given ample opportunity to prove his worth and, by his own admittance, he blew it. In 79 plate appearances, Crespo batted .165 while driving in just two runs, never walked, and struck out 20 times. Perhaps you can argue that, given his limited playing time, he never had a chance to find his groove. Explain then how Doug Mirabelli, with seven less plate appearances, hit .306 with seven home runs and plated 17 runners. Sorry, but when you wear a major league uniform, you have to player like you belong.

Second Half Outlook
Let the good times roll!

It’s well known by anyone who had followed Boston this season that, after a 15-6 start, the Red Sox barely maintained a .500 pace (33-32) while New York surged from 4-1/2 games back at one point to seven games ahead in first place. The second half is not going to be any easier as Boston will play 24 games in 25 days following the All-Star break. This includes a trip out west, then three games in two days at Fenway against that pesky Baltimore, followed by a weekend home series against the rival Yankees, then ended with two weeks on the road against Baltimore, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Detroit.

At the moment, they also stand one game ahead of Oakland in the wild card race. Knowing that, it doesn’t mean that Boston could not pile on the wins in the second half and surge past New York into first place in the AL East. However, the point is to make it to October and perhaps the collective energy of the Red Sox is better spent trying to stay ahead of the wild card rivals. They have enough strength in the starting lineup and depth in the bench that they should be able make a run for that elusive World Series title.

As a side note, don’t forget that this might be the last chance to see Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, two recent Red Sox legends, playing in a Boston uniform. Without a doubt, one or both of these fine players will be gone at the end of the season. Say what you will about them, but they have enjoyed some sensational years here and are have contributed mightily to the recent success of the Red Sox. We don’t know yet just how much we will miss either of them.

For The Love Of Manny

Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez

Manny Ramirez had no reason to change his public persona; after three productive years in Boston, he had proven well enough that, despite a hefty salary, he was a presence in Boston. Between Aaron Boone’s home run to end Game 7 of last year’s American League Championship series and the first day of spring training, Ramirez found his name in the news more than once. The subject of trade talks, until Alex Rodriguez ended up in Yankee pinstripes, you would have had every reason to believe that he would carry a huge chip through the season.

For those of you who hibernated from late October until late February, Boston placed Ramirez on waivers early in November in the hope of unloading his remaining $100 million salary on George Steinbrenner, who had watched his team lose its second World Series in three years. After that failed, Ramirez was all but on the plane to Texas as the Red Sox and Texas Rangers agreed to a trade that would bring Rodriguez to Boston. Instead, the player’s union intervened and, upon further review, nixed the deal because they felt that Boston was trying to cut too much of Rodriguez’s record $252 million contract.

So, after two failed attempts to send his lifetime .317 average and 337 home runs to another town, wouldn’t you expect a 12-year veteran player known for his bat and his silence to show even less emotion on and off the field? Instead, this season we are seeing something new: a suddenly affable Manny Ramirez. Is this the same player who rarely had anything to say to the media suddenly becoming the go-to guy, giving direct quotes for the media hounds to scribble on their notepads? Is this the same Ramirez that suddenly has time to give off-field interviews? Do our eyes deceive us, but is that Ramirez sitting in the dugout during the game, making comedic gestures at the camera, looking relaxed, and smiling?

Ramirez has even had a web site developed in his name, where he goes so far as to answer people’s direct questions. It’s not that he was never friendly with the fans. I recall a co-worker telling me that Ramirez, while waiting for batting practice at spring training, turned around every time a kid called out his name for a picture and held a pose and smile until he or she got the shot. He is also more than willing to spend a few extra minutes signing autographs and does considerable charity work, most of which we never read about in the paper.

What has suddenly turned a man who once shunned reporters for more than a year after being questioned about his hustle into a media darling? Does he suddenly realize how great it is to play in front of Boston fans that, through most everything, have stayed loyal to him? Have David Ortiz and Kevin Millar, who never fail to keep the team loose with the ups and the downs, cracked his shell? Did three ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve?

Though the jury is still out on how the 2004 season will end for the Red Sox, never has there been such camaraderie in a Boston baseball clubhouse. Red Sox Nation is engrossed in the everyday events of this team, 365 days a year, and it has never been more evident than the fact that, through Sunday, the team had enjoyed 103 straight sellouts at Fenway Park. Search up and down the lineup, and it’s hard to find a player that the fans don’t love.

Manny is no exception to this observation, and maybe more so now that he has become less of a mystery to the fans who chant his name when he comes to bat and erupt in celebration of a home run over the Green Monster. They’re even tipping their hats when he makes a great play like the great diving catch he made last Friday against Philadelphia with his good buddy Pedro Martinez on the mound. “Citizen Manny” (apropos after becoming an official US citizen in May) seems to have finally joined the ranks of Red Sox Nation, and no one seems happier than he.

A Marriage Made In Heaven?

One week into interleague play and Boston can feel good about taking four-of-six from the National League at home. Excitement griped the Hub this weekend when the Dodgers, who had been to Boston once before in the 1916 World Series but never played in Fenway Park, battled the Red Sox and fans were witness to two great games (we’ll just overlook the beating that Los Angeles gave Boston on Saturday). There was even some pleasure in watching the Red Sox tangle with the Padres earlier in the week; Tuesday’s pitching duel between David Wells and Pedro Martinez ended in a rare but memorable 1-0 win for Boston.

It’s been eight years since the two leagues began playing against each other and interleague baseball is now an integral part of midseason baseball. Still, as in any relationship, you always find something that you want to change to make it even better. While this does not involve a clean shirt or a different haircut in our case, the look of interleague play needs a tweak here and there. The problem is that there are some glaring imbalances that should be corrected for it to be better.

First, there needs to be another realignment of the leagues. With the National League having two more teams than its American counterpart, the divisions don’t match up; only the AL and NL East have the same number of teams while the NL Central and West divisions have one more team than their AL counterparts. This imbalance forces two National League teams to play each other in the midst of interleague play as they would at any other time of the season.

One solution would be to bring Milwaukee back to the American League to give each league fifteen teams, but that would mean interleague meetings every day throughout the season and the owners will have none of that less it cheapen the interest. The second solution would be to contract two teams, although you will never get the approval of the player’s union to do that. Expansion is the third option, but you’ll never get me to agree to that solution.

Second, we need to get rid of the “natural rivalry” games. As a Sox fan, I’ve almost dreaded seeing the Braves come to Boston or the Red Sox fly south to Atlanta for years because we were constantly playing against a superior team and that usually guaranteed at least four or five losses each season. Meanwhile, the Yankees were facing the Mets in a Subway Series and the New York American League representatives were easily taking it to their weaker cross-town rivals.

Sour grapes aside, the schedule seems a little imbalanced when the weak sisters of baseball have to play against perennial powerhouses because they seem like natural adversaries. Plus, some of these rivalries that have been created make no sense. What did the Diamondbacks do to earn the wrath of the Twins? Who knew that the Tigers and the Rockies are natural enemies? Major League Baseball did, but somehow the memo must have been undeliverable to my mailbox. Why not just rotate the interleague rivals as they do in the NFL and let the chips fall as they may?

Third, a decision needs to be made on what to do with the designated hitter rule. I’m impartial to keeping it because I would rather see David Ortiz swing for the fences than watch Martinez flail away at the ball, but it seems like an unfair advantage for National League teams who have pitchers that have faced live pitching for a couple of months. It’s hard to believe that, after thirty-one years, an agreement has still not been reached between the two leagues on whether the DH should become universal in or dropped from Major League Baseball. I don’t have a solid argument either way – perhaps I’ll save that for another column – but this sticking point should be the easiest to address.

All in all, though, what I once believed was just a passing novelty has proven to be a remarkable “gimmick” for baseball. When you consider that, in every other major sport in the United States, everyone gets to face each other at least once every few years or so, it makes for more excitement and more interest. I’m looking forward to watching Martinez face off against Barry Bonds next weekend, even if I might have to stay up a little later to see the game here on the East Coast. Maybe next season, should it not happen this postseason, I’ll watch the Cubs and Sox face off in a rematch of the 1918 World Series. It’s true that not every game will feature “classic” match-ups, but it makes for some interest in an otherwise long season and, with maybe just a tweak here and there, has proven to be a winning formula for baseball.

All-Star Shame

In a little over a month from now, Houston will host this year’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park; it will be second big sporting event for Space City this year after hosting Super Bowl XXXVIII in February. As they have for so many years now, the league has encouraged fans to vote for the starting nine for both the American and National League squads; fans will also get the opportunity to vote for the last selection for each team for the third year in a row. Oh, and just so we’re all clear on this, as former Chicago mayor Richard Daley once proclaimed, vote early and vote often.

Earlier this week, they announced some of the leading vote getters for the American League and, surprise; the leading candidate to play shortstop has been on the disabled list for Boston since before the season began. In second place is another player who has struggled at the plate this season for New York. There are probably many more deserving players that should be named as a starter in their place, but that doesn’t really matter, does it?

The obvious truth is that the All-Star game is nothing more than an overblown, hyped-up spectacle that gives owners a chance to rake in some extra cash for the coffers. The game, for all intent and purposes, has become more and more meaningless as time passes. Players no longer even want to participate, and at least a few bow out for “personal reasons” so they can instead spend a few days off soaking up the sun on a beach somewhere or visiting family and friends. Even offering home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league is a joke.

It would not be surprising to me if television ratings were better for the Home Run Derby the night before than for the game itself. I had the opportunity to sit in the bleachers and watched Mark McGwire hit the light pole over Fenway’s Green Monster a few times in the 1999 home run exhibition. I’ve noticed on many occasions that ESPN likes to rebroadcast that event to fill some space on its Classic channel, but I have never once seen a repeat of that All-Star contest. People are obviously interested more in watching super-human forms smack a few dingers than see Randy Johnson pitch to Larry Walker.

All-Star games have suffered in every major league sport in America; that is no mystery. The NHL All-Star game throws checking and defense out the window less anyone gets hurt, the NBA All-Star game is anything but fantastic, and the NFL Pro Bowl gets lower ratings than local access. That’s because the contests are clearly void of any form that is representative of the game itself. Plus, the passion of the participants is noticeably missing; there is no care for whether or not your squad wins the match, but whether a bonus clause in your contract guarantees a little extra pay in your next check.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink the significance of these games and ask whether they are even worth the effort. Years ago, it might have meant more to read about Bob Feller facing Stan Musial or Ted Williams playing in the same outfield as Joe DiMaggio. Today, a wealth of media services gives people the chance to follow a player from any team on any given day swing for the fences or pitch a perfect game, so the mystique is just not there. Sorry, Major League Baseball, but I’m going to save my opportunity to vote for this November; the outcome of those contests means more to me and many other people than that of next month’s competition.

Here Comes The Spider-Man

Major League Baseball changed its mind very quickly when, after announcing plans to put ads for the upcoming summer movie, Spider-Man 2, on every base in major league parks during a weekend in June, howls of rage from baseball purists helped decide that this was a bad public relations move. The same fans also got their knickers in a twist when ads showed up on the uniforms of players during a season-opening series in Japan between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the New York Yankees. The victory for these fans, however, may only be short-lived.

Go to any major league ballpark today and you can’t avoid seeing ads everywhere for newspapers, major retailers, cell phone services, and soft drink companies. A blank wall space is nothing more than a potential spot to make a few extra dollars for a club that goes towards the cost of running a major league team, of which a good percentage counts towards player salaries. I can even stand at a stall in the bathroom and read an advertisement for exotic automobiles available at a local dealer. Don’t forget, too, that almost every ballpark now bears a brand name: Tropicana Field, Comerica Park, and Network Associates Coliseum, to name a few.

So where does the line in the sand get drawn between the genuine nature of the game and the chance to squeeze as much revenue out of the fans of baseball? Is it wrong for the playing field to have an ad for Home Depot carved into the outfield grass by the grounds crew? Should baseball players double as walking billboards for Coca-Cola? Have we entangled ourselves in this web of advertising that we have accepted the inevitable, on which Major League Baseball is counting??

In other sports, advertisements have become commonplace in areas that baseball fears to tread. At professional hockey games, you find large ads painted under the ice and possibly even a product name glued to the side of player’s helmets. Uniforms sported by European soccer teams have ads for adidas, Sony, petrol companies, and many other businesses. NASCAR is the best example of product placement gone mad; ads are plastered on every square inch of the cars, painted on the infield grass, and sewn to the jumper suits worn by the drivers. Regardless, the popularity of NASCAR grows every year. Would baseball be able to adopt some of these practices in a manner that does not detract from the game?

Those who favor the tradition and integrity of the game of baseball will eventually lose this battle because Major League Baseball, through no fault of its own, puts the bottom line above all else. At the end of the day, no matter which team ends up on top and who finishes last, the question will be: how much profit did we generate this season? What we, as fans of the game, can hope for is that the game itself does not change. A grand slam by Manny Ramirez scores the same number of runs whether or not an ad for Claritin prominently adorns his pant leg. A diving catch by Johnny Damon in the outfield is recorded as an out whether or not he slides across the Golden Arches painted on the grass.

Still, I want the field and the uniforms to remain untouched. I love the beauty of the green grass in the outfield, the red dirt in the infield, and the white glow from the bases and the foul lines under the sodium lights. I also love the white home uniforms of the Red Sox, with BOSTON boldly printed on the front and the players’ numbers printed square on the back. It would be a shame to have to deface the iconic images of America’s pastime in the name of revenue.

Mourning The Yankees?

Passionate Red Sox fans are still trying to wash the bitter taste of defeat from their mouth after watching the Red Sox hand a sure victory over the New York Yankees last October. Once again, we had to endure the taunts from the Yankee faithful and talk of an unspoken curse made by a dead ballplayer. Then, we watched these two teams play hardball in the baseball market; the Sox lured Curt Schilling away from balmy Arizona and the Yankees while New York snatched Alex Rodriguez, a player that was thisclose to being in a Red Sox uniform. In March, spring training tickets between the Sox and Yanks were fetching $500 each for a game that no impact on the upcoming season except to evaluate non-roster invitees vying for a spot on the parent club. As the season began, the rivalry was about as heated as it has ever been and we wondered what stories would be written this year.

So Sunday afternoon, as I watched Gary Sheffield weakly swing at strike three from Scott Williamson to end a three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium, I had to stop myself from clapping and cheering too loudly in my living room, less I wake up my sleeping son on the other end of the house. Boston has just managed to take six out of a possible seven games in ten days from New York and, while fans of Boston were trying their best to stay grounded and remind themselves that championships are won in October, Yankee fans were jeering their beloved nine. Peering into the enemy dugout, the pinstriped hosts looked as if they had just been to a funeral. Meanwhile, the visitors casually filed onto the field to congratulate each other and fans wondered if they were not feeling as elated as the rest of New England.

Something just did not feel right, though. Granted, as it has already been established, it’s only April and the Sox have plenty of games left to play before the season ends. However, that was not what bothered me. Had the Yankees, with eight All-Stars in the starting lineup for Sunday, been unable to beat a Red Sox team that was missing Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon? Were they not able to get into the mind of Pedro Martinez, who had single-handedly (with some help from Grady Little) given Game Seven of last year’s American League Championship series back to the Yankees? What happens when our team is finally together as it was put together on paper in the off-season; what will happen then when these two collide later this season?

No one should feel sorry for the New York Yankees with the 26 world championships and the $183 million payroll. No sympathy cards must be mailed to George Steinbrenner. No flowers need to be delivered to Joe Torre or Brian Cashman’s office. No Get Well cards must be sent to Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. If the Yankees have proven one thing over the years, it is their resilient nature and the ability to bounce back from troubled times. No one truly believes that the Yankees are done; it’s only April, remember?

Yet, what if this is the season that the Yankees finally come apart at the seams? What if they are doomed to a .500 season, or worse? What if the team doesn’t improve much from its abysmal .217 batting average, 53 points less than opponents are batting against them? Have teams from the AL East finally figured out how to pitch around these guys? Have they lost the ability to produce runs when needed, one at a time? Will the jeers from the minions at Yankee Stadium continue into May, then June, and perhaps all the way into September?

As a Red Sox fan, my first priority is to see that the Red Sox win the World Series. My only contribution to this effort is my unyielding support through thick and thin and perhaps the purchase of some tickets every season. However, what I would love nothing more is to see that, on the way, they stomp on New York to earn that title. I don’t mean win 15-of-19 games during the regular season and finish 20 games in front of them; I want another classic ALCS showdown.

I want to see a series between them that ends with the Red Sox streaming onto the field, jumping on each other’s backs, spraying champagne on reporters, and blowing smoke from nice juicy cigars. I want to see the ghost of Ted Williams in a corner of the clubhouse standing there with a knowing smirk. I want to see Johnny Pesky cry tears of joy. I want to see a dejected Yankee squad slowly file back to the clubhouse, hanging their heads, and wiping a few tears from their eyes.

Truthfully, at this point, I and the rest of the Boston faithful just want to see the Red Sox win their first championship in 86 years, and it doesn’t matter to me what teams they must push aside to get there. What would give me the most satisfaction, however, is to know that we went through New York to do it. Having been in their shadows for so long – 86 years, to be exact – nothing would be sweeter than to finish what was started in 2003, when the Red Sox came so very close to making this wish come true.

Putting On The Hurt

Nomar Garciaparra smiled to reporters this spring and told everyone not to worry because his ankle was just a little sore and that, after all, spring training games are meaningless. You don’t win championships in Florida, unless you happen to be the Marlins. But, just days before the 2004 season was to begin, the Red Sox placed the All-Star shortstop on the 15-day disabled list due to a sore Achilles with a likely return date around the end of April. You can’t help but flash back a few seasons when he missed most of 2001 due to a nagging wrist injury that required surgery on Opening Day.

Trot Nixon is another of the walking wounded for the Red Sox; out since early in spring training with a sore back, he is not expected to return until the start of May at the earliest. Ditto for Ramiro Mendoza, who was placed on the DL with shoulder tendonitis four games into the young season, and Byung-Hyun Kim, who started the season on the DL and spends these days rehabbing in Sarasota. Johnny Damon has also sat out for a couple of games, perhaps in part because his long hair has robbed him of any peripheral vision and caused him to run into his fellow outfielders during the first few games. Fortunately, his injury will not require injured reserve status and he should be back for action when the rains end.

Perhaps the slew of injuries that have plagued the Red Sox early in this year’s race can account in part for the stagnant production at the plate. Yes, the Sox are 4-3 after a week of baseball, but perhaps more thanks to a strong bullpen that have helped keep games close. Except for the absence of Todd Walker, this team has the same makeup as last season’s team that scored 961 runs; the difference is that the Sox were relatively injury-free for most of that year. So, instead of fielding the dream team that was molded in the off-season, Boston has had to go to the bench early and rely on role players like Gabe Kapler, Mark Bellhorn, and Cesar Crespo to fill in the blanks.

Fortunately, the schedule makers are usually very kind to the Red Sox in April. Yes, they face the Yankees seven times, but the rest of the competition consists mainly of the weak sisters from the East: Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Yes, they have improved and are not to be taken lightly but, even with one eye closed, the Sox can manage .500 in April without much effort and stay close to New York.

Boston, to keep its sights on October, must count on the return of its starters as expected by the end of this month. Until then, manager Terry Francona must continue to juggle the lineup as he has and hope for the best; so far, the oddball combinations have worked to help stay the course. Most important is that the rest of the team, minus the injured regulars, must remain healthy; any further setbacks may dig a hole out of which is too deep for Boston to climb.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.

Got Juice?

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Forty-three years ago, the nation was entranced by the battle being waged between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, two Yankee greats who spent a summer trying to reach a baseball milestone: 61 home runs. This number would be one better than Babe Ruth‘s record, one that had been preserved for 34 years. Maris eventually reached this plateau, but his record was noted with an asterisk because he had played a 162-game season, unlike Ruth who had played in a 152-game one.

Thirty-seven years later, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were credited with bringing life back into baseball when they went toe-to-toe to try and break this mark. McGwire reached the 62 home run mark in early September and, before the season ended, he had an amazing 70 round-trippers. But we remember also that, late in the season, McGwire admitted that he had been taking performance-enhancing drugs to help create those arms that looked as big as tree trunks. Eventually, the controversy was swept under the carpet and the focus turned to seeing if another could top that.

Only three years passed before we had an answer. After reaching the 500 career home run mark early in the season, Barry Bonds, the son of former player Bobby Bonds and godson of baseball legend “Say Hey” Willie Mays went on a tear and clobbered an amazing 73 home runs that season. To those who watched, his swing seemed almost effortless and the ball would sail well into upper decks and the far reaches of the stands. Before beginning his home run trot, Bonds would stay at the plate and admire the flight of the ball for a few seconds as if he were as astonished as the fans were of the power he possessed in those muscular cannons.

Now, mere weeks away from the opening of the 2004 baseball campaign, the suspicions of many have been made truth: that players, under invisible pressure in an effort to draw the crowds, have been taking steroids and other drugs to enhance their bodies and become modern-day Goliaths. This after random drug tests conducted last year confirmed that as many as five percent of those tested were juiced and after testimony in a legal case accused several baseball All-Stars of being supplied with steroids. One of those named was, sadly, Barry Bonds.

So where do we go from here? Has the game of baseball been ruined? Will the MLB suddenly find itself swept under the rug as has the XFL and the WUSA? The good news is that the baseball season has NOT been canceled at this point and that the Boston Red Sox have yet another chance to end the championship drought by season’s end, unless the New York Yankees again have the last say.

Yet perhaps this is another answer to bringing back a level playing field to the game of baseball besides the financial arguments. With the chance of being suspended from baseball either for weeks, months, or even years, perhaps some of those players will see the risk and decided that it isn’t worth it. It will also give more athletes who have played by the rules a better chance to become major-league ballplayers someday. Then, the competition will return to the field instead of being away from it; it will depend less on drugs and dangerous supplements and focus more on a natural strength and conditioning routine.

Granted, the healing process will be long and painful for baseball. There are probably many fans that, along with other reasons that have been given, will throw in the towel and no longer financially support a “tainted” game. Even those who stay, if they have not already been, will become more suspicious of a player’s ability when he steps up to the plate and jacks one into the seats. Parents may wonder further whether these athletes are good role models for the children who mimic the behavior and style of play of the professional players in the field and at the plate. Above all, the trust in these players, who have continued to proclaim their innocence, may soon be lost, whether they are guilty or not.

The players, and the game itself, must move on and shed this image as quickly as possible and bring an honest, open game back to the fans. Lessons from this must be learned and never forgotten. Several years after Maris broke the home run record, the asterisk was removed and he was given due respect for his accomplishment. Following these revelations, baseball will wear an asterisk from now until the wounds heal and the scars fade.

Moneyball, Part 2

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Utter the word “salary cap” to your baseball buddies and suddenly the room divides into two camps: those who feel strongly that this is THE solution to the problems with Major League Baseball and those who believe that it punishes the teams and the players who are simply taking advantage of the free-market system. It may not be on the same level as hot-button topics like abortion and the death penalty, but it certainly whips up a conversation so heated that we have to check for the location of fire extinguishers in the room.

Regardless of your feelings on this issue, one fact is clear: the current MLB economic situation is in dire straits and requires compromise between owners and players to bridge the gap. When ninety percent of the wealth is owned by ten percent of the teams, that creates an obvious imbalance that hinders competition but also shows signs of taking the league into financial ruin.

Having had a few extra days to absorb the recent A-Rod deal and look at all sides of this issue, I believe that I have found a solution that appears to be the best approach to rectifying the current situation. It may not be THE solution, but… well, here are my thoughts.

1. Create a hard salary cap

Okay, this is not an original thought, but the harsh reality is that some owners (I’m not going to name names) control their spending like Paris Hilton does in Beverly Hills boutiques. The luxury tax penalty is about as effective as applying a Band-Aid to a blood-gushing wound. A hard cap sets a spending limit that minimizes the chances of an owner from creating a lineup filled with proven All-Stars and also helps control the salary levels of players.

2. Create a minimum payroll limit

Most critics of baseball target the big-spenders, but blame should also be given to the tightwads. It’s just as unfair that some owners will have team payrolls that are equal in value to the salary of one or two players on another team, even with revenue sharing utilized to help offset costs. By setting a minimum that is near equal to the cap, it forces these “small-market” owners, many who are sitting in brand-new stadiums built with public money, to compete. An underlying incentive, one that I like, is that it gets tight-fisted owners to either sell to an owner willing to bring the team back to par or fold the team, thus flushing the league of players better suited for the minors or the independent leagues.

With no background in economics, save for balancing my checkbook every month, can this succeed? Let’s set a hard cap at $100 million and a minimum of $70 million. Based on attendance figures from the 2003 season, the average attendance was around 28,000, or about 61% capacity. If we then set an average ticket price of $30, this raises about $68 million per season per team; that puts us just under my suggested league minimum. Consequentially, if this idea works to level the competition and create parity in the league, then we would assume that attendance would rise. If the average capacity were then raised to 70%, ticket revenues would increase to $79 million; at 80%, this would increase to $90 million.

Remember that this estimate does not include revenue from concessions, merchandise sales, television deals, the playoffs, and other sources. Some of this revenue, such as the concession sales and television contracts, are dependent on the team but should be easy enough to generate and bring teams above the minimum. Toss in the revenue generated by the league on sales of merchandise, playoff tickets, and other sources, and teams are still able to easy generate a profit. True, there are operating costs not considered, but most teams have deals with local governments and utilities to help offset this.

As a further example, let’s use the Boston Red Sox, the team with the smallest ballpark in the league. Last season, capacity was at 100%, with nearly every games sold out and standing-room-only sales included. An average ticket price of $30 would generate $82 million in revenue. If that attendance figure dropped to 80%, the team would still generate $65 million in revenue and, as explained above, there would be enough additional revenue generate by the team and the league to still generate a profit.

While these changes may seem like a bitter pill for the owners and players to swallow, the league cannot continue to operate without checks and balances. With no weight being applied by the commissioner’s office to corral the league, the owners and players will continue to place blame on each other and nothing will be done to rectify the situation. Yes, the reality is that baseball is a business, but if fans continue to lose interest in this league and take their money elsewhere, how will the business of Major League Baseball survive?