Category Archives: Baseball

What would life be like without baseball?

“What would life be like without baseball?”

On the eve of Truck Day, I don’t have to think too hard to answer this question… a description of what my life has been like the last couple of months will suffice.

Without baseball, I often ignore the daily newspaper. No box scores? No interest.

Without baseball, the flat screen on the wall of the family room is a shiny gray ornament. The remote is stashed deep in the coffee table drawer.

Without baseball, I have to make up things to do at night. Read a book. Clean the furnace room. Eat a big bowl of cereal. Write a blog article about life without baseball. Watch the Baylor-Oklahoma basketball game on ESPN. Strum on my guitar. Go to bed early.

Without baseball, there’s no temptation to manage my online fantasy baseball team while at work. Instead, when I need a break, I just trudge up and down the hill outside my office and think about calls I have to make.

Without baseball, I lose touch with my dad, my brothers, and my sister. The Red Sox are our family’s lifeblood.

Without baseball, talk radio is spirited noise.

Without baseball, lunch conversations with colleagues are hard to sustain for more than five minutes. There’s no game to talk about. No slumps to analyze. No standings to lament. No managerial moves to criticize. No rookies to compare to Dewey, Fisk, and Nomar.

Without baseball, my multiple Rawlings gloves lie in a bin in the cold garage. I sometimes put one of them on for a moment when I’m putting trash in the garbage cans.

Without baseball, the kids don’t beg me to play wiffle ball or catch with them when I get home from work. They don’t beg me to do anything. There are no little league teams to coach. No fungoes to hit.

Without baseball, there are no extra-inning, West Coast games to keep me up until the middle of the night. I am well rested. Yet restless.

Without baseball, the magnet that draws me to Fenway Park shuts down. No one calls with an extra ticket. I give away my Charlie Cards for the Green Line.

It’s February 11. Hot stove talk is dead. My backyard is a frozen tundra. There hasn’t been a major league baseball game in over three months.

But Truck Day is finally here. Spring training won’t start for another week, but just knowing that the Red Sox’s baseball equipment is en route to Fort Myers will improve the quality of fans’ lives in a measurable way.

Allelulia! Life without baseball is almost over! In about 50 days, they’ll be Shipping Up to Boston!

Down twenty to nothing…

“I have a feeling,” I said, sitting in the bleachers with other parents of the Jazz, our 9 and 10 year-olds’ winless (0-5) basketball team, this past Sunday. “This is going to be the day they get their first win. This is our day.” But no one believed me. Not even I believed me. The other team, the Nets, looked bigger. And better. Just like every other opponent we’d faced. And within 30 seconds of the opening tip-off, the Jazz trailed the Nets, 4-0.

Then it was 6-0, 8-0, 10-0. “Come on guys, let’s score a basket!” cheered the Jazz’s coach from the bench. But the Nets stole the ball and hit an easy layup. 12-0. Then 14-0. “The Nets are shooting at 90%,” a Jazz parent observed. 16-0. 18-0. And with one second remaining in the first quarter, a Nets player took a shot from just inside the three-point line. Embarrassed by the gory slaughter that was taking place on the court, even the Nets’ coach hoped that the shot would miss its target. The buzzer sounded, and a moment later, the ball swished through the net.

20-0. That’s twenty to NOTHING after one quarter of play.

“A typical scoring total for an entire game at this level is 30 points per team,” said one parent. “And they have 20 in a single quarter.”

“At this rate, we’re going to lose 80 to nothing,” observed the mom sitting in front of me, with a smirk.

“Hi, honey,” I heard one dad sigh into his cell phone. “Well, they’re losing twenty-zip, so I’m not sure it’s worth the trip.”

Then my cell phone rang. It was my wife, calling to discuss the schedule for the rest of the day and transportation logistics for our five kids. “How’s the team doing?” she asked after we’d discussed the plans.

“Well, they’re losing 20 to nothing after one quarter,” I answered.

“Not again,” she replied. “Do you think they’ll win a single game?” Then, the Jazz hit a layup. Every parent in the gym cheered with relief.

“Now it’s 20-2,” I told her. “I have to go, it’s getting really exciting.” We chuckled.

The most memorable comeback I ever saw in person was the Red Sox’ remarkable win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS at Fenway Park. Down 7-0 going into the bottom of the 7th inning – and facing elimination from the series – the Sox clawed their way to victory. I know “Game Five” is my most memorable comeback because it’s the first one that popped into my head yesterday as I watched the final three quarters of a youth basketball game that took my breath away and left me shaking my head and grinning the rest of the day.

The second and third quarters are a blur in my memory, so I’ll quote the text messages I sent to my wife.

“Was 20-0, now 22-8. R has 2 pts.”

“26-15 at the half.”

(It was during halftime I remember saying to a few other parents, “Can you imagine if they came back and won this game? For the rest of our lives, whenever we’d see each other in town, we’d say to each other, ‘We were there for the greatest comeback ever.'” We all laughed.)

“28-21, 5 min left in 3rd Q. R has 8 pts.”

“31-30. R’s team WINNING. 1 min left in 3rd Q. Amazing.

“Winning 38-36. R has 12, 2 min to go. Do you believe in miracles?”

“Wow,” my wife replied.

“Unreal,” I replied to her reply.

At this point, the referee – who reminded all of us of Gene Rayburn, the host of ’70s TV show, The Match Game — held the basketball, walked over to the bleachers where parents were sitting, and said to all of us with a big grin on his face, “Raise your hand if you’re nervous.” A few hands went up. “All of you who didn’t raise your hands are lying!” he said, smiling.

Knowing that I was (perhaps) witnessing one of the greatest comebacks in 4th and 5th grade sports history, I videotaped the final two minutes of the game on my iPhone. The Nets’ coach called three timeouts, the Jazz coach called one — and these are the only timeouts I’ve seen ANY coach take during the entire season so far. This was a run-of-the-mill, regular season youth basketball game between kids whose tank tops fell to their knees, but these two coaches (volunteer dads) suddenly realized that this game could be one that they and their players would remember for a very long time. And they wanted to win. Badly.

With the Jazz up by two, 38-36, with 30 seconds to go, the referee walked back over to the bleachers and yelled up to the parents and kids on the second level who had recently arrived and were waiting to use the court next. “Hey you guys up there!” he called, “I wanted to let you know, the white team had a thirty-six to nothing lead. So half the parents on the white team went home, because they thought the game was over. And we had to get them on cell phones, we texted them, we brought them all back!” He was clearly savoring this unique sports experience as much as anyone.

The Nets fouled. And fouled. Until they were finally over the limit and the Jazz went to the free-throw line for a one-and-one with 15 seconds remaining. And the 4 ft 8 in, 10 year-old Jazz player (#31 below, on the right) hit BOTH shots, banking them in off the backboard. (To put this feat in perspective, 9 and 10 year-olds shoot about 20% from the free throw line…and about 3% when they’re nervous. Maybe he was too naiive about what was happening to be nervous? Or maybe, just maybe, he had “ice in his veins” and was truly clutch.)

Game over. Jazz 40, Nets 36.

The kids went crazy on the court. My son jumped on the back of a smaller teammate who was caught by surprise, and they crumpled to the ground in a heap of joy. The Jazz coach suddenly produced a camera and started taking pictures of the boys’ celebration. The teams shook hands. Two Nets players wept as they found their parents in the bleachers and put on their coats to go home. Meanwhile, everyone wanted to take a picture of the Jazz players. They lined up and posed for about ten cameras. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Jazz parents didn’t know how to react. Is it OK to marvel at the outcome of a 9 and 10 year-olds’ basketball game? No one high-fived, though we wanted to. There were a few slaps on the back, and we all shook our heads and smiled. “That’s one of the greatest comebacks I have ever seen, at ANY level,” I said to the Jazz’s coach.

“Yes, well there was the Red Sox comeback against the Yankees in 2004,” he replied.

And just like that, this Jazz-Nets basketball game was “on the list” — along with Frank Reich’s Bills, Doug Flutie’s Eagles, Mookie Wilson’s Mets, and David Ortiz’s Red Sox.

I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again: Some of the greatest sports moments of the day never make it onto ESPN’s Sports Center. Yet on backyard rinks, on dusty fields, and in tiny gyms across America, every day another sports drama unfolds that teaches its participants – and its other witnesses – that “you gotta play the game,” and “anything can happen.” I could tell my son a million times to never give up, to keep the faith, to grind until the end…. and now, thanks to this one game, that attitude will forever be in his blood.

Winning’s the goal, but it isn’t the point

A couple of years ago, I had the chance to attend a pitching clinic that Jonathan Papelbon gave for kids. My eldest son, who was about 8 at the time, was one of his 40-or-so students that day. The night before the clinic, Pap had blown a save against the Yankees, so we were all a little worried about the mood that he would bring to the clinic. And he did look exhausted and beaten down, but he was tremendous with the kids, teaching them a lot of important pitching basics and spending some one-on-one time with all of them. And after the clinic, he stuck around to sign autographs for the kids and to answer all of their questions.

Pap said a lot of great things that day — things that a parent really wants his son to hear from an all-star major leaguer — but what I remember most was what he told the kids about winning. Someone asked him about how he bounces back after a painful loss to the Yankees, and he went off on a philosophical rampage. “Hey, I feel bad because I let my teammates down. But you young kids, you need to remember that playing baseball is supposed to be all about fun. Winning and losing — it really doesn’t matter when you’re young, as long as you’re having fun.” He went on to say, “Now, when you start getting paid to play, winning becomes the  main thing. But not until you get to the pros. And you all have a long way to go ’til then. So don’t get all caught up in winning and losing. Remember, baseball is all about having fun.” It was a message straight from his heart, almost like he wished he could go back to those days when fun was the main goal of pitching – not beating the Yankees, not making a living.

This past summer, my son played on a summer baseball team of very good 9/10 year-olds. I was one of the coaches. We had practices or games perhaps 4-5 nights per week, and we ended up going 20-2-1 and winning the league championship on the last day of the season. At the end of the championship game, we presented the kids with their championship trophies and they all felt really marvelous. All of us coaches high-fived and embraced – after all, we were champion coaches, and we had helped to give our children and their teammates the unique feeling of being champions (plus, we had successfully avoided the uncomfortable feeling of coming oh-so-close and then losing).

I received congratulations from many people for winning it all – parents of our players, other coaches in the town, and some close family and friends who had followed my son’s team’s season. Being the last team standing is just such a rare achievement, and it’s a fantastically simple, no-nonsense way to evaluate the success of a team’s season.

But the success of our season shouldn’t be defined only by our win-loss record or the fact that we won the league championship. Winning was the goal, but it was never the point, and the allure of winning makes this easy to forget.

The point was, as Papelbon said, having fun. The point was improving young baseball players’ physical skills. The point was teaching them how to think – before the game and in every game situation. The point was teaching kids the value of practicing in the right way. The point was teaching them to play as a team. The point was teaching them to never give up, and to bounce back from disappointing at-bats, plays, or games. The point was improving their resilience and focus. The point was developing leaders. The point was teaching kids to have the courage to dream about winning but to avoid becoming attached to that outcome. The point was teaching them to cheer for each other and keep each other “up” at all times. The point was teaching them to stay loose and to smile. The point was giving kids an experience, through a series of practices and games, that would not only give them joy today — for joy’s sake — but also help them to grow into happier, more self-confident people, better equipped to face challenges in the future.

We coached with these objectives in mind all summer, and this is why I’m proud of our team’s season. The goal of winning simply gave us a context for teaching all of these other vastly more important lessons.

Lots of coaches achieve these objectives with their youth athletic teams, but fail to win the championship or even to have a winning season. And, I fear, plenty of youth athletics coaches “win it all” and point to that accomplishment as justification for everything they did  — even though their coaching methods may have totally missed the point of youth athletics.

So I have my championship trophy, but its value isn’t its inherent symbolism of our team’s ability to score more runs than almost every other team. The value of the trophy — to me — is in the memories it holds of the players’ happy afternoons and evenings  playing the wonderful game of baseball, and in my son’s and his teammates’ evolution as competitors, as teammates, and as human beings.

Jerry Remy, Get Well

It’s true, Jerry Remy and I have a unique connection to each other as the two guys who placed first and second in the voting for President of Red Sox Nation back in 2007. But even though we have worked together as the President and Vice President these past two years, I still see Jerry the way all fans see him, and I got the same lump in my throat that all loyal fans got when I heard the news of his illness.

Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone… and without Jerry’s presence alongside Don Orsillo, the experience of watching Red Sox games on TV has been diminished. Not so much because his analysis is first-rate – which it is – but because his on-air personality is so consistent, so easy to identify with, so friendly. It’s not a stretch to say that, in his role as the voice of the Red Sox, he has become like a family member to all of us who have followed the team closely over the last 20 years. Even though he hasn’t personally met most of us, even though we don’t send him a Christmas card, he’s been one of the constants in our lives for a long time, someone we’ve come to know very, very well, and someone we’ve developed enormous fondness for — and so we not only miss him now that he’s on leave to recover from cancer surgery, we also feel his pain.

Of course, I join all of Red Sox Nation in wishing him a full recovery and a swift return to the NESN booth, where he belongs.

And as I think about why I care about Jerry Remy so much, I am compelled to share two brief stories that reveal the kind of person he is.

The Presidential Debate, Fall 2007

At the Red Sox Nation presidential debate at BU back in 2007, most of the candidates were waiting in a conference room when, an hour before the debate began, Jerry strolled in. The rest of us candidates who participated in the debate were nobodies (except Sam Horn, but he wasn’t in the room with us at that time), so it was a big moment for all of us to shake Jerry’s hand, and we couldn’t quite believe it when he grabbed a bottle of water, pulled up a chair, and hung out with us.

We all assumed Jerry would have his own room, or would show up just before the debates began, or would be off talking with the press, or would be chumming around with Henry, Lucchino, Steinberg, and maybe even Tim Russert. And he could have done any of these things. But he sat down and talked with us. And I remember we all talked – the 5 or 6 of us – right up until the moment we walked out onto the stage.

I remember Jerry in his Hawaiian shirt telling all of us, with a reassuring smile, “Don’t be nervous, you’re all going to do great, just relax and be yourselves.” And in that moment, we all realized we weren’t competing against each other – we realized Jerry was the man, and we were his supporting cast in a made-for-TV spectacle. And this helped to put all of us at ease.

And I remember that we politely (but somewhat aggressively) peppered Jerry with questions that every fan would want to ask him – about his own playing career, about his opinions on certain players, about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, etc., and he gave long, complete, honest, personal answers to all of our questions without any impatience. His demeanor wasn’t the same as it was on TV – the perpetual smile took a rest while he spoke with us and we saw a more reflective, balanced side of Jerry. But the two things that impressed me most about Jerry that day were: 1) His willingness to let down his guard around this group of strangers who had been thrown into the final round of this bizarre contest with him, and 2) His respect for us. Not for one instant did he give us the impression that there was somewhere else more important for him to be than right there, with us, in the “green room.” Before we went out on that stage for the televised debate, he had already won all of our votes.

My interview of Jerry following his 20th Year Celebration

During the 2008 season, the Red Sox and NESN celebrated Jerry’s 20 years in the broadcast booth, and I got to interview him a couple of days later for The Red Sox Report. I don’t remember the questions I asked him and I don’t remember his responses – except for one. Jerry had mentioned that it was particularly meaningful to him that his grandson was present for the festivities, and I asked him what he hoped his grandson would learn from his remarkable example as a major league player and legendary TV broadcaster. I expected Jerry would say something about hard work and perseverance, but I was wrong. He said, “That he should be himself. Find out what you like to do, and do that. Be your own person.”

Best answer I ever heard. Jerry Remy, get well.

Yanks’ Improvement Intensifies Anticipation

The quotation Ken Davidoff used for me in his blog was 100% accurate. I did say those things. However, if you could read the full transcript of my comments, the quotes he used would make a lot more sense. He asked me if I think that A-Rod’s connection to steroids will heighten the anticipation of the first Red Sox-Yankees series in the spring. I said, yeah, perhaps a little bit, but what will create much more anticipation will be the new Yankees, particularly Mark Teixiera, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett, because of how much they improve the Yankees squad and intesify the rivalry. Davidoff did not misquote me, but he did pluck the Teixiera comments from a longer comment I made about A-Rod’s steroid use being a footnote in comparison to the larger issue, which is that the Yankees are better this year than they were last year, and THAT’S what will create more anticipation on Yawkey Way for the first Sox-Yanks series.

Jim Ed Rice

Jim Rice is in the Hall.

So much has been written about Rice from the vantage point of looking back on his career. I have nothing to add to that. Instead, I prefer to write about Rice from the perspective of my 10 year-old self, back in 1978, at the peak of his greatness.

The number 14 jersey always got picked first in youth sports. Why? Pete Rose and Jim Rice.

I can’t shake the sound of Sherm Feller announcing his name: “Number 14, Jim Rice. Left field, Rice.” And as his serious, imposing figure walked to the plate, ripples of anticipation would shudder throughout Fenway and over the TV 38 airwaves.

His batting stance — along with Dewey’s and Yaz’s — was the most emulated in neighborhood wiffleball games. Elbows down, then the emphatic half-swings as he cocked his bat, the expression of a stern school principal on his face, with the aura of tiger about to maul a smaller foe.

The Southwest Airlines ads that have the tagline, “Wanna get away?” could just as easily have been created to describe the feeling that pitchers had when Rice stood at the plate.

We knew we had the best three outfielders in the American League – Rice, Lynn, and Evans — and Rice was the Big Daddy of that trio.

I have Jim Rice’s autograph on about five different Red Sox programs, all procured while he was a player. Why? Because he was out there all the time, signing autographs for kids. I don’t think I ever saw him smile or even speak while he signed — he did it like a machine — but he was out there, taking a break from the game, to give something back to the fans.

87.4% of all children in New England had a poster of Jim Rice on their wall at some point between 1976 and 1987. We all wanted to be like him.

When Bruce Springsteen played at Fenway about five years ago, I ran into Jim Rice outside Fenway Park. I asked if I could have my picture taken with him, and he happily obliged. While my friend was taking the photo, I remember saying, “Here I am, with Hall of Famer, Jim Rice,” and Rice immediately replied, “Hey, I like this guy,” smiled for the camera, shook my hand, and headed into Fenway.

Soon, the number 14 will join numbers 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 27, and 42 above the right field grandstands. Where it belongs.

Oh, and the fact that Bert Blyleven was not elected to the Hall (again) is an utter travesty.

A Day In The Life of a Believer

I have two minutes to write before getting my kids ready for school, and myself ready for work. Here’s what I have to say today.

I will run into and hear from scores of people who will either say out loud, or with their eyes and body language, “I was right to doubt them — they couldn’t pull it off after all,” or, “Turns out you were wrong to believe the Sox would come all the way back, eh? ” My response to them is the same today as it would have been if the Sox had won game 7:

“Believing isn’t about being right or wrong, it’s a way of life. And life’s a heck of a lot more fun when you expect the unreal.”

Expect The Unreal

This morning, while walking my children into their school, a friend of my 6 year-old’s told me, “My dad was at the Red Sox game last night, but he left after the top of the seventh inning.”

Then, at the coffee shop, the guy at the cash register (observing the B on my sweatshirt) said to me, “I assume you stayed up to watch that game. I turned it off after they went down, 5 to nothing. But what a comeback. That was unreal.” Then another woman in line said, “What, they WON? I was there but I left after the fifth inning. They WON?”

Yes, I was at the game last night, and I could write pages and pages about what I saw and what I felt. But the morning after the greatest comeback in League Championship Series history, I’ve gotta write about Yogi’s profound quotation, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

The whole reason to attend a baseball game is to see the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. If you are leaving a game before it’s over, or turning off your TV before the game ends, you haven’t yet evolved to the point of understanding what baseball IS ALL ABOUT. (Or, you fell asleep on your couch after a long day at work…. regrettable, but understandable.)

I know that there are many reasons to attend a baseball game besides seeing great comebacks. The festive atmosphere, majestic home runs, phenomenal defensive plays, spending quality time with a child or sibling… but the core point of baseball is to remind us all that, in life, anything CAN happen, and anything WILL happen. And the decision to stop watching a game before it’s completely over nullifies a fan’s potential to personally experience this amazing truth in all its glory.

Now, I must say that only about 10% of Fenway’s seats were empty when J.D. Drew smoked that game-winning line drive over Gabe Gross’s head in the wee hours of the morning. It turns out that most of the fans who ventured out to the game last night were the kind who always stay ’til the end, and based on the LOUD noise they made when Pedroia drove in the first run of the comeback (to make it 7-1 Rays, still a bleak situation), they were a fervent band of believers. They “get it” about baseball.

To suck all the juice out of being a baseball fan, you must become A BELIEVER. You must resist the tug of logic that lectures to you, “This game is over, there’s no way they can come back and win.” You must ignore the mature voices in your head that advise, “If you leave now, you can beat the crowd and be asleep in your bed by midnight. After all, big day at work tomorrow.” To be rewarded with all that baseball has to offer, you must bet the house every game. Truly expect something spectacular to happen, and sacrifice convenient home-bound transportation, sleep, and even your reputation as a grounded human being to the Diamond Gods. Have faith in the unreal.

People who leave games early have their feet planted firmly in “reality,” and in “rationality,” and in “the odds are…”, and in “being smart,” and in avoiding life’s (and baseball’s) sublime exquisiteness! People who leave Red Sox elimination playoff games early …. well, they just haven’t learned yet that you don’t do that, despite the lesson of Dave Henderson in 1986, and the lesson of Dave Roberts in 2004, and the many other startling lessons from recent Sox history (some happy memories, some not).

“The Rays haven’t lost a game all season when leading by 4 or more runs”…. “no team since 1929 has overcome a 7-run deficit in an elimination playoff game”…. “the Red Sox are slumping and the Rays are at the peak of their game”…. all of these “facts” scream at us to “face reality,” give up, and go home. But reality doesn’t exist until it unfolds before us, and over and over again Red Sox fans have learned that in postseason play, the reality that unfolds is usually shocking!

A friend came into my office this morning and said, “Watching those hits by Coco, Papi, and Drew — it was like a DREAM.” Not only was it LIKE a dream, it WAS a dream. Reality and rationality and the odds and being smart go right out the window when the Sox have their backs against the wall. Red Sox playoff games – indeed, ALL baseball games are dreams that we get to participate in with eyes wide open. And you don’t leave dreams early.

The 2008 Season Starts Today

It’s fascinating to see how many people have given up hope for the 2008 Red Sox. Hello, don’t you realize that the season doesn’t even BEGIN for the Red Sox until they have their backs against the wall? And have you forgotten that the Red Sox have won 7 straight elimination games in the ALCS? To win those games, they had to defeat guys like Mariano Rivera, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, C.C. Sabathia, and Fausto Carmona. Is it really that unthinkable to add Scott Kazmir and James Shields to this list?

And it’s fascinating to me to hear people say, “Yeah, but this time, IT’S DIFFERENT.” Really? So, when the Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS (after getting pounded in game 3), you had more faith in their potential to come back? And when they were down 3-1 to the Indians in the 2007 ALCS (after getting pounded in game 4), you had more faith in their potential to come back?

Look, when the Sox are down in the ALCS, their mojo turns around. Mark Bellhorn was 1 for 12 in the first three games of the 2004 ALCS, then he went 4-14 with 2 huge home runs in games 4,5,6, and 7. Johnny Damon was 1 for 18 in the first four games, then he went 5 for 17 in the next three games, with 2 huge home runs in game 7 in Yankee Stadium. I know, these guys aren’t even HERE this time around… but it’s the same uniform, and mojo carries over from year to year.

More evidence that the Rays are about to implode came over the newswire when we learned that Joe Maddon has decided to over-manage by switching up his rotation to pitch Scott Kazmir in game 5. MISTAKE. He has just messed with his team’s mojo and he’s about to learn a valuable lesson — don’t mess with your team’s mojo.  With Kazmir pitching batting practice at Fenway tonight, we’ll win game 5 and head to the Trop with momentum. The fear we saw in the Rays’ eyes in game 1 will be back for games 6 and 7, and Beckett and Lester don’t lose big games. Good luck next year, Tampa Bay.

Am I the only one who is predicting the Red Sox will win their next three games? Are people so worried about their reputations, so obsessed with statistical probabilities (the chances of winning three in a row against an equal opponent is one in eight), so ignorant of what REALLY matters (mojo) that they have truly jumped ship?

Red Sox Nation, history has shown that Boston baseball memories don’t begin to be manufactured until TODAY, when the Red Sox MUST win. Buckle your seatbelt. If you can get a ticket, get your butt to Fenway. The 2008 Red Sox season is about to begin.

Sox in 7, then it’s bring on the Phillies. Ah, the poor Phillies.

And then there were four….

Here are my thoughts as we gear up for the ALCS:

1) The day that the Mets lost and the Brewers won, on the last day of the season (breaking their first place tie), was one of the most exciting baseball-viewing experiences I’ve had in the last few years. My son and I were watching the Mets game on the TV and the Brewers game on MLBtv (Internet), and even though I’m not a Brewers fan, I could feel their hunger to make it to the postseason (for the first time in 26 years). Sabathia pitched like a God. And the pain that Mets fans feel, having lost the division on the last day of the season TWO YEARS IN A ROW, might be their payback for games 6 and 7 of the 1986 World Series. What comes around goes around…

2) The Cubs’ problems were clearly mental. You don’t finish the season with the best record in MLB and then drop three in a row in the Division Series unless you’re psyched out. And you don’t make three errors in one inning with your ace on the mound unless you’re psyched out. What did the Red Sox do after game 3 of the 2004 ALCS (down, three games to none) to gain the momentum they’ve had ever since? They didn’t suddenly get BETTER. Something clicked in their heads. Oh, what would the Cubs give for the formula for that “click?”

3) I enjoy watching the NLCS games almost as much as I will enjoy watching the ALCS games. It’s baseball. Playoff baseball. Every at bat, every pitch is one of the most important in each player’s career. This is what these players dreamed about, playing wiffle ball in their driveways growing up. The thousands of hours of practice, the hundreds and thousands of games they have played in their lives, have all led to playing in baseball’s “final four.” Every starter, every bench player, every relief pitcher, even the managers and third base coaches could be part of a moment that will define their careers — and it could happen at any time. Plus, these are great players, many of them future hall of famers — Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamels, Lidge, Ramirez, Furcal, Maddux, Lowe, and of course, Joe Torre.

4) I sent out a new poll to the Red Sox Nation governors this evening. Here are my answers to my own questions:

a) I expect the Red Sox to win the ALCS in four games. That’s right, a sweep of the mighty, precocious Rays. Yes, it’s hard to really imagine sweeping, but I have difficulty imagining a Red Sox loss — in fact, I refuse to imagine that. So, I predict a sweep.

b) The National League team that I would prefer to face in the World Series is the Dodgers. Why? Boston-L.A. is a raucous rivalry, and it would be a blast to “beat L.A.” twice in one year. It would be a classic battle of coasts, a battle of cultures, a battle of climates, a battle of styles. It’s two teams with incredibly rich baseball traditions.  It would be a reunion of the 2004 Red Sox, with almost as many members of that Red Sox team on the current Dodgers squad (Manny, Lowe, and Nomar, though Nomar was only on the Sox for the first half of 2004). You know they’d show lots of highlights of the ’04 Series if the Dodgers were our opponent — and that would be fine with me. Even the Manny highlights. I still love the guy and what he brought our team.

c) When I can’t be at Fenway, my preferred mode of watching the Red Sox in a playoff game is to watch in my living room, sitting half the time and pacing the other half of the time, drinking a Polar Orange Dry soft drink, either alone or with my nine year-old son. (I’m not the best company during a Red Sox playoff game…. “anti-social” would describe me well during these three hours….)

5) I love that Francona is showing such faith in his pitching staff by keeping them in order… Daisuke, then Beckett, then Lester, with Tim Wakefield thrown in for good measure.

Trop time!

The Sleepless Veep

I wish I had the energy to write everything I’m thinking about the last two games of the Sox-Angels series, but like most of Red Sox Nation, I am operating today on about 5 hours sleep (and that’s the TOTAL amount of sleep I’ve gotten over the last TWO nights), and like most of Red Sox Nation, I have a full-time job that continues to demand my time and brain power regardless of how late I’m staying up, and I have a slew of young children who claim every other waking minute, around the clock. Suffice it to say, WHAT A BALL GAME LAST NIGHT. And what a gutsy call by Angels manager Mike Scoscia is for trying the suicide squeeze with one out in the ninth in a crucial playoff game that’s tied. And will the Red Sox please re-train Jon Lester to think like a nine-inning pitcher? Or at least an eight-inning pitcher? He CAN’T come out of that game. GO SOX!!

Gotta go.

11 Straight Wins, and 4 Straight Change-Ups

More evidence that the Red Sox “own” the Angels mentally: K-Rod throwing four consecutive change-ups to J.D. Drew when: a) K-Rod’s fastball is devastating, and b) J.D. Drew has played irregularly over the last month, has a stiff back, and should, theoretically, not have his timing at 100%. When K-Rod is AFRAID to throw his fastball to J.D. Drew with the go-ahead run on second base, a Red Sox win is a foregone conclusion. It’s like hoisting a white flag.

Now, I wouldn’t be saying this if K-Rod had an off-speed pitch as baffling as, say, Trevor Hoffman’s change up. But his change up is simply above-average, and he pinned his team’s hopes on that pitch.

I find this as incomprehensible as Mike Scoscia not pinch hitting for Howie Kendrick in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. The guy is clearly psyched-out at the plate and has no chance of getting a big hit in this series. You can see it in his eyes. He doesn’t think he belongs here. He has watched several fastballs buzz down the center of the strike zone without swinging, and has waved his bat at pitches that aren’t close. Advantage: Boston.

Red Sox fans’ reaction to the fly ball hit by J.D. Drew that turned out to be a two-run homer on Friday night was the SAME as the crowd’s reaction to the fly ball hit by J.D. Drew that turned out to be a grand slam in last year’s postseason. Off the bat, it looked like a routine fly ball, and even as the outfielder went back, back, back, we still expected it to be caught. Then, suddenly, it was in the seats, and it took literally a full second to believe our eyes – on BOTH home runs. J.D. Drew is truly the king of the “shocker home run” — shocking because of their timing, and shocking because of the rocket launchers that seem to kick in when the baseballs reach the apex of their flight. They just keep going, going, going…. gone!

How valuable is Kevin Youkilis? He moved over to third base to take the spot vacated by the injured Mike Lowell and proceeded to make TWO stellar plays at third base — a barehanded, running, Mike Schmidt-type stab of a grounder followed by a rocket throw to first base, and a long-armed, reach-over-the-railing catch of a pop-up that was ticketed for the camera dugout to make the peunultimate out of the game.

It’s difficult to imagine how diehard Cubs fans feel today….. because it brings back a memory that I really don’t like to relive….

Ten Straight

I know Jon Lester is a lefty, but tonight he reminded me of Roger Clemens during his Red Sox days. From his poise on the mound to his velocity (regularly hitting 96mph) to his mastery of the hitters, I felt like I was looking at the Sox’s next dominator.

I love Jason Bay (how can you not love him?) and his homer tonight was a shocker because Lackey was methodically ripping through the Sox lineup. I’m glad everyone’s happier with the team’s chemistry and that Tito’s blood pressure has been eased by the trade. But tonight, Manny’s absence in the lineup was extremely noticable. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Jason Bay. I want both of them.

Ellsbury’s speed was huge tonight: two stolen bases, an infield hit, taking third on the ground out to the pitcher, the great catch in the 8th. This is the guy who will haunt Mike Scoscia’s nightmares over the next several days. He’s got game-changing speed.

This makes TEN consecutive postseason victories for the Red Sox over the Angels. The chances of this kind of a streak, given that the teams are basically equal, is one in 1,024. (That’s the probability of flipping a coin ten times and getting “tails” every time.) So I guess our teams aren’t equal. And it’s the intangibles that make us better. We own them mentally.

The Angels now have to win three out of four to take this series. The likelihood of THAT is remote. The Angels will have to get through Matsuzaka, Beckett, and Lester (again), as well as TWO games at Fenway (and that’s only if they’re lucky enough to win game two or three). Not going to happen.

I thought about Dave Henderson about ten times tonight.

YES!!

Who’s Got Mojo?

If you’re known to many as a serious Red Sox fan, you’ve probably heard the following questions several times the last few days: “How do you think the Sox will do in the postseason?” and “Do you think the Sox can win it all even if Lowell and Drew are hurt?”

I would be a terrible sportscaster for a national network, because my heart and my brain always tell me that the Red Sox are going to go all the way. This was true even before 2004. And the heart overwhelms the brain when it comes to predicting the future. I can find plenty of rational reasons to pick the Red Sox to win the 2008 World Series (the best top-three starters in Beckett, Lester, and Matsuzaka and their incredible home field advantage top the list), but my feeling of expectation is purely a gut feeling, purely my genetic programming, purely a belief that the Red Sox uniform possesses more magic than any other uniform.

And I don’t put much stock in all of the analysis of different teams when trying to predict a World Series champion. Who has the best bullpen, which team is battling the most injuries, whose offense is most powerful….  Sure, it’s fun to read all of the comparative information and it makes watching the games more enjoyable to know each team’s strengths and vulnerabilities, but when it comes to the postseason, only two things really matter. If you’re thinking, “pitching, and pitching,” you’re right, but perhaps even more important are mojo, and getting hot at the right time.

Whichever team wins the 2008 World Series, it won’t be because of things you can analyze ahead of time. This is why the postseason is such a remarkable ride. We really, really, really don’t know what’s going to happen — but we DO know that several players will step up like they never have before, and several will step up like they always do. (And, unfortunately, goats will emerge, as well.) And watching human beings perform like gods on the diamond in front of a national audience of millions of people in the biggest games of their lives provides a feeling of admiration, awe, and excitement that’s unmatched.

If the Red Sox win the World Series, it will be because of a clutch grand slam by Jason Varitek… it will be because of a stunning barehanded play by Jed Lowrie with two outs in the ninth… it will be because of four innings of scoreless relief by Paul Byrd in the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th innings… it will be because of a perfectly executed hit and run by Alex Cora… it will be because Jason Bay bats .500. None of these things is what’s being written about by those who are picking the Sox to take home the trophy, but deep down we all know that it’s mojo — both team mojo and individual mojo — that will separate the winners from the losers this postseason.

I’d prefer to have Lowell and Drew in the starting lineups, but if they’re not there, it simply means an opportunity for two other guys to rise to the challenge and define their careers by their performance in 11 victorious contests.

Analysis schmanalysis. Let the drama begin!

It’s October Again (well, almost)

Here we go again. Another long season full of ups and downs ends with a trip for the Red Sox to the ultimate professional baseball tournament. No, it doesn’t get old. No, none of us in Red Sox Nation takes this for granted. Every season is like a separate lifetime — yes, we won the World Series in previous lifetimes (2004, 2007) but this feeling of anticipation, while vaguely familiar, is always fresh and new.

The leaves are changing, it’s October again. Back to school night, it’s October again. Pumpkins on neighbors’ front steps, it’s October again. The Red Sox carry millions of the Nation’s hearts with them into the American League Division Series, it’s October again.

Which players will surprise us with their heroics? Will Lowrie hit .450 in the postseason? Will Casey get a huge pinch hit? Will Kotsay make a game-saving catch? Will Ortiz continue to be the greatest clutch hitter in history? Will Masterson throw 10 scoreless playoff innings? Will Coco Crisp steal a base that we’ll compare to the Dave Roberts theft of 2004? Will Beckett be Beckett? This much we know — winning the World Series will require some “unlikely” heroes, a-la Dave Roberts and Mark Bellhorn in 2004, and Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew in 2007. Who will step up this year? I can’t wait to find out.

The last two championship teams had future hall of famers Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling. Will we miss them? Time will tell if there’s enough magic in the bats, gloves, and arms of the current roster to carry on the tradition of winning that Manny and Schill helped to instill here. Perhaps Jon Lester and Jason Bay are at the front-end of postseason careers that will, in the end, compare to those of Ramirez and Schilling. Does that sound crazy? Well, it should. But hey, anything is possible, even the impossible. It’s October again.

Favre Being Favre

Green Bay Packers tradition. Kinship with the NFL’s most storied fans. Going out on top of his game. Legacies.

Brett Favre left this all behind. Because in the end, these are not what Brett Favre is all about. In the end, these ideals are created by the media. In the end, none of these things are what fuels Brett Favre’s engine. In the end, football is a game, and Brett Favre is a kid who loves to play. That’s it. He loves to play. Don’t you love that about him? I do. I can relate.

I remember failing to make the cut for Dartmouth College’s varsity baseball team for the third year in a row at the beginning of my junior year and realizing, “That’s it, I’ll never make varsity now, my baseball-playing life is over.” Everyone knew the Junior Varsity program was for freshmen and sophomores, so I didn’t even consider playing baseball that spring. Other players in the baseball program would have looked at me funny. “Don’t you get it, Crawford?” they would have asked. “They’re sending you a message. You and your 80 mph fastball are not varsity material. There’s no point in playing anymore. The dream is dead. Just walk away.” And that’s what I did.

But the following winter, I realized that I had let my obsessive goal of “making varsity” mask the real reason I play baseball – because I love to play. That’s it. I love to play. So senior year, I dug my cleats out of the closet and went out for the baseball team again.

I had no illusions of making a varsity team that included future major leaguers Mike Remlinger, Mark Johnson, and Brad Ausmus. I just wanted to play baseball. The coaches looked at me funny. The other players talked about me behind my back. Yet I was the happiest player at those tryouts. I made the JV team. They gave me a uniform and a locker. And I was content. (Please don’t mock me for comparing myself to Brett Favre. I realize that the only thing we have in common is our passion for playing. And I realize that his passion dwarfs mine.)

The Packers’ offer to Favre of $20m to “stay retired” was doomed from the start. A person’s heart can’t be bought out. Favre’s motivation for playing football this year was “love for the game,” not another fat paycheck. I started writing a letter to Favre warning him that if he took the $20m, he’d wake up the next morning with the same itch to play, and he’d beg the Packers to take back their bribe. I guess he figured this out on his own.

The sports fan public said to Favre, “Don’t you get it, Brett? The Packers are sending you a message. You’re no longer the guy they want to lead their team. You’re 38, you’ve broken all the records, you have your Super Bowl ring. You have one of the greatest single-team legacies in the history of sports. There’s no point in playing anymore. Just walk away. The Packers coaches looked at him funny. The other players talked about him behind his back. But Favre’s heart could not be contained. He knows what makes him happy: playing quarterback in the NFL and striving to win games. It’s not about being a Packer. It’s about competing. That’s who he is. That’s what he does.

The new letter I’m composing to Brett says, “Never retire voluntarily. Play until you get cut. Then go to the Canadian Football League at age 45 and win a couple MVPs there. Play until no pro team on the planet wants you as their third-string QB. Relentlessly be who you are.”

Yes, Favre’s will to play is even greater than his desire to sustain his priceless identity as…. Brett Favre. But he’s cultivating a new identity that’s even more appealing. His brand is no longer, “Legendary starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers,” it’s “No one has more passion for playing.” Don’t you love that about him? I do.

No More Manny

In Theo I trust.

If he thinks this trade will help the Red Sox win another World Series ring, then I guess it really is time for Manny to go.

That said, it’s hard to fathom that the Boston Red Sox just let one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time — a guy who helped the team win two World Series rings — walk out the door in the middle of a pennant race. The Yankees love this trade. Their fear of the Red Sox vanished at 4:20pm yesterday. Oh, and Joe Torre went to bed last night with a BIG smile on his face.

I am a fan. I am an emotional fan who loves Manny’s joyful, teddy bear personality, his majestic presence in the on-deck circle and batter’s box, and the way he wrecks pitches in the strike zone. I acknowledge that he was not the perfect competitor during his years in a Red Sox uniform. His jogging to first base sometimes drove me crazy. But in the same way a parent keeps loving his kids no matter what they do, nothing Manny ever did or said made me dislike the guy. It wasn’t blind affection. It was eyes-wide-open appreciation for a marvelous player I “knew” better than any other.

I will miss Manny and I will root for him as a Dodger. I hope he finds peace in L.A. and that this trade ends up being a great thing for him and his family.

Time to turn the page on the Manny years, one of the most amazing chapters we’ve ever experienced in Red Sox Nation. It’s Jason Bay time. The 2008 World Series MVP.

The Truth About Manny (If Only It Were That Simple…)

Is the following quotation from a book review that will eventually be written about the events that finally led to Manny Ramirez’s brilliant Red Sox career ending in a ball of flames?

“The story examines the variations a mistruth can go through when filtered through person after person and illustrates how different people can have multiple perceptions and interpretations of the same event. The various points of view the reader sees provide insight into the story that none of the individual characters possesses.”

No, this is an excerpt from a review of the book, Nothing But The Truth, by Avi, which is one of the books I read with my class when I was a 9th grade English teacher. But the lessons of this profound book apply directly to this whole Manny Ramirez situation. All of you who have read this book understand that there is NOT “one truth” in the drama that has played out over the last week — and over the last eight years. There’s Manny’s truth. There’s Manny’s wife’s truth. There’s John Henry’s truth. There’s Theo’s truth. There’s Francona’s truth. There’s each teammate’s truth. There’s Dan Shaughnessy’s truth. There’s Jerry Remy’s truth. There’s the stat-man’s truth. And there’s YOUR truth, based on everything you have read, heard, and seen — and the mindset you bring to this situation.

The book reminds us that everything you hear from a second-hand source has been distorted in some way, often a small way and and often unintentionally. It reminds us that two people can witness the same scene and describe it totally differently — and both descriptions can be accurate. It reminds us that all reporters, players, and fans perceive the things Manny does and says — and the things that are said about him — through the lenses of their own prejudgments and cultural values, so all reporters, fans, and players see and hear different things. It reminds us that we almost NEVER know the true context of the quotations we read and the actions we witness, and that reporters can tell you the complete truth — and mangle it at the same time. It reminds us that a small misunderstanding can snowball into an out-of-control mess when one warped interpretation leads to multiple responses that are even more off-base, and the original players in the drama react to these responses in ways that make the situation even worse, and on and on it goes, the downward spiral of miscommunication and misinterpretations compounding in a horrific way.

Ultimately, it’s futile for reporters (and fans) to state unequivocally what’s going on in this Manny Ramirez situation — BUT because it’s their job (and because they’re programmed to think their version of the truth is “the right” one), that’s what they do. And this often takes us even further from “the real truth.”

We should be careful about judging people based on shreds of information (from second-hand sources in the media) that barely scratch the surface of a complex scenario. (For example, Manny Ramirez and Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick have worked together for eight years – there’s a history there that we know nothing about.) The press is paid to tell us what happened — but only the BEST reporters dig below the surface to find the REAL STORY. There are conversations that have taken place that we don’t know about (Scott Boras?) and factors at play that we can’t comprehend (culture differences?) that, if we were aware of them, would shift whatever opinion we currently have about Manny Ramirez and others who have played a role in this saga.

Tom Caron stated the truth he perceives on last night’s post-game show: “”Manny has acted and spoken his way right out of this clubhouse.”

Or, maybe WE’VE acted and spoken Manny right out of this clubhouse by our tainted and sensationalized reporting of “the truth” and our lack of understanding about a unique personality who, through it all, drives in runs with a smile on his face. That’s certainly Manny’s truth. He said last night, “Mental peace has no price and I don’t have peace here.” When I put myself in his shoes, that’s a truth that’s easy to see.

Mamas, It’s OK To Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Mannys

Over at Boston.com’s “Extra Bases” blog, there were over 50 comments on Monday from fans reacting to all of this Manny business. A few of them accused Manny of being a bad role model for kids. For example, here’s what commenter “Paul W.” wrote:

“When I tell my little leaguers to model themselves after a major leaguer, I leave off Manny. I don’t want my players to think that selfish behavior is a positive attribute for a team. Follow Varitek, Pedroia, Schilling, or Beckett’s example, even Jeter’s or Posada’s. Any of these guys because they love and respect the game. But never Manny.”

I’ve taught middle school and coached a total of about 30 youth sports teams over the years, and I know where Paul W. is coming from. Yes, in ONE obvious way, Manny’s approach to the game of baseball is not what I would teach my young players. His obvious flaw is that, frequently (but not always), he fails to sprint down the first base line as soon as he has hit the ball. Sometimes, he hangs out in the batter’s box and admires the ball he has just hit, and sometimes he runs at less than 100%. This isn’t OK in the majors, but it’s a cardinal sin in little league. (I know that Paul W. is also referring to Manny’s alleged lack of “team spirit,” but no matter how confident sportswriters and fans are about the details of this most recent story about Manny’s knee, we don’t know the whole story).

Yup, Manny loafs sometimes. Yup, that can be maddening and costly. However, in many ways, Manny sets a positive example for young baseball players. Here’s what I would say to players on my youth baseball teams about what to emulate about Manny Ramirez.

1. He approaches every at-bat with a clear mind. Manny’s not thinking about his last plate appearance and he’s not thinking about his latest gaffe in the field. He’s not even thinking about his contract and what his agent, Scott Boras, wants him to do. No, Manny leaves that all behind when he strides towards the batter’s box. He’s in his own MannyZone, and he’s thinking about two things: seeing a strike, and hammering it. Even with two strikes, Manny’s focus is unbelievable.

2. He expects to get a hit, every at-bat. The way Manny walks to the plate with an air of self-confidence, settles into the batter’s box, taps the plate with his bat, assumes his regal batting stance, and stares out at the pitcher… everyone in the park knows he’s already envisioned the line drive that he’s about to smash. This summer, my co-coaches and I taught our eight year-old players to chant the words, “I crush balls in the strike zone,” while standing in the on-deck circle and stepping into the batter’s box. Why? We were teaching them to think like Manny.

3. When he strikes out or grounds into a double play, Manny immediately puts the failure behind him and moves on. No frustration, no cursing himself or the baseball gods, no wasting emotional energy on “what-ifs.” (Maybe this is why Youk and Manny don’t get along.) Manny just accepts his fate, takes a seat, and starts preparing for his next at-bat. Sometimes his lack of frustration is interpreted as a lack of intensity or competitiveness, but anger just doesn’t work for Manny – and anger and frustration don’t work too well for kids, either. The play is over, now move on in as positive a state of mind as you can. That’s Manny.

4. Manny plays baseball joyfully. Just about every little league coach in the land tells kids, “Have fun out there!” But do they really mean it? The truth is, it’s simply not O.K. in our U.S. athletic culture to appear to be having fun in certain game situations. Manny is happy all the time, whether the team is winning or losing, whether he’s just hit a grand slam or grounded into a double play, whether he’s benched or facing a 3-2 pitch in a clutch situation, whether the media is writing character-puncturing articles about him or cozying up to him for “being Manny.” As a coach, I really DO want my players to have fun playing baseball, and Manny’s a tremendous role model in this way.

5. Manny works hard in the off-season to get his body ready for spring training. He takes about ten days off after the season ends, then begins a strenuous workout regimen with one of the toughest trainers in the business. All good youth athletics coaches tell their players, “You want to get good? Work hard.” In 2007, The Boston Herald interviewed Seattle’s Raul Ibanez about his off-season workouts with Ramirez in Florida:

“In between sets, everything is timed, and he would always be reminding [me] to keep working. He works his tail off. I knew he was hard-working, but he exceeded my expectations. We would start at 10 and he was coming at 9 to do his workouts. He was working out an hour more. He influenced everybody to come in and work out earlier.”

Now is Manny a perfect role model for young baseball players? No. And neither am I, and neither are you. I would tell little leaguers, “Manny does some things badly, and some things exceptionally well. Let’s learn from what he does well.” Over the last decade, the closest MLB has come to a flawless role model has been Ironman Cal Ripken. Great leader, great worker, played hard, played hurt. But to create an ideal role model for young players, I’d want to combine Cal with Manny. Mix Cal’s determination and toughness with Manny’s jubilant, expectant frame of mind, and you have a powerful, positive role model.

My idea about what to DO with Manny (keep him, or trade him?): Pick up his option for 2009 and tell him we’re NOT picking it up for 2010. Get one more productive year out of him at $20M and ensure his self-motivation by guaranteeing him free agency in 2010. I love Manny and don’t want to lose him, but his age (and the physical decline that inevitably comes with age, unless you are Roger Clemens) worries me.

Did You Expect “Manny Being Yaz?”

Everyone is furious with Manny Ramirez because he asked for a day off on Friday night (our first game of this important series vs. the Yankees) saying his knee hurts. Dan Shaughnessy captures the controversy well, writing in today’s Boston Globe, “Something’s got to give. The owners are mad. The manager is frustrated. The GM is frustrated. Teammates are angry. Even with sycophants who excuse everything, Manny may have finally exhausted his reservoir of goodwill. He quit on the team in 2006 and now it looks like he’s quitting again. Is that OK with you, Red Sox Nation?”

Well, I certainly don’t speak for Red Sox Nation, but as the VP of RSN, I have two reactions to this whole Manny situation.

1. We can believe that Manny is telling the truth about his knee, or we can believe that he’s lying about it (or exaggerating). Either way, none of us knows whether his knee is truly hurt or not, so we might as well TRUST Manny. Why? For the simple reason that there is no good that can come from doubting him. And even if his knee isn’t sore enough to miss a game, the guy obviously has SOME reason that he needs a day off, a reason big enough to ask for a day to recover (and possibly even lie about an injury), so let’s just give him his day off and move on. We’d rather not play him anyway if he’s not feeling motivated and can’t get motivated. There’s no point in doubting Manny, and since the only data we have is his word, we might as well trust that.

2. Hello, sportswriters, team ownership, front office, and Red Sox Nation, is this whole “I need a day off” stuff from Manny really still surprising you? Did you think that Manny would suddenly undergo a metamorphosis this season and beg to play 162 games? Why haven’t we gotten over the outrage at this point and just accepted him as “Our Manny” and saved ourselves from the bother of getting angry every time he acts like…. Manny.

There’s a code of athletic conduct that I grew up with, and that’s part of the culture of U.S. professional sports, that says, “The team is the most important thing,” and “When you’re hurt, you play anyway, dammit.” But guess what? Manny didn’t learn this code in his childhood, and it hasn’t grown on him during his years in the Big Leagues. He’s a different animal. Way different. We all know this about him. So why do we keep driving ourselves crazy by getting mad at him? It’s sort of like getting mad at a two year-old for drawing on the walls with a crayon. That’s what two year-olds do. All of them. And that will never change.

Of course, the difference between Manny and two year-olds is, two year-olds learn to modify their behavior to comply with society’s norms. Manny never will. He’s a grown-up now, this is who he is.

But please also keep in mind that the very personality flaws that some of us find so frustrating in Manny also contribute to his greatness. There’s never been a more carefree, happy-go-lucky player, and I believe that that state of mind is a big reason why he’s so cool under pressure. Two strikes, two outs, down by a run in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on second? The whole stadium might be freaking out, but not Manny, he’s just chilling out in the batter’s box, looking for a pitch he can drive. And we all know, he’s better at this than 95% of all Major Leaguers.

Am I excusing Manny’s occasionally bizarre behavior just because he’s a Hall of Fame hitter? No. But Manny is a complex package, and after eight years with the guy, it’s a package we should all know well: Manny drives in runs. In the outfield, Manny waves to fans between every pitch. Manny demands days off regardless of the game’s importance. Manny strikes fear into every pitcher he faces. Manny enjoys himself all the time, even when he’s just made a huge error. Manny stands at home plate to admire his home runs. Manny sells grills on e-Bay. Manny is always among the league leaders in outfield assists. Manny rarely breaks a sweat running to first base. Manny doesn’t talk to the media, and when he does, he says the “wrong” thing. Manny is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time.

Oh, and let’s not forget, Manny has two World Series rings. As Terry Francona said yesterday, “You know what, we have run into bumps in the road [with Ramirez] ever since I’ve been here. And there’s been some before I’ve been here. The result, two of the times, has been a World Series ring. And how you get to the end is what counts.”

If Theo Epstein thinks the Red Sox will win more games without Manny, he should trade him or not pick up his option for next year. (In Theo, I trust.) But please, no more outrage, no more surprise….. unless you really expected that someday we’d revise our favorite Manny phrase to, “It’s just Manny being Yaz.”

In November, 2007, I posted a great story about Manny being a good guy, a story that my father received in an email from a friend of his who randomly spent 15 minutes chatting with Manny following the 2007 Rolling Rally. It’s entitled, “Manny Being Magnanimous.”

The Yankees Make Life Sweeter

The Yankees are in town for a weekend showdown, and Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen has written a well-timed article making a case for the forced extinction of the chant, “Yankees Suck!” I couldn’t agree more with Kevin, and his article reminded me of a piece I wrote in March, 2008 for the Sox and Pinstripes blog, about why Red Sox fans actually love the Yankees more than we hate them. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

I’m Vice President of Red Sox Nation, and I love the New York Yankees. Are you a Red Sox fan who’s shocked by this statement? Guess what, you love them, too. In fact, the longer you’ve been a Red Sox fan, the greater your love is for them.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a world without the Yankees. Imagine there’s no rivalry between the Boston and New York baseball teams; in fact, there’s no legitimate “rivalry” between the Red Sox and any other team. Goose Gossage was never a nemesis and David Ortiz never hit those dramatic walk-off homers. Mariano Rivera played for the Reds so we hardly knew him, and George Steinbrenner owned the Phillies so his name merely rings a bell. 1978 never happened, but neither did 2004.

Do you find this vision enticing? Nah. Like me, you appreciate the way things have turned out so far (the painful times made the jubilant times more jubilant), and you’re dying of anticipation as you think ahead to future seasons of the greatest rivalry in all of sports. You’ll never root for the Yanks, but you’ll be happiest when they’re a top-notch team that buys whatever superstar they want…. then loses to the Red Sox in games that really count. And you’ll give Derek Jeter a “standing-O” in his last at-bat at Fenway Park because, like me, you deeply appreciate what he has contributed to your enjoyment of The Game – as a Yankee.

To read the article from Sox and Pinstripes in its entirety, click here.

There IS Crying In Baseball

Yes, with (almost) all of our pro sports teams winning and winning and winning, it’s a great time to be a young sports fan in Boston. Winning feels so darn good, doesn’t it? But losing is part of sports too, no matter how good our teams are, and its potentially painful effects are most transparent in the way kids respond to losses.

When he was six, my oldest son cried and cried and cried into my shoulder as we left Fenway Park following the last out of game three of the 2005 A.L. Division Series, a loss that gave the Chicago White Sox a sweep of the Red Sox. And when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl earlier this year, his whole 8 year-old body crumpled into a weeping blob in front of the TV. Losing was clearly a concept that he found difficult to grasp, let alone deal with.

But those were losses of teams he was merely rooting for. Losing a big game in which HE had played a major role hadn’t happened to him yet…. until last week, when his 8 year-old summer travel team lost its first game of the summer (after starting with five wins).

What a scene, as our opponents piled up runs at the end of the game to complete their impressive comeback. Boys sobbing on the bench, boys sobbing into their gloves in the outfield. Deep down, each boy had believed in the possibility of an undefeated season, so to them, it felt like an elimination playoff game. As they saw their hopes slipping away, the tears flowed and their bodies shook uncontrollably. It was almost comical.

And what can a coach say to an entire team of 8 year-olds that’s bawling, down by five runs with its last at-bat coming up? Part of you wants to say, “There’s no crying in baseball! STOP IT!” Part of you wants to say, “Come on guys, focus on your next at-bat, we can still come back,” and part of you wants to just hug them all and say, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s just a baseball game.” After the last out of the contest, the other team celebrated as though they had just won game 7 of the World Series, which made the loss even harder for our guys. Their distress was palpable.

I recently heard the famous, veteran Channel 4 sportscaster, Bob Lobel, say that that over the years, he learned a lot more from Boston’s biggest losses than he did from Boston’s biggest wins. I have no doubt that my son and his teammates learned a lot more from that loss than they did from any of their wins. And since it was my son who came in to “close” the game (after doing so successfully in two previous games) and ended up allowing the eventual winning runs, then striking out to make the final out of the game, I suppose he had the greatest learning opportunity!

I’d love to know the content of other parents’ conversations with their demoralized children on the long drive home from the game, but here’s how ours went:

Me: “Son, you should be proud, you did what we asked you to do – you threw strikes. That’s the only thing you could control. You did your job.”

My son: “All the coaches said the same thing. You did great, Crawford, because you threw strikes. But I know they really don’t mean it. What they really wanted was for me to get outs, not just throw strikes. I mean, it’s better if I throw balls out of the strike zone and the batters get out, than if I throw strikes and they get hits and score runs.”

Me: “But if you throw pitches out of the strike zone, you’ll walk batters and those always turn into runs. All you can do is throw strikes, and you did that.”

My son: “Daddy, the bottom line is that a pitcher is supposed to get people out. I mean, I don’t care if I strike out a kid or if he lines out to center field, an out’s an out. Just like it doesn’t matter if we win 20-0 or 2-1, a win is a win and the score doesn’t matter.”

Me: “Well, I won’t argue with that. But listen, it’s not your fault that the team lost. There were some errors behind you and the umpire made a questionable call. You had to pitch much longer than was necessary to get out of that inning. And give the other team some credit – they won the game by getting some key hits. It’s not your fault.”

My son: “You can say it’s not my fault, but the bottom line is that it IS my fault. I had control over how the game ended up. I could have made different pitches at different speeds and at different locations that would have made them not hit the ball or not hit it hard. And I also made the last out. If I had gotten a hit, maybe it would have started a five-run, two-out rally. So it IS my fault, Daddy, no matter what you say to try to make me feel better!”

Amazed at his mature sense of ownership and responsibility, I just told him, “Well, I’m proud of you – for how you played, and for having the guts to pitch in that situation.” We drove on in silence.

And as he drifted off to sleep in his booster seat, clutching his blankie, I said to myself, Losing a close game just stinks – whether you’re an 8 year-old in little league or a 28 year-old in the Major Leagues, and there’s nothing a mom or dad can do to help his/her child avoid losing, nor anything he/she can say to eliminate losing’s sting. A good night’s sleep and another game to play, it turns out, is the only remedy. Children, welcome to the wonderful world of competitive baseball, the most spectacular roller coaster ride ever invented…

To read a classic series of poignant articles chronicling a father’s observations of his 12 year-old son’s little league season (by Mark Kramer, featured in The Boston Globe), click here.

All-Stars Under the Stars

No, the Vice President of Red Sox Nation did not get a ticket to the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. Old friend Hank Steinbrenner never called. Neither did any of my other pals in New York. And as the day of the game approached, I dreaded the possibility of sitting on my couch and experiencing another baseball game on TV with the third grade-level commentary of Tim McCarver and Joe Buck. (Why doesn’t Remy ever get these national gigs, like he should? And doesn’t it make you laugh the way Joe Buck looks at the camera and smiles in precise 6-second intervals when McCarver is speaking?)

But my prospects brightened when I received an email from my son’s summer day camp: “Come watch the All-Star Game on an eight-foot screen under the stars — 7:00pm Kids’ Candy Ball, 7:30pm Kids’ Home Run Derby, 8:30pm Game Time. Popcorn, hot dogs, watermelon, and lemonade will be served. $5 per person.” Frankly, this sounded even better than a long trip to and from New York. And with all due respect to The House That Ruth Built, I’d have paid more for this “camp” baseball experience than for a front row ticket to Yankee Stadium from a scalper.

When I arrived at the All-Star event with my nine and six year-old sons, about 40 kids had gathered on the field for a game of “Candy Ball” — a game I had never heard of until then, which is odd because it’s just about the most enticing game for kids that’s ever been invented. The way this works is, one adult holds a tennis racket and whacks a tennis ball high into the air above a crowd of kids. All the kids gather under the ball as it dives towards Earth, smiles on their faces, then they all leap at the same moment to try to catch the ball. The player who DOES catch the ball (before it bounces) runs in and digs a piece of candy out of a big white bucket. (It’s a fabulous game for tall kids, and a really demoralizing one for short ones.)

Then came the Home Run Derby. With visions of Josh Hamilton in their heads, all kids got to take seven swings at slow lobs, and while most didn’t come close to hitting a baseball over the stone wall (perhaps 100 feet to the left and right field poles, and 150 feet to center), a few hit one to two dingers. My favorite moment was when my six year-old son took his whacks. He was (by far) the youngest kid there, but he stood up there and swung a heavy aluminum bat with all his might, and on his fifth swing he hit a line drive right back at the pitcher’s head (see photo). Pride and dignity swept over his face after that frozen rope.

The All-Star Game itself, the main event, was pretty cool. The kids and their parents gathered on a small grassy hill that looked down on a soccer goal, onto which a huge white sheet had been duct taped. A small silver box projected the game onto the sheet, and as the sky got darker and darker, the image on the sheet became sharper and sharper. A crowd of kids gathered at the very front and cheered loudly when Sox players were introduced. Of course, Yankees players were booed vociferously.

Three moments from the player introductions stand out. After the boos for Derek Jeter died down, I overheard one child wearing an Ortiz t-shirt say to the kid sitting next to him, “He’s my favorite Yankee, and I still hate him.” And when Kevin Youkilis was introduced, the whole crowd on the hill howled “YOOOOOOOOUK!” (What a stroke of luck for a player when he has a name that rhymes with “boo.” Remember the way we cheered for Lou Merloni? And when the fans ARE booing you, you can remain happily ignorant.) The most surprising moment during the team introductions was when Terry Francona trotted out of the Yankee Stadium dugout. He got the loudest cheers from the kids and adults assembled there — louder than Manny’s, louder than Youk’s, louder than Pedroia’s. The man is a true rock star.

Yeah, it would have been amazing to be in Yankee Stadium for all the farewell fanfare, to cheer for our hometown guys, and to see a great all-star game in person. But I was even happier being right where I should have been — with my kids, along with a herd of young Sox fans and their parents, sitting on a blanket about two miles from Fenway Park, under the full moon, watching the game on a bedsheet while munching on popcorn and watermelon, after a game of Candy Ball and a Home Run Derby.

“Is this Heaven?” Kevin Costner’s character asks his father in Field of Dreams. “No…. it’s Red Sox Nation. The heart of Red Sox Nation.”

Why Kids Love Josh Hamilton

All of us have read or heard about Josh Hamilton’s incredible story, and last night, many of us were lucky enough to witness on TV his stunning home run exhibition in the first round of the Home Run Derby (in which he hit an amazing 28 home runs, a record).

Personally, I’m deeply inspired by Josh Hamilton’s comeback from drug and alcohol addiction (as is Peter Gammons, who writes so eloquently about the meaning of Hamilton in his blog) and I’m rooting hard for his continued success. I only wish he were on the Red Sox, so I could watch him play and cheer for him every day.

But what I want to write about tonight is the impact that Hamilton has had on my 9 year-old son. This kid is a fiercely loyal Red Sox fan, and in his four years as an “aware” fan of the game, Josh Hamilton is only the third non-Red Sox player he has rooted for with passion (the others are Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra). Why does he like Josh Hamilton so much? Two reasons:

1. On Patriots Day, April 22, I took my two sons and a friend of theirs to the Red Sox-Rangers game. Afterwards, they spotted a Rangers player signing autographs near the Rangers dugout. “Daddy, can we run over there and get his autograph?” Sure, you can try, I replied. I hadn’t seen a player sign autographs after a game at Fenway Park since I was a kid, in the late ’70s or early ’80s, and I could feel their excitement about scoring a major leaguer’s autograph. They were at the back of a large line of people, but the unknown Rangers player signed and signed and posed for photos with anyone who was interested. By the time my oldest son and his friend reached the front of the line, the player had been signing for perhaps ten minutes, and he seemed to be in no hurry to go take a shower.

He signed my son’s hat, then politely and calmly posed for a photo with my son and his friend. What do you say, I whispered. “Thank you,” my son said. You’re welcome, buddy, the player replied. As we walked away, the player continued to sign autographs and pose for photos. “Who was that?” I asked my son. “Josh Hamilton, see?” he replied, showing me the autograph on the white brim of his Red Sox cap. The kids glowed all the way home, their Fenway experience having ended in a magical way.

2. Last night, Hamilton won our hearts forever with monumental shot after monumental shot, his 71 year-old former high school baseball coach pitching to him, and his proclamation to FOX sportscaster Erin Andrews that he had dreamed the exact scene, including being interviewed by her. “Mommy, come in here if you want to see history being made!” my son yelled after HR number 25. He was mesmerized. So was I. (Weren’t you??)

Today at my son’s day camp, the kids were given t-shirts and invited to decorate them with markers. When I picked him up in the late afternoon, he was wearing a homemade all-star team replica shirt with the word “American” scrawled across the front and the name “Hamilton” written in block letters across the top of the back of the shirt. (Oops, Hamilton isn’t #21, he’s #32…. details…) He wore the t-shirt the rest of the day, even while we watched seven Red Sox players compete in the All-Star Game.

Hamilton’s improbable transformation makes him a fascinating figure to the media and all of us adult fans, but that side of the player means almost nothing to young baseball fans out there. They love the guy for simple reasons — he’s a phenomenal, graceful, exciting ballplayer, and he takes time to talk with them, sign an autograph, and pose for a photo. With 750 major leaguers, it’s remarkable that so few comprehend the profound influence they can have on young people in this way.

Disconnected, But Still Connected to the Sox

I found out that the Sox have seven all-stars in the Monday morning Boston Globe, which I had to drive six miles to buy. And I heard Manny Ramirez tie the game in the 8th inning with a home run on Tuesday night via a small, black transistor radio, the AM station maddeningly fading in and out during the most crucial pitches of the game.

I’m on vacation deep in the woods of Northern New England in a non-winterized cabin that has a section 25 sign hanging from the rafters (commemorating my family’s favorite standing-room-only location). Without Internet, cell phone, or TV access, following the Red Sox is a whole different ball game up here. Down in Boston, it’s all about NESN and your couch. You watch the pre-game show, you watch the game with Remy and Orsillo, and you fall asleep either during or right after the post-game show. The sports sections in the morning papers are read more out of habit than anything else, and few new nuggets show up there that weren’t shared by Tom Caron, Eck, Lou Merloni, or Kathryn Tappen on Sportsdesk after the game.

But up here in the woods, following the Sox is all about two things: 1) Getting good reception on your radio (and having a backup station that carries the Sox in case your #1 choice fades out), and 2) Driving to the nearest gas station soon after waking up in the morning to buy the Boston papers, and hoping they’ve been delivered to the gas station before you get there, and then hoping that the late scores made it into the local editions.

When I’m in a remote place like this, it seems like a miracle when I can find the game on the radio. There’s something about hearing the familiar voice of Joe Castiglione crackling over the airwaves that gives me goosebumps and plasters a big old smile on my face. And I get the feeling that Joe KNOWS he’s broadcasting all the way up here to my distant location, that he KNOWS how important his responsibility is: to bring the pictures of the game to life for all of us fans who are stranded miles and miles from Fenway Park (or even from a town with a stop light).

And reading The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald sports sections takes on a whole new meaning when I’m up here. Driving to the nearest gas station at dawn to buy the newspapers is as much a part of my morning routine as a cup of coffee. It’s pure joy when I see the pile of crisp Globes and Heralds sitting there next to the counter as I walk in the gas station convenience store’s door. The cash register lady charges me a buck-fifty for the pair, and I’m grateful that she has no idea she could charge me twenty bucks. Sitting in my car in front of the gas station reading about the Red Sox, and the box scores of other games, is truly one of the day’s highlights.

I do love this “information era,” where news comes at us moments after it has occurred and we can follow every baseball game simultaneously on Baseball Tonight, ESPN.com, or MLBtv. I mean, I REALLY love the information era. But for this Boston baseball fan, there’s a singular pleasure that comes from getting away from TV and the Internet (and the chattering argumentativeness of our sports radio talk shows) and being a baseball fan in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees at the end of a mile-long dirt road.

I guess it forces me to become an even more active fan. Listening to the games on the radio requires more attention and involvement that watching the TV. Every three minutes, the radio voice of Castiglione or O’Brien or Arnold rises in excitement and we all yell Shhhhhhhhh! and lean our heads towards the radio, holding our breath, “seeing” the game in our heads and hanging on the announcer’s every word. Likewise, gleaning information and analysis from the NESN pre-game and post-game shows – or from the newspaper sitting on your front step — is passive compared to the deliberate act of driving six miles to the newspaper store and the active process of reading Masserotti’s and Shaughnessy’s and Ryan’s columns – I mean, really reading and savoring them, in the same way one would savor a hot meal cooked over a campfire after hiking 20 miles in the rain.

It’s almost like I came all the way up to this cabin in the woods to enjoy the sublime experience of following the Red Sox in the “old school” way.

(So, how did I post this blog article if I’m disconnected in the north woods? The public library across the street from the local gas station has wireless Internet access…. as I write this, it’s nighttime and the library is closed… I’m parked on the street in front of the library, listening to the Diamondbacks-Nationals game on the radio, heading into the 11th inning…. it’s an off-night for the Red Sox, and the A.M. signal from D.C. is strong ….)

Is Curt Schilling a Hall of Famer?

When I first heard that Schill would be out for the season because of shoulder surgery, I felt a cold shiver go down my spine. Deep down, I was expecting him to return just in time for the playoffs and play a key role – even if it meant pitching one important inning in the ALCS. Curt Schilling in the postseason is like Michael Jordan in the Finals and Tiger Woods in the Majors. Think that’s an exaggeration? Check the stats (or just trust me, he’s MONEY when the games are big — even when his body is broken).

Over the last two weeks, there have been several opinions expressed about Schilling’s case to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. My gut tells me he’s Hall-worthy, but one of the main lessons of Michael Lewis’s excellent book, Moneyball, is that you can’t always trust your gut — you’ve got to do the analysis. So, I did the analysis and now it’s obvious to me that my gut isn’t lying to me — Schilling belongs in the Hall of Fame. So, here are my rebuttals to the three most common arguments against Curt Schilling’s candidacy:

The Bert Blyleven Argument: Several writers and commentators have pointed to Bert Blyleven’s failure to garner 75% of the vote, reasoning that since Blyleven isn’t in the Hall, Schilling shouldn’t be in the Hall either. But an in-depth look at Blyleven’s career makes it clear that he, too, belongs in the Hall of Fame and that the sportswriters who vote have really blown it by not electing Blyleven. Only Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens have more career strikeouts, and when he retired, Blyleven was third all-time in this category. All-time! Can you imagine if the guy who’s #5 in career hits wasn’t in the Hall yet? (That’s former Red Sox star outfielder, Tris Speaker, with 3,514 hits). It would devalue the Hall to leave out Tris Speaker (who, like Schilling won three World Series, two of them with the Red Sox). Blyleven’s also top-ten all-time in career starts, and his 60 career shutouts rank 9th on the all-time list. Every other pitcher among the top-20 in shutouts is in the Hall. Why not Blyleven? Beats me. He’s 13th all-time in innings pitched (4,970) and all twelve of the pitchers ahead of him in this category are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, as well. And while he didn’t have 300 career wins (which seems to provide a ticket to the Hall), he came damn close with 287. Plus, Blyleven was excellent in the postseason too — in three postseasons, he was 5-1 with an E.R.A. of 2.47, and his teams won the World Series TWICE. Both Blyleven AND Schilling belong in the Hall of Fame. So let’s stop using Blyleven as a barrier to Schilling.

And anyway, it’s just as easy to find players whose inclusion in the Hall of Fame support Schilling’s case — Phil Rizzutto (in 13 seasons, his lifetime B.A. was .273, but he won 7 World Series with the Yankees), Ozzie Smith (.262 lifetime B.A. and 94th all-time with 2,460 hits, but won 13 Gold Gloves and played in 3 World Series, winning one of them); Tony Perez (in 23 years his lifetime B.A. was .279 and he had 2,732 hits, which places his 50th on the all-time list; but his real claim to fame is that he played in five World Series and won two of them as an integral member of the Big Red Machine). I believe that all three of these guys belong in the Hall of Fame, but none of them has a case that’s stronger than Curt Schilling’s.

I know, those are hitters and you want to compare Schilling’s career to other pitchers who are in the Hall, right? OK. Here are four great comparisons: Hal Newhouser, Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, and Catfish Hunter.

Hal Newhouser won only 207 games in his 17-season career (with an E.R.A. of 3.06), but during the seven year span of 1944 to 1950, he was dominant, going 151-80. He won the MVP award in 1944 and 1945 (the only pitcher in history to win the award in consecutive years), and he was second in MVP voting in 1946 (this was before the dawning of the Cy Young Award, in 1956). For his career, Newhouser pitched 212 complete games, and during his dominant seven years, he completed 136 of the 240 games he started (57%). Newhouser pitched in two World Series, winning one of them, but his performance wasn’t Newhouser-esque — he went 2-1 with an E.R.A. of 6.53 in 20.2 innings. And during his long career with the Tigers, he had a winning record in only seven of his 17 seasons. Take away those seven winning years, and his record during the other ten seasons was a mediocre 56-70. Still, all baseball historians know that Hal Newhouser belongs in the Hall of Fame. And if Newhouser’s a Hall of Famer, then so is Curt Schilling.

Jim Bunning was 224-184 with an E.R.A. of 3.27 during his 17-year career. He won 20 games only once, never won a Cy Young Award (though he did place second in the voting once), and he never pitched in the postseason. He did play on nine all-star teams, and he led the league in strikeouts three times (he’s 17th on the all-time K list with 2,855, which is 261 less than Schilling, who is 14th on the career list with 3,116, one shy of Bob Gibson’s 3,117). Jim Bunning belongs in the Hall of Fame, but his stats reveal that he was a lot like Curt Schilling – without the rings. So if Bunning’s a Hall of Famer, then so is Curt Schilling.

Don Drysdale was 209-166 during his 14-year career. He won 20 games twice, won the Cy Young Award once, and like Schilling, played in five postseasons, winning the World Series three of those times (he, too, was a winner). During his five World Series, Drysdale was 3-3 with an E.R.A. that mirrored his career E.R.A. of 2.95. He played on eight all-star teams and led the league in strikeouts three times (his 2,486 career strikeouts place him 30th all-time). Drysdale’s career was relatively short, so his career numbers don’t rank him among the all-time leaders in any category. But he was GREAT during the period he did play, and he played a major role on THREE World Series-winning teams. Does Don Drysdale belong in the Hall of Fame? Yes. And his inclusion means Schilling belongs in the Hall, as well.

Jim “Catfish” Hunter was the ace pitcher of the A’s dynasty, compiling a career won-lost record of 224-166, with an E.R.A. of 3.26 in fifteen seasons. His 2,012 strikeouts place him 60th on the all-time list. He won 20 games five times (in consecutive years, 1971-1975), was an all-star eight times, and he pitched in SIX World Series, winning FIVE of them (three as a member of the A’s, and two as a Yankee). His World Series record was 5-3, with an E.R.A. of 3.29, and his overall postseason stats are 9-6, 3.26. Hunter won one Cy Young Award and placed second in the voting once, third once, and fourth once. He pitched one of only 15 9-inning perfect games (ever, including Don Larsen’s WS perfect game) on May 8, 1968. And even with fellow Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage as his team’s closers, Hunter still completed 181 games, or 38% of the games he started. Schilling’s Hall of Fame case is very similar to Hunter’s — their collection of World Series rings and their individual impact on these teams lead their resumes, and when their career stats are added to their postseason success, you just can’t keep them out of the Hall.

Here’s a summary of how Schilling compares with these four pitchers, plus Bert Blyleven, in various statistical categories:

Wins

1. Bert Blyleven – 287 (27th all-time)

2. Jim Bunning – 224 (67th all-time)

2. Catfish Hunter – 224 (67th all-time)

4. Curt Schilling – 216 (79th all-time)

5. Don Drysdale – 209 (95th all-time)

6. Hal Newhouser – 207 (99th all-time)

Winning %

1. Curt Schilling – .597

2. Hal Newhouser – .580

3. Catfish Hunter – .574

4. Don Drysdale – .557

5. Jim Bunning – .549

6. Bert Blyleven – .534

Postseason Record and E.R.A.

1. Curt Schilling – 11-2, 2.23

2. Bert Blyleven – 5-1, 2.47

3. Catfish Hunter – 9-6, 3.26

4. Don Drysdale – 3-3, 2.95

5. Hal Newhouser – 2-1, 6.53

6. Jim Bunning (no postseason appearances)

World Series Championships

1. Catfish Hunter – 5

2. Don Drysdale – 3

2. Curt Schilling – 3

4. Bert Blyleven -2

5. Hal Newhouser – 1

6. Jim Bunning – 0

Strikeouts

1. Bert Blyleven – 3,701 (5th all-time)

2. Curt Schilling – 3,116 (14th all-time)

3. Jim Bunning – 2,855 (17th all-time)

4. Don Drysdale – 2,486 (30th all-time)

5. Catfish Hunter – 2,012 (60th all-time)

6. Hal Newhouser – 1,796 (95th all-time)

20-win seasons

1. Catfish Hunter – 5

2. Hal Newhouser – 4

3. Curt Schilling – 3

4. Don Drysdale – 2

5. Jim Bunning -1

6. Bert Blyleven – 1

Placing Top-5 in Cy Young Award Voting, and Cy Young Awards

1. Catfish Hunter – 4 (1)

1. Curt Schilling – 4 (0)

1. Bert Blyleven – 4 (0)

4. Hal Newhouser – 3 times top-5 in MVP voting (2 MVPs)

5. Don Drysdale – 1 (1)

6. Jim Bunning – 1 (0)

All-Star Teams

1. Don Drysdale – 8

1. Catfish Hunter – 8

3. Hal Newhouser – 7

3. Jim Bunning – 7

5. Curt Schilling – 6

6. Bert Blyleven – 2

200-Inning Seasons

1. Bert Blyleven – 16

2. Jim Bunning – 13

3. Don Drysdale – 12

4. Catfish Hunter – 10

5. Curt Schilling – 9

6. Hal Newhouser – 7

Strikeout to Walk Ratio

1. Curt Schilling – 4.38 (2nd all-time, behind Tommy Bond, who pitched from 1874-1884)

2. Don Drysdale – 2.91 (39th all-time)

3. Jim Bunning – 2.86 (43rd all-time)

4. Bert Blyleven – 2.80 (47th all-time)

5. Catfish Hunter – 2.11 (200th all-time)

6. Hal Newhouser – 1.44 (643rd all-time)

Walks and Hits Per Inning Pitched (WHIP)

1. Catfish Hunter – 1.13 (42nd all-time)

2. Curt Schilling – 1.14 (44th all-time)

3. Don Drysdale – 1.15 (59th all-time)

4. Jim Bunning – 1.18 (92nd all-time)

5. Bert Blyleven – 1.20 (125th all-time)

6. Hal Newhouser, 1.31 (488th all-time)

The “He Was Never a Dominant Pitcher of his Era” Argument: This is the most frustrating argument of all, because Schilling has been a dominant pitcher during his era. True, he has never won a Cy Young Award, but he has placed second in the voting three times (in 2004 he placed second behind Johan Santana, and in 2002 and 2001 he placed second behind future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. In 1997, he placed fourth in the voting behind Pedro Martinez of the Expos, Greg Maddux, and Denny Neagle). Schilling has been selected to six All-Star Teams (1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004) and has had three 20-win seasons (2001, 2002, 2004). His career ERA of 3.46 is better than that of Tom Glavine (3.53, and Hall-worthy), Roy Halladay (3.58, and on-track for the Hall), and Josh Beckett (3.75, and on-track for the Hall). He’s 13th all-time in strikeouts (one behind Bob Gibson) and his strikeout to walk ratio (4.38) is the lowest of any pitcher since 1900! And, of course, Schilling is one of the most dominant pitchers in postseason history… more about that below.

The “216 Wins Isn’t Enough” Argument: Now I understand this argument, and taken all by itself, it does have some merit. Schilling is 79th all-time in wins, and there are 30 pitchers with more wins who are Hall-eligible and have not gained enshrinement. These include Tommy John (288), Bert Blyleven (287), Jim Kaat (283), Jack Morris (254), Frank Tanana (240), Luis Tiant (229), Jerry Koosman (222), Joe Niekro (221), and Mickey Lolich (217). There are several active pitchers who are in the same zone as Schilling: Jamie Moyer (237), Kenny Rogers (215), Pedro Martinez (211, and Hall-worthy), John Smoltz (210, and Hall-worthy), Andy Pettitte (209). Like I said, if career wins was the sole indicator of Hall worthiness, Schilling probably wouldn’t make it.

But it surprises me when writers say, “He needs one more 15-win season to make it,” or, “Forty more wins, and he’d have my vote.” Why does this surprise me? Because I would expect educated sportswriters and historians of the game to understand that two more 15-win seasons wouldn’t change the monumental impact of Schilling’s career. Yes, they would help him compare more favorably with other greats on a list of career statistics, but that’s all. All the things that make Schilling a Hall of Famer have already occurred in his career. Anything he does from now until he retires is just stat-piling (unless, of course, he wins another World Series — which is possible). Some guys are in the Hall because their longevity and consistency helped them amass amazing career stats. And some guys are in the Hall because of the undeniable impact of their careers on Major League Baseball (Newhouser, Drysdale, and Hunter are the best examples among pitchers). If Schilling heals and pitches a couple more seasons, he’ll rise in the “longevity” category, but he’s already an elite force in the “impact” category.

The Greatness Factor: The evidence that pushes Schilling into Hall of Fame territory is the key role he played on three World Series-winning teams. THREE. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, without Schilling on those three rosters (2001 Diamondbacks, 2004 Red Sox, 2007 Red Sox), NONE of those teams would have won it all. We all know about his clutch performance in the “bloody sock” game – the critical sixth game of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium, when he pitched with fresh sutures holding together his ankle. But let’s not forget that Schilling was the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series (as a Diamondback), in which he pitched 21.1 innings, striking out 26 Yankees and walking only two. His World Series E.R.A. that year was 1.69. All in all, during the 2001 postseason, Schilling was 4-0 with a 1.12 E.R.A., and he had 56 strikeouts and 6 walks in 48.1 innings.

“So that’s only one postseason,” you say. “Lots of guys get hot in one postseason. That doesn’t make you a Hall of Famer.” Fine. So let’s look at Schilling’s performance on the 2004 and 2007 World Championship Red Sox teams. During these two postseasons combined, Schilling went 6-1 with an E.R.A. of 3.20. He won the critical sixth game of BOTH ALCS series (2004 vs. Yanks, 2007 vs. Indians) with the Sox facing elimination, and in BOTH games he won with heart more than velocity. In the 2004 and 2007 World Series combined, Schilling started two games (remember, both series were four-game sweeps) and went 2-0 with an E.R.A. of 0.79. In total, Schilling’s postseason record is 11-2 with an E.R.A. of 2.23. He played in the postseason five times, and his team won the World Series in three of those appearances (amazing, given that in the Wild Card era, each playoff team should have a one-in-eight chance of winning it all).

Curt Schilling is one of the greatest “winners” in the history of Major League Baseball. Sure, he won less than half as many regular season games as Cy Young won (512), but he’s among the elite in terms of winning BIG games. And when it comes right down to it, isn’t winning BIG games what it’s all about? Isn’t winning the World Series what it’s all about? Pitching greatness has several forms, and not all of them include 300 career wins. Hall of Fame members would be diminished by the omission of Curt Schilling. Not everyone loves the guy’s schtick (personally, I love his honesty and his determination to be himself), but no one can deny that he pitched his guts out every start, that he was among the most prepared and cerebral pitchers in the game’s history (who else returns to the dugout and immediately takes notes on the inning he just pitched?) and that he was one of the all-time greats when the pressure was most intense and the stakes were highest.

So, baseball writers, do your job and cast a Hall of Fame vote for Curt Schilling. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to put a check next to Bert Blyleven’s name, too.

Curt Schilling spent eight years as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies (1993-2000), and it was as a pitcher for this team that he showed the first signs of greatness. For a Philadelphia Enquirer writer’s take on why Schill belongs in the Hall of Fame, click here.

Youth Baseball in Red Sox Nation: The Tryouts

“Tonight, you need to take your son to his summer league baseball tryouts, OK?” my wife said to me on a recent Sunday morning. No problem, I replied. I assumed that every child would be placed on a team appropriate for his level of skill, and that my baseball-loving son would simply be auditioning to show coaches which team he belonged on. What is it that they say about assumptions?

56 kids showed up for the tryout at a field with four diamonds. Each checked in at a table and received two stickers with a number — one for the front of the shirt, one for the back of the shirt. Then, they all found a partner and started warming up. What a sight: 28 pairs of 8 year-olds playing catch, each with visions in their heads of making a summer travel team, hitting .400, and eventually playing for the Boston Red Sox. Even the ones who can’t catch or throw very well.

Parents toting thermoses set up their lawn chairs at one end of the field to watch. I struck up a conversation with a friendly looking dad, and it was then that I learned that only 26 of these children would make a team — that there would be an “American” team and a “National” team (each consisting of 13 players) and that 30 kids would be cut. Those 30 kids would have NO team to play on this summer. (“The spring league is for participation,” the other dad told me. “The summer league is for development and competition.”)

I was stunned. In my own baseball experience, I didn’t face do-or-die tryouts until sophomore year in high school (I still remember Coach Cohen reading my name at the end of that tryout, indicating I had barely made Brookline High’s JV team. In fact, the stick I picked up off the ground and held in my hands as he read my name sits on my dresser, the only good luck charm I’ve ever had.) Thinking from the point of view of an 8 year-old ballplayer, I was stunned at the harshness of it. And I was bewildered by the idea of 30 moms and dads consoling their third graders about not having a team to play on this summer. What would I say to my son if he were cut? Honestly, I couldn’t even begin to imagine that conversation. The kid lives for baseball. It would be devastating. I decided to cross that bridge if I came to it, and hope for the best.

The children were split into four groups of 14, and they cycled through four stations (hitting, ground balls, fly balls, and live infield situations) where they were evaluated by two to three coaches, each scribbling away on his clipboard after every play. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the skills my son had developed during those endless hours of wiffle ball in our backyard, and the thousands of ground balls and fly balls we had practiced in our front yard, and the two seasons of coach-pitch little league were being evaluated right now. It occurred to me that if I’d known the cut-throat nature of our town’s summer league tryouts, I’d have practiced a lot more with my son over the last year. Then it occurred to me that it was probably good that I didn’t know this, since it might have brought out the the “crazy over-coaching dad” that’s probably inside of me somewhere, which definitely would have killed my son’s passion for the game. His wiffle ball experience will have to carry him, I reasoned.

My heart sank every time he swung and missed. I wanted to bellow some encouragement to him, but with all the other parents silently rooting against my son, it didn’t feel right. Then he connected. I was surprised at my pride. Then a line drive, and another one. A couple of foul balls, a miss, then a weak grounder to third. “NEXT!” yelled the evaluator, and he was back in the field. Was that good enough? I asked myself.

He looked solid on the grounders – got in front of every ball, kept his butt down, used two hands, made some crisp throws to first base. For a moment, I deluded myself into believing I’d taught him his technique — the truth is, he was simply imitating his favorite player, Nomar Garciaparra.

At the end of the tryout, the coaches called the kids in and had them get down on one knee at home plate. Then one of the coaches brought out a gigantic trophy and explained to the youngsters that last year’s 8 year-old team from our town had gone undefeated and had won that trophy, and that the tryout group couldn’t touch it until they had won the right to have their own team’s name engraved on it. Nice. 30 of these kids are going to get bad news in a few days, and now that news will be even more painful to receive. I assure you, none of those 56 kids was in a state of mind to be inspired by the trophy – they just wanted to earn the chance to wear a town uniform!

Part II of the tryout continued one week later. The kids were obviously grouped by ability this time, and I was relieved to see that my son was in a group of somewhat capable players. I just wanted him to make a team — any team! I hadn’t begun to compose my “Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school JV team” speech, and I really didn’t want to. 30 of us parents were going to have to come up with something to ease their pain, though. I dreaded that, for all of us.

In the final twenty minutes, the coaches had the players line up at home plate and they timed them running from home to first, then again from home to second. As the kids crossed the base, the timer yelled out the results for all to hear, and another guy with a clipboard wrote down the times. I felt like I was at the NFL pre-draft combine. Then, the five fastest kids raced, then they narrowed it to two, and those two raced…. and we have a WINNER! And everyone cheered for the fastest boy. (The point of this, other than pure enjoyment for the adults running the tryout, completely eludes me.)

On the way home, my son spoke with total self-confidence. He was sure he had made one of the teams. I suspected all 56 of the young men felt the same way. “If you do make a team, do you care which team you’re on?” I asked. Nah, he said, I just want to play. I was about 43 times more nervous for him than he was for himself. So, this is what it’s like being the parent of an aspiring athlete, I thought. (Butterflies, and a total lack of control over the outcome.)

Then came the wait. 3 days, 4 days, 5 days, and no word from the league. “Did you get an email?” was the first thing my wife and I said to each other when we talked on the phone from work, or when we arrived home in the evening. “Nope, nothing.” Finally, an email came late one night. Based on the recommendation of our evaluators, we are pleased to offer your child a position on our Summer Eight Year Old National Team.

I woke up my wife to tell her. We both felt the relief sweep over us, like we had just dodged a cannonball. And our son? When we told him the next morning, he was actually a little bit disappointed. Turns out he had his heart set on the American team, which he perceived to be the more prestigious of the two. Did I mention he’s got a lot of self- confidence?

I couldn’t help but wonder about the other 30 kids who’d been cut, all of whom wanted to play baseball this summer. And what about their parents? At the same moment my wife and I were feeling a rush of relief, they were all preparing their consolation speeches. What could they say? “Michael Jordan was cut from his high school JV basketball team” is a good start, but then what? Perhaps towns should give all parents a Handbook on Talking With Your Child About Tryouts when they arrive on that first day. I know I could have used something like this had my son not been so fortunate….

POSTSCRIPT: My son read this article and said to me, “Daddy, half of the article is about what you would say to me if I didn’t make the team. But Daddy, there was no chance I wouldn’t make one of the teams.” Son, did you think about the other 30 kids who wanted to play summer baseball too, but got cut? “Daddy, they didn’t believe as much as I did.”

What Have You Done 500 Times?

So Manny finally connected for his 500th career home run (and then his 501st, 502nd, and 503rd). Only 24 people in major league history have achieved this milestone. That’s one of the marvelous things about baseball — performance is so quantifiable. We KNOW that Manny Ramirez is one of the greatest 24 home run hitters of all-time. It’s simply not debatable.

So this got me thinking — what’s the equivalent of hitting 500 home runs in non-athletes’ careers? What’s a high level of accomplishment in your field that only 24 people in history have ever reached?

I was a teacher for eight years. Perhaps the equivalent to 500 home runs in teaching is having 500 former students credit YOU with having taught them an invaluable life lesson.

For a pediatrician, how about accurately diagnosing 500 difficult-to-diagnose cases, keeping the patient and parents calm, and prescribing proper follow-up care?

For a minister, priest, or rabbi, the equivalent might be delivering 500 truly superior sermons.

For a parent of five (like me), I’d say showing up for 500 little league games, soccer games, swim meets, karate tests, dance recitals, school plays, class art shows, teacher conferences, and graduations — without missing one — would be the equivalent of hitting 500 home runs.

Probably during the season of 2011 or 2012, Manny will hit his 600th home run. I don’t even want to think about what it would require to be a 600-homer parent…..

Race To See A No-Hitter

I have always wanted to witness a no-hitter in person. Tonight, I finally did. Did I have a ticket to the game? No. Did I watch the whole game? No. In fact, I slept through a couple of innings. But I was at Fenway for the last two outs. Here’s how I experienced Jon Lester’s no-hitter.

From 7:30 to 8:00pm, I got my boys (9 and 6) ready for bed and read aloud to them. As they fell asleep, I also fell asleep in my chair with the book on my lap. At about 8:30pm, I sat on the couch next to my wife and we spent perhaps 15 minutes perusing digital photo albums of our kids with the Sox game on TV in the background. I noticed the Sox were winning 5-0, but it wasn’t until the middle of the seventh inning that I noticed the zeros in the Royals’ hit column. “He’s throwing a no-hitter!” I said to my wife. “I have to drive down there!”

Wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, I bolted for the car and began my speedy 12-mile sprint down Route 9 to Fenway Park. Listening to the game on the radio, I was distressed when the Sox went down quickly in the bottom of the seventh. “Come on guys!!” I yelled, imploring our hitters to give me some time to get to the park. The top of the eighth flew by too as the Royals went 1-2-3, and it was at that point that I arrived at the section of Route 9 where there is ALWAYS a speed trap. Reluctantly, I slowed down to the speed limit (prudent — the car behind me got pulled over).

As the Red Sox batted in the bottom of the eighth, I hit another sand trap: construction that narrowed the road to one lane of slow-moving traffic. “NOOO!” I screamed. But I hit mostly green lights, and as Lester took the mound for the top of the ninth, I turned onto Boylston Street and searched frantically for a parking spot. Lester threw ball four to the leadoff hitter, Esteban German, at the same moment that I found an empty parking space at the McDonald’s opposite Yawkey Way. A sprint across the street and down Yawkey Way to Gate B, a flash of my Red Sox Nation VP credential to the security dude, and I was in the bowels of the park. Continuing to run at full speed, I headed for the ramp on the first base side and emerged into Fenway at the same moment that David DeJesus grounded out to Kevin Youkilis for out number two. “Wooooo hooooo!!” I had just arrived, but I was immediately in synch with the rest of the crowd that had been there for three hours.

As I walked along the main aisle towards right field, fans jumped up and down, screamed, prayed, clapped, smiles on all their faces. Several people reached out to me with high-fives as I walked by. What a feeling. THIS IS FENWAY PARK, I was thinking. I found an empty box seat just beyond first base and planted myself there to watch the last few pitches. “This is it, I’m finally going to see a no-hitter!” Strike three to Alberto Callaspo! Then, bedlam. Absolute bedlam. The crowd noise completely drowned out “Dirty Water” as it blared through Fenway.

I was there. After all these years, I can say I was there.

Questions of a Six Year-Old at Fenway

As I wrote in my previous article, on Patriots’ Day I took my six year-old to his first Red Sox game, and afterwards we cheered for the back-of-the-pack between miles 22 and 25 on Beacon Street. Someday, this boy will know all the ins and outs about baseball (like his nine year-old brother). But this is the first spring that he has begun to show glimmers of interest in the Red Sox, so a visit to Fenway is different for him than for everyone else at the ballpark. And after he’d asked me a few questions during the first inning, I knew I had to write down all of his questions for the rest of the game. Classic stuff:

Can I have a hot dog? (Sure.)

Why do we have our gloves on? (In case a foul ball comes back here, we’ll be ready to catch it.)

Why is that screen there? (To protect the fans behind home plate from dangerous foul balls.)

But how do the balls come back here? (When the hitter swings his bat, sometimes the bat doesn’t hit the ball squarely and the ball flies in back of home plate.)

Can we do something besides just sit around? (Sure we can walk around a little bit.)

(We were walking past a concession stand.) Can I have some pizza? (Sure.) Can I have a big cup of Coke? (Sure.)

(Back in our seats.) Can I have a foam finger? (Sure, let’s go catch up with the foam finger vendor.)

(The crowd suddenly cheered after a Rangers player popped out for the third out of an inning.) Is that good Daddy? (Yes, that’s good, now the Red Sox get a turn to hit and to try to score some runs.)

(The crowd suddenly cheered after Ellsbury stole second base.) Is that good Daddy? (Yes, Jacoby Ellsbury just stole second base.)

Who’s winning Daddy? (The Red Sox are winning.) Yay, the Red Sox are winning!

Why did they turn on the lights? (Good question, I really don’t know why they turned on the lights on a sunny day.)

What’s the score? (Six to nothing.) Is this normal? (No, this is really good.) I mean, are they major leaguers? (Yes.) This is stupid. (Why?) I thought that major leaguers were supposed to be good. (They are, but our pitcher, Clay Buchholz, is pitching so well, the Rangers can’t get very many hits.) Oh.

Is it almost nighttime? (No, it’s 1:20pm.) Is the game almost over? (Well, we’re in the fifth inning and the whole game lasts nine innings.) So there are four innings left? (That’s right.) Will it be nighttime when the game is over? (No, there’s a lot of daytime left.) Good, ’cause there’s a show I really want to watch on TV tonight. (What show is that?) I forget the name.

Is a trillion more than a billion? (Yes.) How many trucks would you need to carry a trillion dollars? (Um, a hundred.) No, you’d just need one, because you could have one bill with a trillion on it.

Daddy, I made up a number. (Really? What is it?) A killion. And it’s so big, the dollar bill would be as long as Fenway Park. It’s as big as a trillion billion dollars.

(Look, here comes the wave.) What’s the wave, Daddy? (That’s the wave.) Why do they do the wave? (Because it’s fun.)

(We were on the sidelines of the marathon and I had cheered for many runners by reading the names on their shirts. My six year-old was incredulous.) Daddy, how do you know all these people?