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Did You Know? – Red Sox All-Star Game Final Vote Winners

With 4.3 million votes cast in his favor over four days of online balloting on MLB.com, Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Hideki Okajima became the final player selected to represent the American League at tonight’s All-Star Game in San Francisco. The first-year pitcher, who played for 12 seasons in Japan, beat out fellow pitcher Jeremy Bonderman of the Detroit Tigers for the honor.[1] He also became the sixth Red Sox player to join the All-Star team alongside pitchers Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon, first baseman David Ortiz, third baseman Mike Lowell, and outfielder Manny Ramirez.

Okajima also becomes the third Red Sox player selected to the All-Star game through the All-Star Final Vote process. In 2002, the first year that the selection was made by the fans, former outfielder Johnny Damon made his first of two eventual trips with Boston to the All-Star game; he would enter the game in the fifth as a defensive replacement and go 1-for-3 with a run scored and a stolen base at Miller Park in Milwaukee. The following season, the honor went to catcher Jason Varitek who made his first All-Star squad but never entered the game at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Both players would make their second appearance with the Red Sox at the Mid-Summer Classic in 2005 and get the nod from the fans as starters for the American League squad along with Ortiz and Ramirez in the starting lineup at Comerica Park in Detroit.

[1] Hideki Okajima wins 2007 American League Monster All-Star Final Vote. MLB.com, 05 July 2007.

Did You Know? – Hot Starts in Red Sox History

Through Sunday, Boston’s record is 30-13 on the regular season, which puts the team 10-1/2 games in front of second-place Baltimore and New York for the lead in the American League East. However, believe it or not, this only ties the second-best record to start a season to this point. In 2002, Boston also began the season at 30-13 through 22 May but, to that point of the season, the Red Sox were only one game in front of the second-place Yankees, who had started 31-16. Two days earlier, Boston had improved its fast start to 30-11 after thumping the Chicago White Sox 9-0 at Fenway Park behind Derek Lowe’s eight-inning masterpiece on the mound and home runs from Jason Varitek and Shea Hillenbrand, but had dropped the final two games of the series. Boston would go on finish at 93-69 in skipper Grady Little’s first year as manager but 10-1/2 games behind eventual division champion New York.

In 1946, Boston’s record after 43 games of play was an amazing 34-9, in part thanks to a team-record 15-game winning streak between 25 April and 10 May of that season, which put their record to that point at an unbelieveable 21-3. The Red Sox had gone on to win another 13 of 19 and put themselves seven games in front of second-place New York. Boston would finish the season at 104-50, the second-best record in team history behind the 1912 club that had won 105 games and the World Series, and easily won the American League pennant by 12 games over Detroit and 17 games over New York. In contrast, the team’s worst record after 43 games was 8-35 in 1932 on a club that would finish with 111 losses that season, a franchise record for futility.

Red Sox Go Back-To-Back-To-Back-To-Back

With two outs in the third inning of tonight’s game versus the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox stroked four consecutive home runs for the first time in franchise history. Manny Ramirez started the fireworks with a shot over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, his second of the season, and J.D. Drew followed with his second round-tripper to the right-field bleachers. Mike Lowell then socked his second of the year, again over the Green Monster, and Jason Varitek completed the feat with a shot into the Monster Seats, his second of the season and of the series with Boston’s American League East rival. All four home runs came off of Yankees rookie pitcher Chase Wright and turned a 3-0 New York advantage into a 4-3 Boston lead.

From the MLB.com release :

The Red Sox became the fifth team in Major League history to hit four home runs in a row. The [Los Angeles] Dodgers did it last September 18th in a key pennant-race game against the Padres to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. Drew, with the Dodgers last year, was also involved in that quartet…. It marked the 10th time in Red Sox history that they’ve hit four home runs in one inning, tying a club record.

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.

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.

Happy New Year, Finally!

About a week ago, I was suddenly regretting the thought that 2004 was coming to an end; after all, that was the year for long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans and perhaps I was reluctant to let go so soon after enjoying everything that went the excitement of a World Series championship. From the first day of spring training right, through the trials and tribulations of the regular season and an even wilder post-season, and culminating with the awakening of my 18-month-old son to have him in front of the television when Foulke softly tossed the ball to Mientkiewicz at first, it was almost too difficult to detach myself from the emotions that I felt.

2004 will be a year that no one who was a fan of the Red Sox will soon forget. 2004 was the year that a prodigal son returned to the fold and joined the ace-in-residence to provide a one-two punch that few teams could match. 2004 was the year when Jason Varitek and his teammates collectively shoved their mitts in the face of the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on a warm July afternoon and sent a message that the season would not end that day. 2004 was the year that a young general manager took the biggest gamble of his brief career and traded the Franchise. 2004 was the year that it wasn’t over until Big Papi took one last cut. 2004 was the year that a bloody sock characterized what this “team of idiots” was willing to do to end the years of frustration. 2004 was the year that it was someone else’s turn to choke at the worst possible moment. 2004 was the year that, finally, was the year.

However, perhaps there is much to look forward to with the dawn of 2005. For the first time in our lives as Red Sox fans (making the assumption that none of you reading this truly remember the last time it happened), we will watch our team play a season as defending world champions. For the first time, we won’t be wondering if this will finally be the year but if our team can repeat the feat. For the first time, perennial doubt has been replaced with renewed excitement and we can walk around with our chests held out a little further and our heads held up a little higher.

Am I aware that the other teams in the league will now approach their games against us with the intent of knocking us down from our lofty perch? Am I worried that Pedro Martinez has flown the coop after seven seasons in Boston to nest in the confines of the Mets organization next season? Do I dread the knowledge that Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano will be wearing pinstripes next season, as might Carlos Beltran, and that the Yankees will be looking to administer some payback for what happened in the American League Championship Series? My only response to these and other questions like those is that, if these are the dilemmas that come with being crowned as world champions, it’s good to be the king!

There is no promise that this season will be anything like last season; it would be next to impossible to recapture the essence of that run a year ago. Nevertheless, I look forward to another exciting season of Red Sox baseball as I have every spring since I can remember. Varitek will be back behind the plate as captain of the team and no one will need to see a “C” sewn on his jersey to understand that. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez will be back with their bats to provide that awesome one-two punch at the plate. Curt Schilling will be back on the mound every fifth day to expend every ounce of energy available to keep opposing teams frustrated at the plate. Johnny Damon will be back leading the charge in center field and in the lead-off spot. Terry Francona will be back in the dugout and Theo Epstein will be back in the front office, doing everything they can to assemble and develop another championship team.

Best of all, on the second Monday of April, just a little before three in the afternoon, no matter what happens the rest of this season, a championship banner will be raised high above Fenway Park for everyone to see. The fact that the rival New York Yankees, no matter how many guns have been hired, will get a front-row seat to the festivities only makes it that much sweeter. With no more talk of curses, 1918, the Bambino, or any other ghosts of the past 86 years that always seemed to stand by, waiting for the most inopportune moment, it’s truly going to be a happy new year.

Who Will Stay? Who Will Go?

Next Tuesday, 07 December, marks the final day that the former Major League Baseball club of a free agent will be allowed to resign said player or, at a minimum, offer salary arbitration. Otherwise, a player may not resign with his former club until 01 May. That means that, in seven days, Boston Red Sox fans will have a better idea of what face the club will have on Opening Day in 2005 as the organization prepares to defend its World Series crown. Of the 16 free agents that played last season for Boston, one has fled to Japan, utility outfielder Gabe Kapler, and one has resigned with Boston, Doug Mirabelli. Of those remaining players, four big names top the list of players that may or may not return in a Red Sox uniform next season; what chance will they be back?

Jason Varitek – C
Chances: Better than 75%

Varitek’s agent, the infamous Scott Boras, has told all interested parties that his client is looking for a five-year deal around $50 million with a no-trade clause; Boston has countered with a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $36-$39 million. In Varitek’s words, what he wants is stability so that he won’t have to worry about moving his family for a number of years to come. Having spent his entire career in Boston since his trade from Seattle in 1997, staying put would be the ideal situation. Varitek is a fan favorite because he always plays at full speed and probably reached an elite status alongside Sox legend Carlton Fisk when he shoved his mitt in Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s face in July.

There are very few free agents on the market that play to the caliber of Varitek; however, having said that, he is also not among the top players at that position. Varitek will turn 33 on 11 April and, historically, catchers do not play well into their late thirties. Reports last week arose that Boston will likely offer Varitek salary arbitration by the deadline and he would have 12 days to decide whether to accept. If he declines, the club would then have until 08 January to try and negotiate a new deal. Boston wants him here and Varitek wants to stay here, especially if he is serious about doing what’s best for his family. A final deal will probably pay him $10 million per season, and some of that will be paid out up front as a signing bonus, but the maximum number of years that Boston would be willing to commit would be four years.

Pedro Martinez – P
Chances: Fifty-fifty

Before the start of the 2003 season, the Dominican dominator began to squawk about a contract extension and told the media that, every day, his price would continue to climb. Instead of going into a panic about the Boston ace bolting to the Yankees when his contract expired, the organization simply kept its mouth shut and instead picked up the club option on a seventh year a week after the season began. Fans began to wonder if the Red Sox would eventually watch another big-name player walk as they had with former studs Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn but, two seasons later, no one is in a panic and Boston looks like they played those cards right.

Boston has offered a two-year deal at $25.5 million with an option for a third year if he remained healthy that would bring the final value of the contract to around $38 million. Interest from the Yankees has been lukewarm at best; Pedro and his agent called a meeting with Steinbrenner early this month, but the Yankees have not verbalized an offer and it appears to have been more of a ploy to try and force the Red Sox to up their offer. The New York Mets are now willing to offer Martinez a guaranteed three-year contract at the same $38 million level, but it’s not the four years that the ace wanted and New York isn’t exactly on track to win another World Series in the next few seasons. Right now, the Red Sox are holding firm and they are willing to let Pedro walk, something that perhaps no Boston fan would have fathomed even before the 2004 season began. Pedro may get his best all-around deal from Boston, but it will be up to him whether his ego will allow his supposed loyalty to Red Sox fan to keep him in a Boston uniform for another few seasons.

Orlando Cabrera – SS
Chances: One-in-three

Cabrera was a nice pick-up for the Sox and made everyone forget that he was traded for perhaps the most popular Boston player in recent memory, especially in helping his new club win a World Series. Now the 30-year-old Columbian is looking to cash in on the national exposure that you just didn’t get playing for Montreal and is looking for a nice long-term deal. While Boston has some interest in retaining his services, they are not interested in signing him for more than a year or two, especially if Pawtucket prospect Hanley Ramirez is ready for the big leagues by 2006. Boston might try to offer him arbitration, but it’s a better bet that he will try to sign elsewhere because he may not get a better opportunity for more money as a player.

Derek Lowe – P
Chances: Less than zero

The unsung hero of the 2004 playoffs blew his chance to sign a contract extension with Boston in each of the last two off-seasons and that may come around to bite him in the end. Although numbers haven’t been mentioned lately, Boras reportedly was looking to secure Lowe with a contract worth $11 million per season. Lowe did win 52 games over the last three seasons and was a runner-up in the Cy Young voting in 2002, but he was inconsistent over the 2004 season, finishing with a 14-12 record and an ERA of 5.42, and the offensive juggernaut in the Boston clubhouse helped him record a few of those wins. It should be noted that he become the first pitcher in post-season history to record the decisive win in every one of his team’s playoff series, providing an inning of relief in Game Three of the Division Series and pitching gems in Game Seven of the ALCS and Game Four of the World Series. However, Babe Ruth has a better chance of being in a Red Sox uniform next season. Lowe is obviously a disgruntled employee in the organization and also wants to escape the scrutiny of the Boston media. With the younger Carl Pavano on the market for equal value and less money, Lowe will be dishing his sinker on another club next season.

2004 World Series Preview

Well, so far I’m six-for-six in calling these match-ups, but then you won’t see me jetting off to Vegas anytime soon to test my abilities in the World Series of Poker. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the original World Series of baseball where each team needed all seven games of their respective championship series to win the pennants of the American and National Leagues. Now before us, to the excitement of baseball buffs everywhere, are two teams who have met twice before in the battle for the title, once in 1946 and once in 1967. In both instances, St. Louis and Boston went to a deciding Game 7 and the Cardinals won over the Red Sox each time. While the days of Enos Slaughter, Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, and Carl Yastrzemski are long gone, there is no doubt that we have the makings of another Fall Classic.

St. Louis (105-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: No games played

The Red Sox, facing the possibility of getting swept in the American League Championship Series by New York, were down to their last three outs when they rallied to tie the game. From there, they went on to win the final four games, including the last two in front of a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, to clinch the AL pennant for the first time in 18 years. Meanwhile, the Cardinals returned from Houston down 3-2 in the National League Championship Series with the Astros and needed to win both games; they did just that, winning with a walk-off home run by Jim Edmonds in Game 6 and coming back late in Game 7 against Roger Clemens to clinch their first NL pennant in 17 years. On paper, these two teams look evenly matched, so who has the advantage over whom?

For Boston, they have a stronger starting rotation, even with Curt Schilling and his tender tendon that was held in place by two stitches so that he could pitch the Sox to victory in Game 6. The other pitcher of the moment for Boston is Derek Lowe, who pitched brilliantly in the deciding seventh game and, even with a seven-run cushion, allowed just one run on one hit in six innings of work. Of course, there is the arm of Pedro Martinez, who was strong in his two starts as well. Opposing them will be a strong rotation in itself, with Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Woody Williams looking to stifle the Sox. Suppan delivered a clutch performance in the deciding game of the NLCS, out-dueling Clemens and a hungry Astros lineup. Williams is expect to start the first game and has great command, having earned a win in his first start of that series and going seven innings in his second start, allowing just one hit and no runs. Marquis and Morris both won 15 games this season on a staff that, like Boston, had five pitchers win ten or more starts but have struggled slightly in the post-season.

The bullpen match-up is also interesting; Boston has Keith Foulke as its closer, who appeared five times in the ALCS and earned a save in Game 6. His best work came in Game 4 when, with just one out in the seventh and Boston down by a run, he was asked to try and keep New York off the board; he responded by walking just two batters while not allowing a single hit in 2-2/3 innings to set up the late-inning dramatics for the Red Sox. St. Louis counters with Jason Isringhausen, who led the NL in saves with 47; he pitched six times in the NLCS and earned three saves. While he did blow a save, it was when he was asked to get the final nine outs of the ball game but only managed to get the first eight. He also had one loss, but that was on the road in extra frames with the score knotted at zero. The rest of the bullpen is evenly matched and both were key in helping get to this point of the season.

On offense, the Red Sox boasts a strong infield that committed just one error in the ALCS. Bill Mueller gobbles up balls hit anywhere close to him at third base, as does former Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera at short. Late in the game, Boston brings Pokey Reese in at second and Doug Mientkiewicz in at first, giving them three Gold Glove winners in the infield to back up Foulke and the rest of the bullpen. In the outfield, Johnny Damon patrols center field and, while his arm is a little weak, he gets to the ball fast. For the Cardinals, the human highlight reel in center field, Edmonds, who has made enough impressive catches in his career that would make fishermen jealous, leads them on offense. They also have Edgar Renteria playing short and Scott Rolen at third; together, they allowed just 24 errors in the regular season, making it unlikely that a mistake will come from the left side of the infield.

The lineup on either side of the field boasts some heavy hitters. Boston has the dynamic duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez did not drive in a single run in the ALCS but scored three runs and batted .300; Ortiz, on the other hand, was the offense for Boston late in the series, batting .387 with 11 RBI and collecting game-winning hits in Games 4 and 5, good enough for series MVP honors. He also led off the deciding game with a two-run home run and Boston never trailed in that game. Jason Varitek was also money against the Yankees, collecting seven RBI while batting .321, and Damon awoke from his ALCS slumber in Game 7 to plate a record six runs. For St. Louis, they are led by Albert Pujols, the NLCS MVP, who stroked four home runs, drove in nine, and batted .500. They also have Edmonds, Rolen, and Larry Walker launching baseballs into the stratosphere; Edmonds stroked a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 and Rolen stroked a long ball to finish a rally by the Cardinals late in Game 7.

If there is one X-factor to watch in this series, it will be what Boston will do with Ortiz, the everyday designated hitter, when they travel to St. Louis and must play by National League rules. Ortiz did start 31 games at first base this season, so it’s almost certain that he’ll be there for the middle three games at a minimum; his bat is so hot right now that to remove him might psychologically deflate the potent offense. That also means that Kevin Millar will likely sit on the bench and only appear late to pinch-hit for a pitcher, but Francona may give Trot Nixon a rest in one game and let the Millar adventure to right field. If Ortiz can shake the rust, then there shouldn’t be much of a letdown.

Again, this has all the makings of a classic; Boston fans feel strongly that their time has finally come after 86 years of failure. St. Louis fans, though not quite as rabid, are just as loyal and would love to see the Cardinals bring home a championship trophy for the first time in 22 years. It’s almost too close to call, but Boston gets the edge in my book for two reasons. At the moment, they have a stronger pitching staff that proved in the final four games of the ALCS that they are ready to do whatever is called upon them to accomplish; the Yankee lineup was no less strong than what the Cardinals will throw at them. Second, in contrast, Boston has the potential to light up any rotation and have shown the ability this post-season to rally late against an even stronger closer, Mariano Rivera, who blew two consecutive saves for the first time in his experienced post-season career. This series will more than likely go the full seven games but, in the end, New England fans will get a second chance this year to watch a championship parade wind through downtown Boston.