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Five Future Red Sox Hall of Fame Inductees

The selection committee for the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame isn’t due to make a decision on the next list of nominees until more than a year from now, and the next induction ceremony isn’t scheduled to take place until November of 2008, but just whose career as a Red Sox player or manager might be worthy enough to earn enshrinement at that time? (We won’t consider non-uniformed honorees here nor will we consider a “memorable moment” from team history.) To be eligible, players must have played a minimum of three years with the team and have been out of uniform as an active player for another three years; former managers are generally chosen well after leaving Boston, as was the case for “Walpole” Joe Morgan and Dick Williams, two 2006 inductees. We are also going to shy away from more recent candidates who will be eligible when the next vote is expected, like John Valentin, Mo Vaughn, and Ellis Burks, simply because selections usually happen longer than three or so years after leaving the game.

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Rice Waits For Another Shot at Call to Hall

On Tuesday afternoon, the Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the results of the Baseball Writers of America Association (BBWAA) vote for the newest members to baseball’s shrine of immortals. Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr., both first-time candidates, are expected to receive better than the necessary 75 percent of the vote and there are legimate reasons for another first-timer, Mark McGwire, to earn enshrinement, depending on how the voters perceive whether allegations of illicit drug use are enough to keep him out of the hall, at least initially.

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Respect For Rice Overdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s No “I” In This Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s The Way Love Goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Hall Won’t Heed The Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Nomar’s Gone, Let’s Move On

Nomar Garciaparra
Nomar Garciaparra

The inevitable was approaching whether we wanted to believe it or not and Ted William‘s frozen head must have spun inside that liquid nitrogen-filled container when the news broke. After ten years in the organization and seven-plus years with the parent club, the face of the franchise was sent packing in a four-team deal and a sad chapter closed the book on the relationship between the Boston Red Sox and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Whereas no one ever expected a few years ago that he would play anywhere but here, the relationship had cooled – perhaps had even become colder than an arctic breeze – and there was no getting around the fact that a break up was necessary. So the Red Sox sent employee number five to Chicago and that was that… or so it would seem.

It’s been less than a week to this point and, already, I’m tired of reading the he said/she said commentary that has been given considerable space in the sport sections of the local papers. The Red Sox organization blames Garciaparra’s agent who told them that his client deserved no less than $16 million per season when Boston had offered roughly $15 million instead. Boston sportswriters, known for being a rather vicious bunch that loves to make mountains out of pitching mounds, tell us that Garciaparra faked the extent of his injury in an attempt to stick it to the organization. They also claim that the organization did everything that it could in the final weeks before the deadline to try and mend fences, only to have it thrown back in their faces and told that he wanted out, whether it was now or after the season ended.

The truth is that we will never really know who is to blame for this mess or if there is any blame to place. The facts were that Garciaparra was coming to the end of his current contract and it was apparent that the two sides could not agree on a new one. It is also fact that Garciaparra will play at least the rest of the 2004 season with another team looking to bring a championship to its city for the first time in many, many years. What is also important is that we put the matter behind us so that we can concentrate on the other fact: that the team that takes the field now is the one that we are counting on to try and help end this championship drought. Whether we agree with the trade or not, there are no do-overs; what’s done is done and we must move on.

There is no question that Garciaparra was, for the most part, a fan favorite during his tenure in a Boston uniform. He dazzled us with his amazing ability to snare ground balls and then whirl around to fire a bullet to first for the out. He peppered the field with hits all over the park, never fearing to swing at the first pitch he saw, and came through in the clutch in opportunities that were too plentiful to count. Most of all, whether he was happy or not with his situation off the field, he played 100% on the field, never doing less than what he felt the fans deserved to see from him.

My most vivid memory of him comes from an October night in 1998 when, following the end of a loss to Cleveland that eliminated Boston from post-season play, Garciaparra came out of the dugout and began clapping his hands in a gesture to show his appreciation for the support that the fans had given his team all season. While the rest of the team, including a soon-to-be-departing Mo Vaughn, quietly filed back into the clubhouse, but the young shortstop was not about to let another disappointing season spoil the chance to let the Fenway faithful know that he considered them the tenth player for that team.

Hopefully, in another week, the sting will be gone and everyone involved will have moved on, as is the business of baseball. Players come and go and it’s never easy to see a fan favorite depart, perhaps for greener pastures. Although it doesn’t feel right to not see employee number five taking the field for Boston, we must not let the bitter taste of what was an ugly divorce ruin the memories of what was a great stretch of time to be a fan of the Red Sox.