Tag 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!

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.”

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.”

My “Sports Books Hall of Fame”

There are hundreds of sports books in my library. Most were gifts from friends and family, and over the years I’ve probably read less than half of them (lots of good reading to look forward to). Here, I’ll share with you the seven that truly stand out. I’ve listed them in the order that I read them, and I’m restricting myself to three sentences per title:

mental-game-of-baseball.jpgThe Mental Game of Baseball, by H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl
This book was loaned to me by then-9th grader (and later, NHL defenseman) Deron Quint in about 1991 (at age 23) when I was a teacher at the boarding school he attended. I had always believed there was an important psychological side to pitching, hitting, and fielding success, yet this book was the first to verify that and to offer many useful techniques. I know that this book gave me an edge in my Yawkey Amateur League of Boston pitching career, from 1991-1999, and I’ve integrated many of its basic teachings into my everyday life.

friday-night-lights.jpgFriday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream, by H.G. Bissinger
It breaks your heart to read about these teenage athletes reaching the pinnacle of their lives in high school, then re-living their adolescent glory days the rest of their lives while pumping fuel at the gas station on the corner (similar to the movie, Hoop Dreams). And it’s stunning to see the religious fervor that’s generated by high school football in Texas. Superior writing makes this an unforgettable reading experience.

legend-of-bagger-vance.jpgThe Legend of Bagger Vance, by Steven Pressfield
Just a marvelous, metaphysical golf story, incredibly well written. When I finished it, I remember thinking, “That’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read – if not the greatest.” One of those books that casts a spell on you while you’re reading it, then leaves you enchanted at its conclusion.

golf-is-not-a-game-of-perfect.jpgGolf Is Not A Game Of Perfect, by Dr. Bob Rotella
I read this in 1998 and promptly went out and shot my best round of golf ever – BY FAR (best piece of advice: don’t add up your score – or even think about your score – until the end of your round). I won’t even tell you the score I achieved because you wouldn’t believe me, but I’ve also never come close to playing that well for 18 holes since then. After reading the book, I wrote its most important principles on a sheet of paper, and I review this sheet prior to every round I play (I keep the tattered old piece of paper in my golf bag).

for-love-of-the-game.jpgFor Love Of The Game, by Michael Shaara
I’m not sure when I read this, but I know I read it in one sitting (it’s a compact, 152-page paperback). An aging, former all-star pitcher, in the last year of his career, unexpectedly finds himself pitching the best game of his life, and each out brings him closer and closer to perfection. It’s the kind of novel I would write if I knew how to write a novel (and Shaara, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, knows how to write a novel).

moneyball.jpg Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
A non-sports fan would enjoy this book and call it “an excellent piece of non-fiction,” but to sports fans, it’s just about the best non-fiction book we’ve ever read. Michael Lewis is a masterful storyteller, and what a fascinating story this is about the “small market” Oakland A’s using insights into player statistics to compete against teams with payrolls five times as large. After reading this book, you’ll never look at baseball statistics the same way again.

sabr-record-book.jpgThe SABR Baseball List & Record Book: Baseball’s Most Fascinating Records and Unusual Statistics, by the Society for American Baseball Research
There are a lot of record books out there, but this one is definitely the most entertaining. The title of this book describes its contents perfectly: it’s filled with “fascinating records and unusual statistics” that keep you smiling, page after page. Here are two examples:

i) “Most at-bats in a season without a hit by a non-pitcher”

(answer: 35, by Hal Finney, Pittsburgh, 1936);

ii) “Batting Champion by Widest Margin”

(answer: .086, by Nap Lajoie, Philadelphia, who hit .426 in 1901 – the runner-up, Mike Donlin, Baltimore, hit .340).

What are your favorite sports books of all-time?

Rich Gedman, a Clutch Single, and a Balk… 21 Years Ago

rich-gedman-and-roger-clemens.jpgAfter the triumphant ride through Boston on duck boats, I followed Red Sox personnel into a post-parade reception at Fenway. The place was crawling with familiar faces, but the one I was most eager to meet belonged to former Red Sox catcher, Rich Gedman. Gedman played for the Sox from 1980 to 1990, right in the prime of my Red Sox childhood, when I was between the ages of 12 and 22. I walked up to Gedman because I wanted to tell him that he had had the key hit in the greatest baseball game I’ve ever witnessed in person – and to ask him what he remembered about it. Rich was happy to talk.

After introducing myself, I told Rich that I remember attending an extra-innings game at rob-and-rich-gedman.jpgFenway in my youth and, when it was over, I proclaimed, “I will never see a game more unbelievable than that for the rest of my life,” and I recall that the opposing team made a couple of big blunders in the last inning to aid a Sox comeback, and that Gedman had the game-winning hit. But that’s all I recall.  

Rich said, “Yes, that was 1986, and it was against California, and we fell behind by three runs in the 12th or 13th inning, and I didn’t get the game-winning hit, I got the game-tying hit – a line drive to right field – then we won the game on a balk.” YES! I said, THAT WAS THE GAME!

We then recalled that Angels 3B Rick Burleson dropped a pop-up that, if it had been caught, would have ended the game. Rich tried to remember the name of the pitcher who balked, but he could not. (Further research reveals that his name was Todd Fischer… more on him later.) And Rich said that part of the reason he remembers the game is that, when the Sox made their miraculous comeback against the Angels in game 5 of the 1986 ALCS (thank you, Don Baylor and Dave Henderson), everyone in the Sox dugout was saying, “This is just like that game we played against them back in July!”

Thanks to Google, I discovered that the game took place on July 10, 1986 (I was 17 years old), and the Red Sox won, 8-7. The entire box score and play-by-play detail is available here. And after reviewing how the game ended, I see why I knew I’d never see a more exciting game. In the 12th inning, the Angels and Red Sox scored a combined total of 7 runs with two outs. Here’s how it happened.

In the top of the 12th inning, with the score tied, 4-4, Sox pitcher Steve Crawford retired the first two batters of the inning (Ruppert Jones and Gary Pettis) and then gave way to lefty Mike Brown to face left-handed hitting Wally Joyner. Mike Brown proceeded to implode. Joyner stroked a triple, then scored on a wild pitch. Unnerved, Brown then walked George Hendrick and Brian Downing in succession and gave up R.B.I. singles to Rick Burleson and Bobby Grich. Tim Lollar relieved Mike Brown and got Dick Schofield to pop out to Gedman, but the damage had been done: three two-out runs for California and an almost certain loss for the Sox.

As a kid, whatever tickets I got my hands on were almost always standing room (which was fine with me). I remember that after that three-run burst, Fenway emptied and my little brother, Ben (16 at the time), and our friend, Sam (13 at the time), and I moved down to the front row behind home plate. We didn’t stay to see a comeback, we stayed because we wanted to experience even a half-inning of Red Sox baseball from the good seats. We were sad the Sox were about to lose, but we were jacked to be sitting in the best seats in the house.

rick-burleson.jpgMarty Barrett led off the bottom of the 12th against Angels pitcher Mike Cook with an infield single to the second baseman, Bobby Grich. In the box score it’s called a single, but in my memory, it was a botched play – perhaps it was a bad hop, I’m not sure. Wade Boggs then did something he almost never did – he struck out looking. And after Bill Buckner flied out to left field, with the Sox down to their last out, Jim Rice did something he did frequently – he hit a ball into the screen above the Green Monster for a two-run homer. But when Don Baylor followed with a pop-up above third base, it looked like the game would end — until the ball bonked off of Burleson’s glove and Baylor ended up on first. I remember that well – and I remember that Ben, Sam and I went nuts. Are we going to win this game?? And when Dwight Evans walked, putting the tying run on second base, the 1,000 or so of us left at Fenway jumped and screamed with anticipation. Number 10, Rich Gedman, shook the donut off of his bat and strode to the batter’s box with an expression of total calmness.

And this is what I remember most about that game: seeing Gedman walk to the plate and thinking, “When this half-inning started, there is no way Gedman thought he’d need to walk out onto this field again tonight.” And I remember just praying, praying, praying for Rich to get a hit and continue this amazing comeback. And he did! Line drive, base hit to right field. Baylor scores! YES! YES! YES! TIE GAME! TIE GAME! Again, the loyal few of us left at Fenway, all crammed into the front five rows, romped and cheered like lunatics. RICH GEDMAN IS CLUTCH became a new fact in my baseball-encyclopedic head. And the winning run, in the person of Dwight Evans, stood at third base with two outs.

gene_mauch_autograph.jpgAt this remarkable juncture, with the ever-dangerous Rey Quinones (lifetime batting average of .245) coming to the plate for the Red Sox, Angels manager Gene Mauch removed pitcher Mike Cook from the game and replaced him with rookie reliever, Todd Fischer. It was Fischer’s 9th major league appearance, and it turned out to be his last. And what a way to end a career – before even throwing a pitch, Fischer balked, Evans scored, and the Red Sox won. As Evans ran down the third base line, most of us in the stands didn’t know what had happened for a few seconds, but as the news spread, bedlam ensued. Gene Mauch argued vociferously while the Sox players and fans reveled all around him. As Ben, Sam and I walked out of Fenway that night, we all said to each other, that game will never be topped.

How rare is it for a winning run to cross the plate as the result of a balk? According to Jayson Stark, it’s only happened three times in the last 33 years.

Another interesting postscript to this story: soon after Mike Brown pitched like dog doo vs. the Angels and Rey Quinones stood there and watched the game-winning balk, the Mariners traded 1986 heroes Dave Henderson and Spike Owen to the Sox for Rey Quinones and Mike Brown!  (And the immortal Mike Trujillo.) Thank you, Rey and Mike! And thank you, Rich Gedman, for the chance to reminisce about an extraordinary moment we both witnessed and participated in 21 years ago…. and that we’ll never forget.

Watching Game 4 In The Dark

Asleep_on_couch I’m sitting here in the dark in my living room watching game 4 of the World Series – potentially the clincher for the Red Sox. Why is it dark in here? Because my wife and I caved in to my 8 year-old son’s begging to stay up to watch the first three innings. He’s lying on the couch, under a blanket with his head on his favorite pillow. It’s a school night, so this really isn’t model parenting. But the kid has rooted for the team every day since spring training, and they way he said this evening, “Mommy, it isn’t just a baseball game, it’s the World Series!” made us realize that, while he’s only in third grade, he’s as big a Red Sox fan as any grown-up we know. Of all the Sox fans out there tonight, this kid deserves a chance to see some of this game.

Earlier today, my son made me promise to wake him up in the ninth inning if the Red Sox have a chance to win the game, so he could witness the final moments and see the celebration on the field. “Wake me up if they’re down by ten runs or less in the last inning,” he said, implying that even a deficit that large is not too big for this baseball club to overcome. No, I told him, I’ll wake you up in the ninth inning if the Red Sox are leading, or tied, or if the tying run comes to the plate.

He’s been loquacious all night, asking me his customary impossible baseball questions, such as: “Daddy, if a game is suspended and they schedule it to be continued at a later date, but then one of the players who was in the lineup for one of the teams gets traded to another team before the game can be resumed, can that team substitute any player for the traded player?” I don’t even know where to find the answer to that question. All of a sudden, he’s quiet. He has fallen asleep before the end of the third inning. I’ll get him up later if necessary…

If this were a day game, or if it started earlier in the night, my son would be able to see every moment live. And he wouldn’t be lying under a blanket on the couch, struggling to stay awake – he’d be watching the way he normally does: bounding around the room, playing his own baseball game in his head, making diving, game-saving, ESPN-highlight plays on the couch over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. It really is a sight to see. When he’s watching a game, our living room becomes a gymnasium and the whole house shakes. He actually becomes a participant in the drama that’s unfolding on the TV, burning hundreds of calories while I sit there eating nachos.

My brother just called me from his home outside of D.C. He is the most rabid, passionate, loyal Red Sox fan I know. He drove to Cleveland for game 5 of the ALCS and drove all the way back to D.C. immediately following the game, to get to work. That’s right, he drove something like 450 miles through the wee hours of the morning on an adrenaline high. He’s 37 years old, but the Red Sox make him (and all of us) behave like a college kid…

When he called, I asked him how his feelings about this Series are different from 2004. “I’m not as elated as I was then. And I just feel more confident about our chances. Even in the 9th inning of game 4 vs. the Cardinals in 2004 (with the Sox up, 3-0), I thought they could come back. But even if we lose tonight, we have Josh Beckett as insurance.”

We need to finish these guys off tonight. The Rockies have magic in their back pockets, as we saw over the last month. And this is baseball, after all. Anything CAN happen and anything DOES happen in this game. You can have a commanding 3-0 lead in a series, and a 3-0 lead in the 7th inning of game 4 (as the Sox do now), then one poor defensive play later (or one walk and stolen base later, as in game 4 of the 2004 ALCS), it can all start to slip away.

Off to focus on the conclusion of this one…