Book Review – Don’t Let Us Win Tonight

If you are going to recap one of the greatest seasons in Boston Red Sox history and one of the most improbable comebacks in baseball history, why not get the story straight from the people who experienced it firsthand?

Don't Let Us Win Tonight
Don’t Let Us Win Tonight, written by Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin

If you are going to recap one of the greatest seasons in Boston Red Sox history and one of the most improbable comebacks in baseball history, why rehash box scores and the play-by-play that are easily found through an Internet search? Why not get the story straight from the people who experienced it firsthand?

This is the heart of Don’t Let Us Win Tonight, authored by Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin. While the authors set the stage in bringing us back ten years to that magical 2004 postseason, the story unfolds through the words of the players, the manager, the front office, the medical staff, the opposition, and even the bat boy. Nearly every moment is captured, beginning with a quick summary of the season, followed by a recap of each postseason game, and finally to the championship parade that wove through the streets of Boston at the end.

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Did You Know? – Japanese Red Sox Ballplayers

With the hype surrounding Japanese pitching phenomenon Diasuke Matsuzaka as he prepares to make his MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox this spring, it’s worth noting the accomplishments of Japanese baseball players in Major League Baseball history. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in total, there have been 27 Japanese ballplayers who have worn an MLB uniform. The first such player was Masanori Murakami, who debuted at the age of 20 in September of 1964 for the San Francisco Giants; he would pitch one full season the following year before contractual obligations forced him back to the Nankei Hawks of the Japanese League, where he pitched another 17 seasons.

It wasn’t until thirty years later that another Japanese ballplayer, Hideo Nomo, would take the field with a Major League club. In 1995, “The Tornado” (named so for his winding delivery style) made his first start for the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the Giants in May of that season; at season’s end, he was 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts, beating future NL MVP Chipper Jones by 14 points for Rookie of the Year honors. Six years later, in 2001, he would spend his first and only season in a Boston Red Sox uniform. The year began well for the then-32-year-old veteran; making his first start of the regular season in Baltimore, Nomo pitched the first official no-hitter by a Red Sox pitcher since Dave Morehead no-hit the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park in 1965. Having thrown a no-hitter against Colorado in 1996, he became the fourth pitcher in major league history to throw a no-hitter in both the American and National Leagues. He would finish the season at 13-10 in 33 starts with a 3.09 ERA and 220 strikeouts and then return to the Dodgers in 2002 as a free agent.

Nomo was actually the second player of Japanese descent to play for the Red Sox; in July of 1999, Tomokazu Ohka made his MLB debut for Boston and would remain with the club until 2001 when he was shipped mid-season to Montréal in exchange for fellow pitcher Ugueth Urbina. Ohka began his baseball career in Japan with the Yokohama Giants of the Central League, where he was 1-2 in 34 appearances over four seasons. Starting at Double-A Trenton to begin the 1999 season, he went 8-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 12 starts; he was rewarded with a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket and went 7-0 with a 1.58 ERA in 12 more starts. He soon made his major league debut as a mid-season call-up on 19 July; unfortunately, he lasted just one-plus innings in his first start, giving up five runs on five hits and a walk. He did not fair any better in his second start and was sent to the bullpen for the rest of the season.

The following spring, Ohka again started the year in the minors with Pawtucket and enjoyed another fast start, beginning the season with a 9-6 record and a 2.96 ERA in 19 starts, which included a perfect game against the Charlotte Knights on 01 June 2000. Once more, the Red Sox promoted him mid-season and, after saddling two more losses in starts with Boston, he finally earned his first major league win on 13 August in Texas against the Rangers, the first of three straight wins; at season’s end, he was 3-6 in 12 starts but with a respectable 3.12 ERA. He would begin the next season with Boston, winning two of his first three starts, but those would be the last wins for Ohka in a Boston uniform before the deadline trade. In total with the Red Sox, he compiled a 6-13 record in 25 starts and 33 total appearances with a 4.61 ERA.

Only one other Japanese-born player has worn a uniform for the Boston Red Sox, though many fans may not be familiar with this player’s heritage: Dave Roberts, one of the heroes of the 2004 World Series champions. Forever remembered in Boston lore for his stolen base in the ninth inning of Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, now often referred to as “The Steal,” his father, Waymon Roberts, was a Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan; his mother, Eiko, is of Japanese descent. However, despite being born in the Land of the Rising Run, Roberts spent most of his youth in San Diego, CA. In total, counting players with other heritages, there have been 34 players born in Japan to don a major league uniform.

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.

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.