Category Archives: Baseball

Patriots’ Day: Boston’s (and my kids’) Best Day

Patriots’ Day was established as a Massachusetts (and Maine) civic holiday to commemorate and celebrate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolutionary War. And in Boston, we know how to celebrate our history in style — a Red Sox game at Fenway for breakfast (11:05am start time), and the world’s coolest foot race (Boston Marathon) for lunch.

Today, I was lucky enough to attend the game with two of my children (9 and 6) and their friend (9), enjoying a rare Monday day game while kids in other states across the country were busy toiling away in school. And after Delcarmen nailed down the final out, we walked three miles from Fenway to Cleveland Circle, cheering on those runners at the back of the pack, the ones who needed our wild cheers the most.

At 9:00am, my boys and I picked up a friend and posed for our first photo of the day.

Daddy needed a cup of coffee, so a quick stop at Dunkin’ Donuts was required. The Papelbon poster got us into the mood for the day.

We parked the car at a friend’s house near Cleveland Circle, and the small plot of green grass in the front yard meant that forward progress towards Fenway would have to wait for a few minutes…. boys will be boys.

The Reservoir T-stop was crawling with Red Sox fans…

… and we squeezed close together on the train to make room for Sox fans getting on at subsequent stops.

The walk from the Fenway T-stop to Yawkey Way is one of the great walks in North America.

The goosebumps get huge when you get to Brookline Avenue and see the crowd outside Fenway.

This was my six year-old’s first game at Fenway (since he was too young to remember anything), so I taught him to hold his hand over his heart during the National Anthem. He sang at the top of his lungs.

After two innings, my six year-old started getting restless. Hot dogs and pizza helped a little. But what he really wanted (and needed, it turned out) was a Red Sox #1 foam finger!

Let us not underestimate the power of the foam finger! To a six year-old, it can provide hours of companionship, entertainment, and enjoyment!

Then, in the fifth inning, it was time for…. the blankie!

By the 8th inning, many of the seats had been vacated, so the boys headed down to the very front, where they sang “Sweet Caroline” and cheered the Sox to a sweep of the Rangers.

What would a perfect Patriots Day be without a greeting from Wally the Green Monster? (The six year-old is not pictured here, because he was sobbing about his blankie, which he’d dropped into a puddle of beer.)

And I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a player signing autographs at Fenway Park…. but after the game, Josh Hamilton of the Rangers signed for one and all… and made it an extra-special day for a lot of kids.

Then, it was time to head out to Beacon Street to cheer on the marathoners!


Petting the dog wearing the Kevin Garnett jersey was a highlight of our long walk from Kenmore Square to Cleveland Circle. And at the end of our walk, my six year-old proclaimed, “My feet ache all over. But that was the best day of my LIFE!”

A Monday without school, a day spent with family and friends, four hours at Fenway Park on a sunny day, a Red Sox win, the opportunity to high-five courageous runners as they near the finish line of a long, grueling race, and memories to last the rest of the year and longer. What’s better than that?

What’s Really Buried is Yankees’ Pride

When I first heard that a Red Sox jersey had been buried in the cement under Yankee Stadium, it never occurred tAP photoo me that the Yankees would: a) Make a big deal out of it, or b) Even consider digging into the foundation to exhume the shirt. But that’s because I was still thinking about the proud Yankees of pre-2004, who would have simply laughed at the story, then ignored it. (Dominance over a team gives you that privilege.)

The Yankees of 2008 are a different lot –- they have become the Red Sox of pre-2004! What better evidence is there that the Red Sox are “in the heads” of the Yankees than the fact that the Yankees’ front office went to the trouble and expense to unearth the Red Sox jersey, and that they made such a public spectacle of the whole issue. Like Hank Steinbrenner’s pathetic, naive denial of the existence and magnitude of Red Sox Nation in March, this is just another clear sign that the Yankees are frustrated and demoralized, forced by the Red Sox’ superiority to worry about curses and jinxes and garbage like that. A proud Yankees franchise wouldn’t have roared at such a clever, funny stunt.

If the Red Sox fall to the #2 spot behind the Yankees in the rivalry again (perhaps about 86 years from now?) we need to take a cue from these misguided Yankees executives and remember not to act so obviously and obsessively inferior.

And anyway, it seems to me the noble jinxing effort of Gino Castignoli (born and raised in the Bronx) had an effect opposite its intention: Big Papi, whose shirt spent several months under the new Yankee Stadium, has been mired in the worst slump of his career this April. Now that that darn jersey is out of its tomb in the Bronx, I expect him to explode…

Red Sox Nation Loves the Yankees

The rivalry is back, with the Yanks taking the first of their 18 regular season meetings this year. 17 more games before October? That’s the equivalent of an entire New England Patriots season. Almost an overdose. And with the rivalry stoked by that construction worker who buried a Red Sox t-shirt in the foundation of the “new” Yankee Stadium, we’re all assured another century of emotionally charged competition. Would you say that “the rivalry” is the best aspect of being a Red Sox fan? I would.

Along those lines, I wrote a guest post at the Sox and Pinstripes blog about why most of us who profess to hate the Yankees actually love them. Here is an excerpt:

I like to think that, before I was born in August of 1968, God let me choose the circumstances of my life: “Well, being a rabid baseball fan seems like a lot of fun,” I told Him, “So I think I’d like to live sometime during the 19th, 20th, or 21st Century, on Earth.”

“All right,” said God, “but please be more specific. When and where, exactly, would you like to be born?”

I thought about it and replied, “I hear that sports rivalries are charged with emotion and excitement, so please put me in a city whose team has a fierce rivalry with another team – the fiercest in all of baseball – and let me be born at a time in history that will allow me to experience that rivalry at its peak, OK?”

“Consider it done,” said God. “But one more thing – would you like to become a fan of the team that wins more championships than any other during the 20th Century? Or would you like to become a fan of the team that wins the first World Series in 1903, but later on experiences a championship drought virtually unparalleled in professional sports?”

“Hmmm.” I pondered my options. “Just make me a fan of the team that gives its fans the lowest lows and the highest highs. I want to experience the greatest possible range of emotions as a baseball fan during this lifetime.”

“No problem,” said God as he cracked a knowing smile.

To read the entire guest post at Sox and Pinstripes, click here.

Opening Day! (new song)

There are hundreds of songs about Christmas, but I can’t think of one song about the best holiday of the year: Opening Day. So this past weekend, with the excitement of the home opener building, I sat down and wrote a song about Opening Day (lyrics below). On Sunday night, after my kids were all in bed, I recorded it in my basement onto my Mac laptop using GarageBand software. Five tracks: two acoustic guitars and three vocals. Click on the box (right) to listen. Enjoy!

Opening Day!
by Rob Crawford (ASCAP)

Well it’s Opening Day
Winter’s gone, let’s celebrate
Skipping school for the game
Got no choice, it’s in my D.N.A.
Baseball everyday ’til fall
Sing Spangled Stars, then let’s play ball
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Opening Day!
Opening Day!

Well it’s Opening Day
Winter’s gone, spring starts today
Skipping work for the game
Guess I’ll update my resume
From Japan to Canada
U.S.A. to Latin America
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Opening Day!
Opening Day!
This is the year we go all the way
It all starts on Opening Day

Well it’s Opening Day
Winter ended yesterday
Skipping school for the game
It’s a Red Sox Nation holiday
And the rockets’ red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Baseball everyday ’til fall
No more hot stove, let’s play ball
Yes it’s Opening Day
Life’s good again

Opening Day!

An 8 Year-Old’s Fantasy Baseball Draft: Emotion vs. Analysis

fantasy-baseball.jpgI started playing online fantasy baseball in about 1995 or so, and it’s now an annual tradition. Draft day has become a holiday on my calendar and is as eagerly anticipated as any day of the year. This year’s draft — my son’s first — will go down in history as my favorite of all-time, for it demonstrated the emotional hold that our beloved Red Sox players have over us, especially when we’re kids.

A Co-Manager Comes of Age

The last two years, my almost-nine year-old son has “co-managed” my fantasy baseball team with me (I’m in a 12-team Yahoo! league with my brothers, sister, father, and several close friends). The main impact of his co-management has been the reliable presence of Nomar Garciaparra on the roster and also in the starting lineup whenever he has been healthy. (“Daddy, put Nomar back in the lineup!”) Although my son was only five years old when Nomar was traded, #5 remains a god in our house.

backyard-and-hes-off.jpgThis past fall, my son managed his own fantasy football team against his dad, uncles, aunts, and grandparents and WON the league. He established himself as a draft wizard, grabbing Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, and Adrian Peterson with his top three picks. So, riding a wave of pride and optimism, in February he asked to manage his own fantasy baseball team. Confident that he was ready to compete with the big boys, we expanded the league to 13 teams.

The Draft: Peavy or Beckett? Sizemore or Ramirez?

We bought all the fantasy baseball magazines and studied them closely for a month. The day of the draft (7:30pm start time), I hurried home from work to be sure he was ready, and when I arrived, I was treated to a wonderful sight. He had created an information cockpit for himself at the computer. Surrounding his seat on all sides were stat sheets, handwritten draft lists for every position, articles about sleepers and busts, and various pages ripped out of magazines. “Daddy, I know who I’m going to pick if I get the first pick,” he proclaimed eagerly. “Jake Peavy!” (Peavy scored the most points in our league last year — so he was a logical choice.)

A few minutes later, the draft order was revealed on our Yahoo! draft site. My son had pick #3, and I had pick #4. “I really hope Peavy will still be there at number three!” he prayed. I set up shop at my laptop in a room adjacent to his cockpit.

jake-peavy.jpgAt 7:30pm sharp, the draft went live. Suddenly, A-Rod was gone. “Yes! He took A-Rod!” The second pick was… Jose Reyes. And the clock started ticking on my son’s pick, number three. He had 90 seconds to click on Jake Peavy. But he froze. Pick Peavy, I urged. “I don’t know, Daddy,” he said, struggling with a decision. “Maybe I want Josh Beckett.” Peavy’s a great pick, Beckett’s a great pick, I told him. 20 seconds left. Make your pick! “I want Josh Beckett.” Click.

Emotion trounced Analysis. How great is that??

Fast forward to the second round. My son had spent the rest of the first round studying his notes to figure out who to take next. “If he’s still available, I’m going to take Grady Sizemore with my second pick,” my son announced. Good choice, I assured him. Then came his turn to draft. And he froze. Pick Sizemore, I urged. “Daddy, do you think I should take Grady Sizemore or Manny Ramirez?” he asked. You’ll be able to get Manny in the next round, I assured him. Go for Sizemore this round. “Don’t tell me what to do!” he said curtly. And suddenly, Ramirez was Beckett’s fantasy teammate.

Emotion 2, Analysis 0.

Let’s jump to the third round. “I think I’m going to take Jonathan Papelbon,” he said. “Do you think that’s a good pick, Daddy?” He’s a great player, I told him, but no one’s going to pick a closer until the fifth round at the earliest. You can get him in a later papelbon-wins-series.jpground. “Don’t tell me what to do!” Click. Papelbon joined his Red Sox teammates on a roster that was looking more and more like a tribute to the posters on my son’s walls.

Emotion 3, Analysis zilch.

Fourth round — analysis had been totally abandoned and emotion had taken over. He wanted to pick Dustin Pedroia but I convinced him that Mike Lowell would be a better pick. And in the fifth round, he picked his first non-Red Sox player: Torii Hunter. By the end of the draft, his team included Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon, and of course, our favorite player of all time, Nomar Garciaparra (secured with his 24th, and final pick).

Clearly, my son drafted a good team. With Beckett, Ramirez, Papelbon, and Lowell anchoring his roster, he’s got as good a shot as anyone to win the league. But I’ll always remember all the research he did, all the logical planning and rational reasoning his left brain performed, and how the loyalty and emotion of his right brain – the side that loves the Red Sox – swooped in at those moments of truth and buried his analytical, stat-focused left brain. He’s eight. What a fantastic age to be a Red Sox fan!

And for the record, my first pick (#4 overall) was Johan Santana, and the only Red Sox player I secured was Coco Crisp. (My left brain is counting on him being traded, batting leadoff for a National League team, and winning the N.L. batting title…..)

Red Sox Nation is Flat, and other final thoughts from Japan

manny-hits-double-in-japan.jpgFinal reflections from Japan as I wait for the bus to the airport:

An Important Call From Home

Calls from the U.S. to Tokyo are expensive, so when I received a call from my wife on Tuesday morning (Monday night in the U.S., several hours after the Sox’ opening day victory), I knew it had to be about something important. “Your son wants to talk with you,” she said. Then my almost-nine year-old got on the phone. “Daddy, guess what, Manny Ramirez got me 8 points for my fantasy baseball team last night, and I’m in first place!”

OK, who wants to bet with me about who’s going to have more fun playing Fantasy Baseball this year?? (That was a priceless phone call.)

wally-yonamine.jpgWally Yonamine: The First Japanese Player to Hurry

This morning, I read that the first American born man to play in Japan (Wally Yonamine, Central League MVP in 1957, born in Hawaii) was the first professional player to sprint from home to first on ground balls (before him, Japanese pros jogged or walked – could Manny Ramirez possess the soul of an ancient Japanese baseball player?) and the first to break up double plays by sliding hard into second base. That helps explain why no one is ever in a hurry here in Japan.

I mean, I felt no need to wear my seatbelt in the taxis I rode in. You just have to trust me when I tell you that Tokyo drivers are the safest on the planet. No one’s driving is even remotely aggressive. This was a problem when I was in a rush to get to the Tokyo Dome to film some interviews with Japanese fans for NESN. In Boston, my half-hour trip would have been cut down to 10 minutes (at the expense of the safety of other drivers on the road). Drivers here are actually cooperative, as if the people in the cars around them are members of their family or close friends. (Let me be clear: I think this is awesome.)

interviews-with-japanese-fans.jpgInterviews with Japanese Baseball Fans

Before the second game of the Sox-A’s series, I had a chance to interview Japanese fans through an interpreter. Their answers to my questions were truly illuminating. First of all, three different people said, “Please take good care of Matsuzaka and Okajima” in response to my question, “Is there anything you want to tell the baseball fans back in the U.S.A?” Secondly, in response to my question, “What do you think of the U.S. fans who are here at Tokyo Dome?” all six of the fans I interviewed said, “We are grateful to the U.S. fans for coming here and showing their teams so much support.” Grateful is the key word. Several of the fans with whom I spoke said that their favorite Red Sox players were people other than Matsuzaka and Okajima (with Ramirez and Ortiz leading in popularity).

red-sox-nation-is-flat.jpgRed Sox Nation is Flat

Ladies and gentlemen, not only is the world flat, as Thomas Freedman’s book title declares, Red Sox Nation is flat. Although I don’t have a specific quotation to prove it, it’s obvious to all U.S. fans here that the Red Sox fans at Tokyo dome are true fans of the Red Sox, not just fans of their country’s stars playing in the Major Leagues. They talked about the history of the Red Sox, they talked about Fenway Park, and they talked about current players as knowledgably as a Boston fan would. “Manny’s my favorite player because he’s so goofy and relaxed, and a great hitter,” said one young fan wearing a Ramirez t-shirt. “I became a fan of the Red Sox because of Nomar Garciaparra” said another fan. “I love his style of play.”

One fan who believes my powers as VP of RSN are supreme bent my ear for five minutes, expressing her frustration that “the Yankees and Mariners games are all televised in Japan because Matsui and Ichiro are everyday players, but Red Sox games are only televised when Matsuzaka pitches. Can you change that?” She also let me know that MLB-TV doesn’t work in Japan. “All of Japan is a blackout area,” she said indignantly.

remy-orsillo-drew-and-others-in-japan.jpgQ&A With Ramirez, Remy, and Friends

The Red Sox hosted a luncheon for Red Sox fans in Tokyo on Wednesday, and after lunch we were surprised with special guests J.D. Drew, Alex Cora, Manny Delcarmen, Manny Ramirez, President Jerry Remy, and Don Orsillo. Obviously, Ramirez’s presence was electrifying. After they all signed autographs, there was time for a Q&A. Here are the highlights:

One fan asked all of them, “What’s surprised you most about being in Japan?” and Alex Cora immediately responded, “That Manny [Ramirez] made it here.” (laughter) “And by the way, his grandmother’s doing fine.”

Ramirez was asked who he considers to be the toughest pitcher to face in baseball, or which pitcher he fears the most. Manny thought for about five seconds, then responded jovially, “I’m ready. Nobody’s tough for me. I’m ready.”

One fan asked Don Orsillo to name the announcers who have been his biggest inspirations. He responded immediately, “Ken Coleman and Vin Scully.”

A fan asked Jerry Remy if, when he was a player, he ever thought he’d be a baseball TV announcer. “No, because I couldn’t put a sentence together then, and I still can’t.” (laughter) “I really have no idea how this happened!” Then Ramirez added, “When we all saw him playing, we knew he’d be an announcer.”

One fan asked Ramirez if he could please let us know which exact date he expects to hit is 500th home run. “Hey, my goal is to reach 500 this month.” (He currently has 492 career home runs.)

J.D. Drew was asked why the Red Sox don’t run more. “Well, we don’t have a lot of speed. (laughter) And I think we all saw how fast Manny is yesterday.” (laughter – Manny stood at home plate to admire his game-winning double before beginning to run, and was almost out sliding into second.)

When Ramirez was asked to make a prediction for this season, he said, “Man, I’m gonna lead the league in RBIs. AGAIN. (laughter) And we’re gonna repeat, we’re gonna do it again. We’re a DYNASTY.”

kid-red-sox-fans-in-japan.jpgJapan’s Social Culture is Highly Advanced

A Red Sox fan asked me this morning, “What’s been the most memorable moment of the trip for you?” My answer was, “Brandon Moss’s game-tying homerun (9th inning of Opening Day victory) and shaking Manny Ramirez’s hand.”

But I know that the more enduring memories of my trip to Tokyo will be about the people here and the stunningly advanced social culture of cooperation and respect for others. As one Japanese fan said to me in an interview, “We have learned a lot from American baseball players, but we think American players can learn a lot from how the Japanese play the game, as well.” This is absolutely true (the Japanese are obsessed with fundamentals and practicing), but in terms of what all Americans can learn from Japanese culture, the fan’s comment doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Opening Day “Wa”

(“Wa” is a Japanese term meaning “unity and team spirit.”)

japan-trip-sox-fans-celebrate.jpg

japan-trip-kid-fans-3.jpg 

japan-trip-nomar-fan.jpg

What a way to start the season! I officially lost my voice when Brandon Moss hit that game-tying home run in the top of the ninth inning off of Oakland’s ace reliever, Huston Street. How about that — a rookie gets an unexpected start on Opening Day japan-trip-sox-fan.jpgand makes it his best Major League game of his (short) career. Awesome.japan-trip-lugo-fan.jpg

Some observations about the fan experience:

1. I was very surprised at the relatively modest applause that Matsuzaka received at the beginning of the game. (When I say “relative,” I mean relativejapan-trip-nomo-fan.jpg to the kind of cheer that even someone like Dave japan-trip-father-and-daughter.jpgRoberts or Doug Mirabelli would receive upon returning to Fenway Park.) I expected the noise and excitement level to be so high, Tokyo Dome’s roof would blow off. Not even close. The fans’ applause was certainly enthusiastic, but definitely not memorable.

2. Once again, I was sort of unnerved by the total silence between pitches in thejapan-trip-clemens-fans.jpg first through third innings. Each pitch felt like (and sounded like) a serve at Wimbledon. All of us in the Red Sox Nation section half-expejapan-trip-mother-and-son.jpgcted an usher to kick us out when we cheered loudly for Youk, or Lowell, or whomever. But the place erupted when Okajima took the mound in the ninth, and the Dome stayed loudjapan-trip-varitek-fan.jpg after that (by “loud,” I mean “Fenway loud”).

3. The Japanese fans at Tokyo Dome were eager to celebrate with the fans from the U.S. during and after the game. They came over in waves to give us high-fives. While spontaneous, it was a very welcjapan-trip-drew-and-ortiz-fans.jpgoming gesture and an exhilarating cross-cultural experience for all invjapan-trip-kid-fans2.jpgolved.

4. You gotta love that after Manny was presented with the MVP Award (post-game ceremony), Hideki Okajima was presented with the “Fighting Spirit Award.” I read in Robert Whiting’s superb book on Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa, that “the emphasis on making thejapan-trip-pedro-fan.jpg effort is sjapan-trip-little-girl-fan.jpgo strong in Japan that how hard a man tries is considered by many to be the ultimate measure of his worth. Results are almost secondary.”

5. After seeing the variety of Red Sox players’ names and numbers on the backs of Japanese fans’ t-shirts, I do not buy into the idea that Japanese fans are only fans of the Red Sox because of Matsuzaka and Okajima or because we recently won two World Series. Yes,japan-trip-manny-and-jacoby-fans.jpg Daisuke’s and Okie’s shirts are popular, but equally popular are Ortiz and Ramirez shirts. And I saw severajapan-trip-kid-fans-4.jpgl Garciaparra shirts and Clemens (Red Sox) shirts. Being a huge Nomar fan myself, I went up to all those Japanese fans wearing #5 and japan-trip-as-fans-at-sox-as-game.jpgwe had little five-second Nomar parties. (“Nomaaaaaaah!”)

6. And finally, if I were Hank Steinbrenner, I’d be very worried about falling way behind in the japan-trip-sox-fans-5.jpgglobal competition for fans. He can call Red Sox Nation whatever he wants to call it, but it doesn’t change the facts. The Red Sox have become an irresistible international sportsjapan-trip-as-and-sox-fan.jpg franchise whose popularity transcends the particular names on the roster, and little children around the globe are growing up chanting “Let’s Go Red Sox!” before they’ve even heard the word Yankees. japan-trip-yankees-fan-at-sox-as-game.jpgCertainly Japan, as these photos show, is squarely in the center of Red Sox Nation (although I did see one bold Yankees fan, who politely allowed me to photograph him for this blog… and there were some A’s fans too… so in the spirit of journalistic integrity, here they are).

Rules of Tokyo Dome

japan-17.jpgI was told that the Japanese are rigid about rules, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I and about ten other Red Sox Nation members were barred from entering the Tokyo Dome with the rest of our group. Why were we not allowed to join our party to see the Red Sox’ afternoon workout? Because, you see, we were not wearing our Red Sox Nation badges around our necks. (We had left them at the hotel.) No badge, no entry, period.

Our tour guides explained in Japanese that we were legitimate members of the Red Sox group, but the security guards seemed genuinely puzzled — as though no one had ever, in the history of the Tokyo Dome, attempted to talk his way into the park. And yet, while refusing us admission, the security guards could not have been more polite and considerate. Still, rules are rules in Tokyo. No badge, no entry. Period.

japan-trip-18.jpgNow eventually, they did let us in, and the solution to the problem tells you more about Japanese culture than anything else I’ll write while I’m here. Several Japanese people working outside the dome with badges found out what was going on and handed us their security badges to borrow for two hours. As soon as I had Tomoko Hiragi’s badge around my neck, I was whisked into the Dome as if I were the President of Red Sox Nation. Amazing, no?

Itavarez-and-manny.jpgnside the dome, 150 of us crowded into the front two rows along the first base line and into deep right field to watch a baseball practice. Other than the fact that J.D. Drew entertained us with multiple bombs into the right field seats, there really isn’t much to report about the practice itself. They played catch. They fielded ground balls. They jogged a lot. They took B.P. Hey, it was their last practice before a grueling 162-game schedule, and they were just trying to stay loose.

But you know what I’ll remember about today’s practice? Billy Torres, a seventh grader from Swampscott. Billy’s dad, Bill, won an all-expenses paid trip for two to this opening series in a random drawing on WEEI and decided to bring his son with him. Today, Billy had a fan experience that will be difficult to top during his lifetime.

japan-trip-19.jpgStanding in the first row in right field’s foul territory with a glove on his hand, Billy was intent on getting a ball. Somehow. But the players were pretty much ignoring us, the security guards on the field (following a Tokyo Dome rule, no doubt) would not even pick up foul balls at their feet, and we were too far foul for any batting practice shots to reach us. So Billy took matters into his own hands and set out for the right field bleachers.

Good thing he didn’t know that fans aren’t allowed up there, or else he wouldn’t have grabbed a Manny Ramirez home run ball, then asked Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima in Japanese to sign his ball (a local TV reporter taught him the words). Both stars, who were standing on the warning track chatting during B.P., billy-torres-and-autographs.jpghappily obliged for the only kid near enough to them to get their attention. Billy threw them his ball and a pen, they signed, then they tossed them back. Seconds later, a polite security guard asked Billy to leave the bleachers and return to the group.

There really aren’t many things better than seeing a kid’s expression when he or she is breathlessly, speechlessly thrilled about getting a ball, an autograph, or both at a ball game. “Rob, this makes my whole trip!” he said to me. “I guess some rules are meant to be broken!”

Fenway Natives Invade Tokyo Dome

dsc07131.jpgNo time for sleep! Even though our bodies were craving some shut-eye, the Red Sox Nation crazies from the U.S. who are here in Japan boarded a bus at 5:30pm Sunday night (that’s 4:30am on Easter Sunday back home) to go see a ballgame.

On the bus, I sat next to Deanne from Melrose, an E.R. nurse at a hospital just outside of Boston and a single mom, who said she made a “spur of the moment decision to take a vacation and come to Opening Day in Japan.” Before we could have a real conversation, though, the bus was invaded by a TV crew from Tokyo’s TBS network and a bubbly young Japanese reporter wearing Red Sox gear and a lot of make-up. She asked us questions about our fanhood in broken English and before long we were chanting “Let’s Go Red Sox!” and yelling “Red Sox are number one!” in Japanese (she taught us these words). She even got us to sing a verse of “Sweet Caroline,” a song that she said is also very popular in Japan.

(At midnight last night, I caught the ten-minute piece TBS did on the Red Sox’ visit to Tokyo, and the first image was of yours truly jubilantly walking off the bus at the Tokyo Dome. It’s wild to see yourself on Japanese TV.)

Walking from the bus to the game, someone in our group reflected, “You know how we always see big groups of Japanese tourists roaming the streets of Boston? Well, that’s us.”

dsc07199.jpgOnce we got through the tight security at the Dome (close examination of everything in our bags and individual encounters with a metal-detecting wand), we found our seats just beyond third base, about halfway up, and settled in. I was fortunate to sit next to Red Sox Nation members who had come to Tokyo on their own, from very, very far away. To my right was Chris, who flew to Tokyo from his home in Thailand. Chris spent four years at Boston University and reflected that this was his first Red Sox game since 2001. “Only Wakefield and Varitek are left from the last team I cheered for at Fenway.”

To my left was Dalton Maine, whose plane from Chicago had gotten him to Tokyo just in time for this game. Before settling in Chicago, he grew up in Framingham and played minor league baseball in the Orioles’ organization. (With some probing, I learned he struck out Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, and Frank Thomas at different times in his pro career.) Dalton was there with his mom, Billie Maine, who recalled taking Dalton to his first game at Fenway when he was a little boy. “A player threw him a ball, and then he expected to get a ball at every game after that.” The player, Dalton informed me, was Royals pitcher Dennis Leonard.

When Dalton saw that I was taking notes about aspects of Japanese baseball that are different from Major League Baseball, he was very helpful in adding to my list. Here are some of our observations:

dsc07154.jpg1. The Japanese are obsessive about safety. 20-foot high nets line the first and third base lines (making it impossible for a fan to get hit by a low line drive); there are 2-3 rows of seats in front of these nets, and all children in these rows are required to wear a baseball helmet; the bat boys and ball boys wear helmets too and behave much more like Wimbledon ball boys, sprinting on and off the field like lightning bugs. japan-trip-12.jpgEvery time foul ball lands in the crowd, the loudspeakers make a “ding-dong” sound, and the message, “Please watch out for batted balls” flashes on the scoreboard. (It’s funny when there are 3 or 4 foul balls in a row, and this message is flashed over and over.)

2. I heard that Japanese fans are rabid and crazy, but here’s what I saw: there are about 200 fans (many wearing orange, others wearing yellow scarves, all banging drums) in the right field seats who sing and chant constantly, reminding me very much of the college football fans of Clemson University, and the rest of the stadium is virtually silent during most of the game. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it’s as quiet as the first tee at the dsc07203.jpgMasters prior to every pitch (unless the cheerleaders in right field haven’t finished their song yet). It’s not that fans are not allowed to make noise, but whereas there’s positive pressure at Fenway to yell, “Come on, Papi!”, at the Tokyo Dome, you’d be the only one doing so. (And when I did, I’m sure Papi could hear me loud and clear from 150 feet away.) And the fans never stand up, except when there’s a home run (thank you, J.D. Drew and Jed Lowrie).

3. The stadium is ultra-clean. When I told Dalton I imagined we could eat our dinner off the floor, he said, “Are you kidding? I’d rather have surgery on this floor than in a Chicago E.R.” I went to the bathroom for the first time in the 7th inning, and it had obviously just been cleaned minutes before. Either that, or no one else had used it before the 7th inning, either.

4. The hot dogs they sell in the stands are all individually wrapped in elegant cellophane envelopes. Quite a contrast to the (delicious) Fenway Franks that are removed from the mysterious, oily water and placed in buns before our very eyes back home.

japan-trip-11.jpg5. Beer is sold in the stands by girls wearing short skirts who appear to be between the ages of 15 and 21, and they carry very heavy canvas kegs on their backs, fill a cup, and hand it to you. A Japanese native explained to me that, to become a beer vendor, you have to pass a vigorous physical test. (Oh, and they also sell little bottles of hard alcohol.) All vendors are just about the most polite people you have ever met. And there’s a rule that vendors are only allowed to sell to the section on their right — so even if you’re sitting next to a vendor on the end of an aisle to her left, she can’t serve you unless she runs up her aisle and down another aisle to put you on her right. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but man, if this policy were implemented at Fenway, there’d be a revolution in the bleachers before the end of the top of the 1st inning.

It’s interesting to note that, although alcohol (of all kinds) is so readily available and freely imbibed at the Tokyo Dome, there is not a shred of drunken behavior in the stadium. Can you imagine attending a game at Fenway Park and not seeing anyone who has had too much to drink? Being at Tokyo Dome last night made me realize just how accustomed we have become to the “bar atmosphere” at Fenway (and they don’t even sell beer in the aisles there).

japan-trip-16.jpg6. When the Yomiuri Giants are in the field (and the Red Sox are at bat), all of the Giants’ bench players run out to foul territory in deep right field. They do calisthenics, active stretching, practice their swings (without a bat), and just stay physically active the entire half-inning. When their teammates get the third out, they all sprint back to the dugout and sit down on the bench. These Japanese guys are READY to take the field at any moment, and they are FOCUSED on playing baseball every minute of the game. (As opposed to the typical bench player in the U.S. who, according to Dalton, “Sits there for a couple of hours chewing sunflower seeds, shooting the breeze with his buddy.”)

dsc07182.jpg7. Under the stadium seats on the concourse, there are three small, glass “smoking rooms” that are jammed with fans staring up at the large flat screen TV through a thick, white fog. When the door opens and a fan enters or leaves, huge clouds billow through the doorway.

8. In the later innings, the Giants sent a pinch-hitter to the plate, and clearly it was his big day, because the fans broke out singing “Happy Birthday” to the player as he stood in the batter’s box. It’s clearly a tradition here to help players celebrate their birthday. “Friendly Fenway” isn’t quite there yet.

9. Generally, the Tokyo Dome uses the same cheering tunes we do in the U.S. (If I could hum them to you in this blog, you’d know them all.) But the voice that said “Charge!” at the end of that familiar trumpet blast could not have been mellower. And these fans get into “Y.M.C.A.” with the best of U.S. fans. When the popular song was blared in between innings, Japanese fans were standing, contorting their bodies into the letters as the song went along. The Japanese version of the song (which is not sung by the Village People) has them yelling, “Gimme a Y, gimme an M, gimme a C, gimme an A!” Is it not truly incredible that this song has infiltrated the culture of the world so thoroughly??

japan-trip-14.jpg10. Speaking of music, we were treated to “Sweet Caroline” in the 8th inning, and “Dirty Water” coursed through the stadium after the Sox had won (do you think The Standells received some royalties in yen last night?). I have to say, while I was impressed to see so many Sox fans singing Sweet Caroline at the top of their lungs, the song was definitely not as much fun for me to sing away from Fenway and without my kids being there with me. In fact, I think we might want to create a rule in Red Sox Nation against singing the song in large groups outside Fenway Park. It’s really not even close to being the same experience away from home (and away from my children, too).japan-trip-8.jpg

11. Like at Fenway, there were a lot of kids in the Tokyo Dome, and also like at Fenway, many of them were wearing Red Sox t-shirts. Of course, 75% of them were Matsuzaka and Okajima shirts, but I saw several Japanese kids around 10-12 years old wearing Ramirez and Ortiz shirts. Curiously, I don’t think I saw a single little girl at the game, except for the beer vendors.

12. Finally, the place truly came ALIVE when Hideki Okajima took the mound in relief. These Japanese fans ADORE the Major League players fjapan-trip-15.jpgrom their homeland. Now, this just was an exhibition game in March, but there were more flashbulbs going off for every pitch he made, and every pickoff throw to first base, than if it were the first pitch of the 7th game of the World Series. It was as if Babe Ruth himself had risen from the grave and was pitching for the first time in a century. The fan behind me quipped, “It’s like flashbulb spam.”

I missed the bus that brought us back to the hotel because I stayed at the Tokyo Dome a bit longer than others did to take a few more photos. So I took a cab (which, like all other cabs in Japan, was immaculate on the outside and inside) and arrived back here around 11:30pm Tokyo time. Walking to the elevators in an oddly quiet and deserted lobby, I suddenly noticed three men sitting at a small table, talking casually. There was David Ortiz wearing a black leather jacket and dark sunglasses. We made eye contact. I instinctively offered a “hello” gesture. He waved back.

He’s seen me in the lobby twice now. We’re pals.

Spring Training in Alaska

This is the first blog post in a series of posts I’ll be writing during my trip to Japan in my role as Vice President of Red Sox Nation.

Our JAL 747, loaded with excited Red Sox fans from across the U.S., took off from Logan Airport at 7:30am on Saturday morning and headed northwest. Destination: Tokyo, Japan.

But the trip to MLB’s Opening Day had a scheduled pit stop at the very edge of North America in the shadow of the continent’s highest peak, dsc07077.jpgMount McKinley (which can be seen on the horizon in this photo). After soaring over some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery during our approach into Anchorage International Airport, we touched down at 10:15am local time and de-planed while the plane was refueled.

Then, it was time to play some baseball.

At first, no one took my offer of playing catch seriously. I mean, who packs two Rawlings baseball gloves and a ball in their carry-on luggage for a 16-hour flight to the Far East? (Those of you out there who are either related to me, or know me from high school or college, know “Rob does.”) japan-trip-7.jpgBefore long, we had a crowd of people taking turns playing catch on the airport’s observation deck (which was, curiously, shaped exactly like a bullpen). And I gotta tell you, it was truly a rush to throw around a baseball in the 27-degree Alaska air at the foot of one of the most breathtaking mountain ranges any of us has ever seen.

“This is the first time the Red Sox have had Spring Training in Alaska!” quipped Red Sox COO Mike Dee, who threw some pretty nasty curveballs in his first baseball japan-trip-2.jpgworkout of the spring. Other front office folks took turns, including Chuck Steedman, Joe Januszewski, and Sam Kennedy, as did several members of Red Sox Nation, such as Dave Ross and Kevin Kempskie, both of whom work for EMC. I’m happy to report that all participants made accurate throws and skillful catches – despite the imposing distraction of Mount McKinley looming off to the north.

“When will I ever play another game of catch in Alaska?” reflected Steedman. Answer: never again. Is this the beginning of a string of once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the gang of Red Sox fans making the long trip to Opening Day in Japan? Answer: stay tuned.

I saw Papelbon and Big Papi in the lobby as we arrived. They appeared relaxed and comfortable in their new environment. “Hey, Regular Rob, what’s going on?” said Pap. “Yo Reg, how was your flight, man?” said Papi. (Actually, they looked right through me as we walked past each other.)

Tonight, we head to the Tokyo Dome for an exhibition game versus the Yomiuri Giants. I’m excited to see Japanese baseball first-hand, for the first time, and to meet members of Red Sox Nation from The Land of the Rising Sun…

Farewell Doug Mirabelli

mirabelli.jpgDoug Mirabelli had the best timing of any backup catcher in the history of major league baseball. He joined the Sox in the middle of the 2001 season, as the team hurtled towards its 83rd straight year of unfulfilled hopes, then celebrated a joyfully apocalyptic championship in 2004 and another for good measure in 2007. Upon his release yesterday, he left the Red Sox as one of only eight players who played on both championship clubs.

I’m a sentimental baseball fan, so I was truly saddened to hear the Sox had let Mirabelli go. But I trust Theo and Terry and I’m sure it was the right thing for the team.

What never ceases to surprise me, however, is how easily fans and media let someone like Doug Mirabelli just slide out of sight. He’ll get a short article in the Herald and Globe that will be primarily about how important Varitek is to the team, and the callers to our sports talk show radio stations today will say, “Doug was overweight and slow, and he couldn’t hit a lick, good riddance!” We obsess over these players and cheer for them like crazy, then when their usefulness is spent, we discard them like old cell phones.

I realize that every professional baseball player’s career must come to an end, and that they always come to an end while the player is relatively young (Doug is 37, and in the whole scheme of things, that is young). I realize that turnover in baseball is inevitable – and, ultimately, desirable. I realize that Mirabelli’s batting average dipped to .202 last season and would probably have dipped below the Mendoza Line this season. I’m not saying that releasing him was not a smart move.

But let’s give the guy his due. He was the only player capable of catching Wakefield’s wicked knuckleballs. He hit some dramatic, key home runs as a member of the Red Sox. He accepted his backup role with grace and appeared to be a good teammate, too. And most importantly, he was our backup catcher during the greatest era in Boston Red Sox history since the early 20th Century.

The former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once wrote, “The game breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion…”

“Of course, there are those who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever.”

mirabelli-and-kapler-on-duck-boat-2004.jpgI’m like Bart. There’s a part of me that wants to believe the illusion that that 2004 team can last forever; that the Wake and Dougie battery will be there every fifth day for eternity. And that part of me died a small death yesterday with the news of Mirabelli’s release. Of course, for Doug Mirabelli himself, the news has to be its own unique form of dying. It’s the end of the most magical period of his life. “Not a lot of fun for anybody,” said Terry Francona about breaking the news to Mirabelli prior to yesterday’s game.

Fireworks aren’t necessary, nor is the cover of Sports Illustrated. I get it. He’s not Brett Favre. But how about a heartfelt “standing O” for our #28? Those members of Red Sox Nation who have the good fortune of attending the Red Sox’ home opener, on April 8, will get their chance to applaud Mirabelli’s contributions to this franchise as he is introduced to receive his 2007 World Series ring (unless he’s playing for another team by then). Maybe we’ll get to hear Tim McGraw’s  “Live Like You Were Dying” one last time (the poignant song about making the most of every moment that Mirabelli chose to blare from Fenway’s loudspeakers every time he came to the plate). If you’re there that day, I hope you’ll cheer long and loud. Not just for Doug Mirabelli, but for all members of that great 2004 team who have slipped away silently from baseball; who, in the end, could not “resist the corrosion.”

Got Tickets?

red-sox-ticket.jpgA ticket to a Red Sox game. There’s nothing quite like holding one in your hands. It’s that sublime feeling of knowing a Fenway Park experience lies in your future. The anticipation is palpable. Regardless of whether the Sox eventually win or lose, with a ticket to a game, you’re guaranteed the thrill of watching Big Papi and Manny stride into the on-deck circle; the roar of the crowd following a spectacular defensive play; the majesty of the Green Monster looming in left field; two choruses of Sweet Caroline and its euphoric chant, “So Good! So Good! So Good!” And for many of us, there’s Fenway’s time-capsule quality that transports us back to our childhoods and reconnects us with our parents, or the spirits of our parents who have passed away, and re-ignites in us the joy of being alive.

And this was all true BEFORE the Red Sox ever won a World Series. Now, when we go to Fenway, we get to see the World Champions!

No wonder it’s so hard to get a ticket. Yes, demand for tickets is through the roof, and the Red Sox continue to price their tickets at levels well below “market value” in order to keep a Fenway Park experience accessible to the “average fan.” In addition, ticket supply is low – we have the smallest stadium in Major League Baseball and 81 home games just isn’t enough to satisfy our fans’ hunger. And as any college professor of economics will tell you, these three forces (along with complete lack of enforcement of scalping laws) make a “secondary market” for tickets inevitable. So that’s what we have in Red Sox Nation: a robust, flourishing, highly profitable ticket-booth-at-fenway.jpgmarket for Red Sox tickets that have already been sold once by the team.

Almost nobody loves the ticket reselling (“scalping”) industry. Yet, as I see it, there are only a handful of ways the Red Sox could combat ticket resellers, and almost all of them seem silly:

1) The Sox could price all seats at fair market value. That would mean a “dutch auction” for every ticket, which would lead to prices of at least $500 per seat for every game. Yes, that includes bleachers and standing room only. This would kill the reselling industry’s interest in Sox tickets because, theoretically, no ticket would be sold initially for an amount less than its highest potential bid.

2) The Red Sox could start to lose more games than they win, which would diminish demand.

3) The Red Sox could tear down Fenway and build a stadium with 100,000 seats. This would probably curtail demand (Fenway is an attraction, regardless of how well the team plays) and also increase ticket supply.

4) The Red Sox could petition Major League Baseball to play all their games at home. If they were successful, this would double the supply of tickets. Likewise, they could petition the league to play 50 home games against the Yankees, to make these tickets less special.

5) The Red Sox could revoke all season ticket holders’ seats. Season ticket holders are currently the biggest supplier of the “secondary market” (after all, who has time to attend every home game?) and putting more tickets back under control of the team would take a huge bite out of resellers’ inventory and would allow the Red Sox to find more “unique” fans to sell them to – fans who would be more likely to actually use the tickets rather than resell them.

6) The state of Massachusetts could enforce the law against reselling tickets at more than $2 of their face value. Which, it appears, will never happen.

Short of these drastic measures, however, there are proactive ways to combat the reselling industry and get tickets into the hands of “regular fans,” and the Red Sox use almost all of them. They:

1) Place strict ticket limits on ticket-buying customers (other than season ticket holders) to ensure a large number of “unique” buyers.ticket-scalper.jpg

2) Hold several “random drawings” before and during the season, which gives lucky fans the right to purchase online highly coveted Green Monster seats, Right Field Roof Deck seats, Yankee Game seats, and even playoff and World Series seats. (I have “won” Red Sox email drawings three times over the years, proving that it really does work.)

3) Host a “scalp-free zone” outside Fenway, which enables fans to sell their tickets at face value on the day of the game. Buyers of these tickets are required to enter Fenway immediately after buying a ticket, to ensure the tickets don’t get resold for a profit.

4) Sell “day of game” tickets at Gate E, beginning two hours before game time.

5) Announce the sale of new blocks of tickets at random times before and during the season.

6) Set technological traps to foil resellers in the online ticket-buying process.

Consider this: By keeping ticket prices well below their actual market value, the Red Sox are effectively offering “financial aid” to every person who buys a ticket directly from them. Absurd, you say? Not really. If the actual value of a particular ticket is $500 on the open market, and the Red Sox know this yet choose to sell this ticket for $80, they are purposefully offering financial aid of $420 to the buyer of that ticket. And they do this for the same reason that Harvard does it, or Andover, or any other expensive educational institution: because they don’t want their customer base to consist solely of wealthy people.

There’s a moral angle here, to be sure, but there’s also a long-term business angle. If the Sox were to maximize their profit now by selling tickets at their actual market value (which would terminate the secondary market for Sox tickets), the economic diversity of their fan base would diminish. Consequently, if the team were to hit hard times in the future (i.e., they begin to lose more games than they win… uncomfortable to imagine, I know), they would have a difficult time selling tickets at the exorbitant prices leftover from the glory days of 2008 and would probably have to slash prices. In addition, attracting back the millions of fans who were disillusioned by their lack of access to games might be a major challenge.

ace-tickets.jpgA few days ago, the Red Sox signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace Ticket and proclaimed them “the official ticket reseller of the Boston Red Sox.” Yes, it’s crummy that ANY team has an “official ticket reseller,” but to put in perspective how established the ticket reselling industry is in 2008, keep in mind that Major League Baseball itself has partnered with StubHub, another ticket reseller, as the official ticket reseller of Major League Baseball. The entire LEAGUE is profiting from the ticket reselling industry — it’s not just the Red Sox.

To the Red Sox’ credit, last year they instituted a program called “Red Sox Replay” that enabled season ticket holders to resell their tickets online at virtually face value (fans could log on and buy tickets at a markup of approximately 25%, a small percentage of which went to the Red Sox for maintenance of the site). But the moment MLB inked their exclusive deal with StubHub, the Sox were forced to tear down Replay, since it competed with StubHub’s interests. As Sam Kennedy, the Sox’ chief Marketing and Sales officer, told The Boston Globe earlier this week, without Replay, the Sox felt compelled “to identify and endorse a secure and reputable secondary market option” for their season ticket holders.

It’s also important to point out that the Red Sox have not provided Ace with “tickets for resale” as part of their deal, and the Sox do not stand to profit from a single ticket that Ace sells. This is a straight advertising deal – the team is simply accepting a large check from Ace Ticket for sponsorship (and, we trust, investing this back into the team on the field), and they have sent a letter to their season ticket holders recommending Ace Ticket as the team’s reseller of choice. That’s it.

ticket-line-at-fenway.jpgNow if Abe Lincoln owned the Red Sox, would he have signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace? No. What about A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former commissioner of baseball who was as principled a man as ever lived (he’s the guy who banned Pete Rose from baseball). Would Bart have signed a sponsorship agreement with Ace? Probably not. Abe and Bart would have eschewed any deal that appeared to link their team with scalpers.

On the other hand, neither of these men were successful businessmen, and neither would ever have been picked to run a major league baseball team. The Red Sox are not only our beloved Olde Towne Team, they are a business. “Good business” helped us win it all in 2004 and 2007, and good business will help us win in the future, as well. It’s hard to fault the business people at the Red Sox for pocketing an easy endorsement check (and offering a “benefit” for season ticket holders) when not doing so would (arguably) jeopardize our competitiveness in the American League East. The money the Sox are making from the Ace Ticket deal will help them put the highest quality team on the field for 2008 and beyond. Yup, winning really does have a steep price.

While down here in Fort Myers, I had a chance to talk about all of this with Ron Bumgarner, Red Sox VP of Ticketing, for about 30 minutes. And what I’ve concluded is that his job is different from that of every other VP of Ticketing at every other MLB franchise. While other teams are busy trying to sell as many tickets as they can at the highest possible prices, the Red Sox are trying to sell all of their tickets at a discount (theoretically) to as many unique, regular fans as is possible, and working assiduously to thwart ticket resellers at the same time (yes, even though they just advised their season ticket holders to sell their unused tickets to Ace, the Sox will continue to try to keep varitek-fan.jpgother individual tickets out of Ace’s and other resellers’ hands). Profit was Ron’s main concern when he ran ticketing for the San Diego Padres, but here at the Red Sox, profit takes a back seat to equitability and wide distribution of tickets across Red Sox Nation’s loyal citizenship.

And you just have to trust me when I tell you that Ron is committed to keeping Fenway accessible to “regular fans.” He has a couple of young children of his own, and I know he relates personally to the “regular fan” whose parents brought him/her to games at Fenway during childhood, and now wants to bring his/her kids to the park, too. “It’s a complicated problem,” Ron told me, “But since it means the Red Sox are winning games, it’s a good problem in the end.” Right?

A Father In Baseball Heaven

ted-williams-statue-at-city-of-palms-park-el-swifterino.jpgYou want to have a magical Red Sox experience in Fort Myers? You want to go to a place where the players are so close, they walk right past you and even say good morning? You want to give your kids a chance to fill a couple of baseballs with autographs? You want to watch the players stretch, play long-toss, practice pick-offs and and run-downs, and hear everything they say? You want to mingle with Red Sox legends?

Forget going to City of Palms Park, where the team that’s Boston-bound practices and plays. The crowds there are so huge, you can hardly blame the major leaguers for hiding in the batting cages out back. Instead, head down Edison Avenue about three miles, all the way to the end, to the Red Sox’ Minor League Complex. This morning, I strolled in there with two of my kids at 9:30am (admission is free), and for the next two hours, we (and the 30 other fans there) were in baseball heaven. Seriously.

As the players emerged from the locker room, every single one of them stopped to sign an autograph for my boys (ages 8 and 6) and to say hello. Most of the players are guys you’ve never heard of, but among them were notablspring-training-autographs.jpge prospects Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, and Joshua Papelbon, and former major leaguers Tom Goodwin and Billy McMillon. Did my kids even CARE who they were? Of course not — they were just thrilled to see pro ball players in Red Sox uniforms up close. VERY close.

The players split up into about six groups and headed out to six different fields to stretch and go through their daily drills. From the center of the complex, you can see all six fields, though it’s more fun to pick one field and study a subset of players. My boys and I brought our gloves and a ball, and on the lawn between fields, we tossed the ball to each other, practicing our fly balls and grounders, playing monkey in the middle, and just having a grand old time pretending we, too, were getting ready for the season. Which we were! (Me as a fan, and my boys as little leaguers.)

A groundskeeper driving past us in his golf cart stopped and handed a broken bat to each of my children. The bats had the words “Boston Red Sox” engraved on the barrels. Think they’ll ever forget that?

spring-training-broken-bats.jpgMy 8 year-old is savvy enough to know who Dwight Evans is, so when I pointed out Dewey to him as he walked from one field to another, my son ran over and politely asked him to sign his hat. #24 was more than happy to oblige, and he signed my 6 year-old’s hat, as well. “He’s one of the greatest right fielders of all time,” I told my kids as they gazed at their new autographs. “Lots of people say he should be in the Hall of Fame.”

Tommy Harper was there, too. And Dick Berardino. And Frank Malzone. All of them walking among the handful of fans who were there and all of them pleased as punch to sign an autograph for a kid or pose for a photo.

At one point, while watching players practice first-and-third double-steal coverages, a toddler who was near me started to cry loudly. One of the Red Sox catchers involved in the drill trotted over with a baseball, gave it to me, and said, “Give this to the kid, it should stop the crying.” I made the delivery and, he was right, the tears turned to smiles.

At 11:30am, we left the minor league complex and drove down the street to watch the big leaguers play in a 1pm game versus the New York Mets. We had a splendid time and the boys loved starting the “Let’s Go Red Sox!” cheers and clapping for Manny and Youk every time they stepped to the plate. But the game will probably fade quickly from their memories. Afterwards in the car, all they could talk about was their exciting morning among the minor leaguers and former pros, and when they called Grandma to tell her about the day, that’s what they raved about. “I met Dwight Evans! And you know what? The minor leaguers do the same drills we do in little league! Can you believe it?”

I think you understand. Today I was a father in Baseball Heaven.

It’s A Red Sox Universe

Young_sox_fans I have no doubt that my Red Sox childhood (which really began in 1976, when I was 7) was enhanced by the existence – and personality – of George Steinbrenner. (And Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, for that matter.) Red Sox Universe is an epic, and every epic needs a legitimate villain. I have to admit, I didn’t even notice that Red Sox Universe was starting to get slightly bland until George’s son decided to speak his mind. I agree with Dan Shaughnessy, who writes in today’s Boston Globe, “Hank is definitely going to be good for the rivalry,” and “Having Hank on board is certainly a beautiful thing.”

Buzzemperorzurg1 What would Oz be without the Wicked Witch of the West? What would Neverland be without Captain Hook? What would the Galactic Republic be without Jabba the Hutt and Darth Vader? What would Buzz Lightyear’s Intergalactic Alliance be without Emperor Zurg? What would Dora the Explorer be without Swiper the Fox or the Troll? (Those last couple of metaphors are targeted to Red Sox Kid Nation, five of whom I spend all my time with every weekend, at home.)

I’m so happy for my kids that there’s another Steinbrenner running the Yanks. Every kid in Red Sox Universe deserves a full-blown, emotionally charged rivalry, and Hank promises to inject that element we didn’t even know we craved.

Does Hank have kids that will take over in 20 years? Is there a chance this epic drama could extend to my grandchildren’s Red Sox childhoods? I certainly hope so.

The Red Sox Go To Washington

ortiz-and-trophy.jpgBeing Vice President of Red Sox Nation is like being dropped into an alternative universe where you wake up some mornings and say, “I had the craziest dream,” and then you realize, it wasn’t a dream at all, and whatever dreams I DID have couldn’t have been as wild as the reality.

Today will go down as one of those days. I woke up in my bed in Boston, left my five children and wife sleeping to catch a 7am flight to Washington, D.C., drove to the Supreme Court building where Red Sox Nation President Jerry Remy and I were officially sworn in by Justice Stephen Breyer in his chambers during his short break from a hearing on the Exxon Valdez case (with Larry Lucchino and John Henry at our side), drove over to the White House for a tour with Red Sox owners, front office personnel, and members of their families, then went outside to join over 1,000 members of Red Sox Nation on the South Lawn, sitting in the second row behind Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, to see the Red Sox line up behind President George W. Bush for a special ceremony honoring the World Champions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t invited to join the team when they visited Walter Reed Memorial Hospital after the White House visit, but I hear it was quite a memorable, meaningful experience for the players and the patients.

As for the part of the day I was privileged to be involved in, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

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The Vice-President and President of Red Sox Nation leave the Supreme Court after being sworn in by Justice Breyer (a die-hard Sox fan). Our pledge: “I, Gerald Peter Remy [and Robert Crawford], do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President [and Vice-President] of Red Sox Nation. I pledge to be true to the game, true to our fans, and to the best of my ability preserve, protect and promote all that is great about the beloved sport of baseball and the Boston Red Sox.”

Abraham_lincoln_portrait_in_white_house

Regardless of your politics, it’s pretty humbling to walk through the White House and think about the fact that Abraham Lincoln (whom you KNOW would have been a huge baseball fan) lived in and directed the Civil War from there.

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Red Sox Nation congregates on the South Lawn. This photo was taken from inside the Blue Room during our tour of the White House, about 45 minutes before the ceremony with the team.

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More than 1,000 members of Red Sox Nation await the arrival of the World Champion Boston Red Sox and the President and Vice-President of the United States — including Senator John Kerry and writer Mike Barnicle (who, when he writes about baseball, is right up there with the best of baseball writers).

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This is me with a couple of loyal members of Red Sox Kid Nation from Kensington, Maryland who got there early and were right up front — Quentin and Bryce Auster. What a blast for all of us who had the good fortune of applauding the Sox at the White House!

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Back at Logan Airport after the trip to D.C., we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by members of the United Airlines staff, who had confiscated our historic Fenway Park brick while going through security in the morning. We had wanted to use the brick for the swearing-in ceremony, but instead, Rem Dawg and I placed our left hands on an Offical Major League Baseball, imprinted with a gold Red Sox logo, that Justice Breyer had sitting on his desk. (Like I said, he’s a true fan.) Pictured here are Michael Castro (United Airlines), Mardi Fuller (Red Sox), Regular Rob, Debbie Neal (United Airlines), and Joe Januszewski (Red Sox).

Quotes of the day:

1. From Red Sox Vice President Chuck Steedman, next to whom I sat at lunch in a White House dining room: “They don’t do this [fun stuff] for teams that come in second.”

2. From George Bush: “I see Manny’s not here. I guess his grandmother died again. Just kidding. Tell Manny I didn’t mean it. But I do want to quote him. He said, “When you don’t feel goocheney-bush-pap-lowell.jpgd, and you still get hits, that’s when you know you’re a bad man.” (Laughter.) I don’t know what that means. (Laughter.) But if bad man means good hitter, he’s a really bad man.”

3. From George Bush: “Red Sox Nation extends beyond the South Lawn, extends beyond New England — it obviously goes to the Caribbean and even the Far East. So we welcome Japan’s Daisuke Matsuzaka here to the South Lawn. His press corps is bigger than mine. And we both have trouble answering questions in English.”

For the full text of Bush’s speech (it was pretty good, actually), click here.

And certainly, one of the great highlights of the day was getting home in time to tuck in my 8 year-old son and present to him a ball autographed by Josh Beckett. “AWESOME, DADDY!” and to tuck in my 5 year-old son and present to him a ball with George Bush’s autograph imprinted on it: “This is perfect, Daddy, since I don’t really like baseball, but I really like famous people! And clean baseballs!”

What I Love About Baseball

baseball-bats-and-batting-glove.jpgThe leathery-dirt smell of a Rawlings baseball glove. The feel of a high-seamed baseball under my fingertips. Kids imitating their heroes’ batting stances. Defensive replacements in the 9th inning. The allure of an expansive green lawn. The thwack of a fastball slamming into a catcher’s mitt. Luis Tiant. The count. Inches. Emphatic umpire’s calls. Outfielders throwing bullets over long distances to a precise point in space. The pivot at second base. Stealing third. A catcher nailing a would-be base-stealer at third. Acrobatic centerfielders. Baserunners flying at full speed at the crack of the bat, with less than two outs, knowing the line drive will drop in. Earl Weaver. Fielders balanced on the balls father-and-boys-outside-fenway.jpgof their feet as the pitch is delivered, imagining infinite possible outcomes. It’s every day. The black of the plate. Jason Varitek. No-hitters. Extra infield work. Broken-bat singles that end a slump. A perfectly executed suicide squeeze. A totally botched suicide squeeze. Anticipation and hope in the bottom of the ninth inning. Peter Gammons’ old baseball columns in the Sunday Globe. Big league dreams in the imagination of a nine year-old. The scoop at first base. A pick-off at second base, in slow motion. Taking the first pitch, all the way. Taking the 2-0 pitch, all the way. Purposefully moving the runner over. Catchers who frame the pitch just inches off the plate, and umpires who don’t fall for it. Jackie Robinson. Two-out RBI hits by the player the pitcher preferred to face, following an intentional walk. Meaningless chatter when managers visit pitchers on the mound, and umpires who go out to “break it up” after ten seconds. Dewey nailing a baserunner at third. Batters who sprint to first base after getting drilled in the back, expressionless. Stealing home. Catchers who back-up first base. Curt Schilling in the post-season. A 3-2 change-up….three times in a row. Grown men playing a child’s game. The Red Sox. Players who talk to, smile at, or wink at fans while in the on-deck circle. Catchers who block the plate, and baserunners who barrel into first-base-line.jpgcatchers blocking the plate. Old men and women who keep score, every game. The marvelous sensation of my bat connecting with a ball on the sweet spot. Listening to the game on the radio – in my car, in my kitchen, on the beach. Take Me Out To The Ballgame. Fenway. Wrigley. Eliot Playground in Brookline. Hot dogs. Kids who wear their gloves in the stands and expect to catch a foul ball. Putting on a baseball cap and transforming into myself. Pennant races. Dr. Charles Steinberg’s “Path of the Fan Experience.” Pitchers who use numerous arm angles. The knuckleball. Baseball Tonight on ESPN. The expression on a kid’s face when he/she walks up the ramp into a major league baseball stadium for the first time. Cal Ripken. Poring over the sports section, 365 mornings a year. Fathers and mothers playing catch with sons and daughters in the driveway. Hitting fungos to my brother on a 90-degree day…. just one more. Rem Dog’s astute color analysis. The first practice of the little league season, when kids get their t-shirts and begin to bond with their uniform number. Tommy Lasorda. Sunflower seeds. Eye black. Pitchers who show no emotion. Overly emotional pitchers. Batting averages. Box scores. When the home team trots onto the field in the top of the first inning. Francisco Cabrera and Sid Bream. Grown men and women wearing shirts with the names of their favorite players on the back. Ticket stubs in my little-leaguer-1976-photo.jpgfather’s mirror over his dresser. Kids seeing “the wave” for the first time. Fans high-fiving perfect strangers around them after a home run. Barehanded plays. Taking the whole family to see a minor league game, in good seats. Dirt dogs. Relief pitchers who sprint in from the bullpen to the mound. Starting pitchers who stay in the dugout after they’ve left the game. October. When someone in the dugout throws a ball to the first baseman who’s running off the field. Nolan Ryan. Pinch hitters. Double-switches. Pine tar. Batting gloves in the back pocket. Ripped uniform pants. Spectators at “over-40” amateur baseball games. High schoolers who can hit 90 on the radar gun. Pitchers who shake off three or more catcher’s signals. Catchers who call time out to tell pitchers who shake off their signals to throw the damn pitch they called. Dan Gladden. Complete games. The words, “I can’t use my tickets tonight, would you like to go to the game?” Homers that clang off the foul pole. Opening Day. Vin Scully. Joe Garagiola. Curt Gowdy. Ned Martin and Jim Woods. Jon Miller. Deer-in-the-headlights pitchers on the mound for the other team in critical situations. Manaroberts-steals-second.jpggers who go out to argue with the intent of getting tossed. Knee-buckling curveballs. Home team pitchers who induce a swing-and-a-miss on a fastball that everyone in the stadium knew was coming. Taped fingers. Trivia. Opinions about who belongs in the Hall of Fame. Derek Jeter. Dave Roberts. Anything can happen. Triple plays. A walk-off balk. The hyperventilating rush of watching a ball I’ve hit curl down the third base-line for a potential double. Bill James’ Baseball Abstract. The day pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. Game 7s. The authenticity and excitement of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Rookies making their first major league appearance. Watching the game from “standing room only” and feeling as lucky as anyone in box seats. Wiffleball. little-leaguers-on-the-bench.jpgMemories of my own glory days and goat days on the diamond. Players who sign autographs for kids… all the time. When a left-handed hitter strokes a hit off a left-handed reliever who was brought in to face one batter. Pitchers instinctively covering first base on ground balls hit to the right side. Pitchers who back-up third. Ichiro. Hot stove talk in December. Trade offers in fantasy baseball. Those incredibly rare little league coaches who make every kid feel special and aren’t in it for their own competitive reasons. Holding tickets to Fenway in my hand. Hitting streaks kept alive on the final at-bat. Player superstitions. Rally caps. Baseball card collections in shoe boxes. Ninth-inning miracles. Outfielders who get a jump on the ball before it’s even hit. The bleachers. Taking the T to the game. Curses obliterated. Pepper. Former power pitchers winning with finesse. Holding a 32 or 33-inch bat in my hands. Hitters battling the twilight shadows between home plate and the pitcher’s mound. Managers who don’t believe in “letting the pitcher work himself out of a jam.” When ball girls, ball boys, and base coaches toss foul balls to kids in the crowd. Kirk Gibson.

What would you add to this list?

Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and the Red Sox

jackie-robinson.jpgOn Friday night, February 1, the day after Jackie Robinson‘s would-be 89th birthday, I attended the Red Sox’s celebration of his life in the EMC Club at Fenway Park. The event featured a panel of speakers, the star of which was the legendary basketball hall of famer, Bill Russell (who, on February 12, celebrated his 74th birthday). Russell, one of the greatest Celtics of all time, shared some memorable stories and insights (transcribed below), but first, panelist and author Steve Jacobson reminded us about Jackie Robinson’s own connection to Boston – one that is painful for members of Red Sox Nation to hear.

pumpsie-green-1960-baseball-card.jpgIt is fitting and ironic that the Red Sox are the only team that formally celebrates Robinson’s birthday, for while the Red Sox were the last team to field a black player (Pumpsie Green in 1959, three years after Robinson’s baseball career ended), the Sox were the first team to give Jackie Robinson a major league “tryout” – in April 1945, two years before he was named Rookie of the Year as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Of course, the tryout was a sham, and it only happened because of public pressure that was thrust on the Red Sox by Boston city councilman, Isadore Muchnik, who threatened to revoke the Red Sox’s permit to play Sunday games at Fenway Park unless the Red Sox offered a tryout to three black players. Those players were Marvin Williams, Sam Jethroe, and Jackie Robinson.

tom-yawkey.jpg“The workout was supposed to be supervised by four Red Sox hall of famers,” writes Jacobson in his new book, Carrying Jackie’s Torch. “Joe Cronin, the manager; 78 year-old Hugh Duffy, a coach; owner Tom Yawkey, a South Carolina lumberman; and Eddie Collins, the general manager. Cronin refused to give an evaluation of the players he’d seen. Duffy said one workout wasn’t enough. Yawkey said any judgment had to come from his baseball people. And Collins said he couldn’t be there because of a previous engagement. Don’t call us, we’ll call you — and the Red Sox never did call.”

It’s mind boggling that the Red Sox had “first dibs” on Jackie Robinson. Can you imagine how different Red Sox history would be — indeed, Boston history — if Jackie Robinson had played second base at Fenway from 1945 to 1956? Writes Jacobson: “The Red Sox, who won the American League pennant in 1946, the last year of the all-white major leagues, did not win another pennant until 1967. The effect was clear.”

I didn’t know the whole story of Robinson’s bogus tryout with the Red Sox until Jacobson retold the tale. And when he was finished speaking, it was Bill Russell’s turn. I took notes of everything Russell said, and I’ve done my best to represent his words below.

bill-russell-2-2-1-08.jpg“I’m proud to be here tonight, and I’m so glad the Red Sox are honoring Jackie Robinson on his 79th birthday, and anytime the Red Sox want me to be part of something honoring him, I’d be glad to do so, even though I live in Seattle and you can’t get here from there.”

“I remember Jackie liked to bunt the ball down the first base line – that meant the pitcher would have to run over and field the ball as Jackie ran past, and Jackie was a football player….” Bill Russell smiled. “Slight collision!”

“The day after Jackie died, I got a call from Rachel Robinson, and she asked me to be one of the pallbearers in Jackie’s funeral. And I asked her, ‘Rachel, why would you ask me?’ And she said, “Bill, you were Jackie’s favorite athlete.” And when I hung up the phone, I remember thinking, “How does a man get to be a hero to Jackie Robinson?

“There were people along the way who tried to discourage me. But I lived a charmed life, because there were many people – black, white, Jewish, Christian – who pushed me forward, too. My high school basketball coach was one of those people. [Russell mentioned that Frank Robinson and Curt Flood attended his high school in Oakland at the same Russell was there.] He just looked at kids and saw baseball players or basketball players. And that’s what I encountered in Boston with Walter Brown and my coach – and my friend – Red Auerbach.”

bill-russell-and-red-auerbach.jpg“Now I came to Boston believing I was the best player in the land. But I didn’t get along with my college coach [at University of San Francisco] for one single day – yet we managed to win 55 straight games and two straight NCAA championships. And my Olympic coach was from Tulsa, and we didn’t get along at all, either – but we won the gold medal. So when I came to Boston, I expected not to get along with the coach. But the first time I met Red, he said, ‘You’re among friends.’

“I was with a friend of mine in an airport and a stranger came up to me and said, ‘You’re tall. Are you a basketball player?’ and I replied, ‘No.’ Then another person came up to me and asked, Are you a basketball player?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’ So my friend asked me, ‘Bill, why do you keep telling them no?’ And I told him, ‘Because basketball is what I do, but it’s not who I am.’

At one point, a woman stood and asked a question about what Bill Russell thought about urban kids all wanting to become athletes or entertainers, like the heroes they most admire. Bill’s response:

“I think it’s a myth that black kids today all just want to be athletes or entertainers. And my view is, we shouldn’t discourage kids from wanting to be special. I teach that we have to make changes inside-out rather than outside-in. I tell kids if you do work hard and use your intelligence, there are people who will give you a helping hand. But just giving help all the time [outside-in] can become a negative.”

“I don’t see any problem with a kid wanting to be an athlete or an entertainer, and I reject that the only thing all these athletes are teaching kids is to be athletes and entertainers. That’s just not true. You know, almost all of the best players in the NBA have foundations and are doing a lot of work with kids in the community – almost all of the best players – and we rarely hear about that, but it’s true. And these players are teaching kids a lot more than how to be a professional athlete or entertainer.”

russell-ali-brown-jabbar.jpg“In schools across the country, physical education programs are being cut as budgets are slashed. And this is a big problem. P.E. programs aren’t about creating pro athletes, they’re about creating healthy people. In my case, I have a mild case of diabetes, and my doctor tells me that the only reason it’s not severe is because of the active life I led in my youth and young adulthood. Mind and body are both important in a child’s education.”

“I remember the first time my mother said we could play in our front yard. Until that time, we had only been allowed to play in our back yard, but then one day my mother said we could play in the front. But she said to us, ‘Now people may walk by on the sidewalk, and some of them may say things to you. Some of the things they say may be good things, some of them may be bad. But whatever they say, don’t pay any attention to it. Remember, they don’t know you. And when they say bad things, that’s their problem, and they’re wrestling with their own demons.’ So, growing up, I was determined that no one would stop me. Particularly no one I didn’t know.”

“My daughter was one of Professor Ogletree’s students [at Harvard Law School – Ogletree moderated the evening], and her mom and I went our separate ways when she was 12 years old. So there I was, a single parent with a 12 year-old girl, and to this day, it’s been the single greatest adventure of my life. And back when she was 12, I made two promises to my daughter: 1. I will love you ’til I die. 2. When you leave this house, you’ll be able to take care of yourself better than any many you’ll ever meet. And I told her that because I wanted her to feel the same way my parents made me feel. And that’s what I’m trying to do today with kids – to teach them to have confidence in themselves and not to be afraid. Jackie Robinson was never motivated by fear. He didn’t see obstacles, he only saw opportunities, and he saw every challenge as a chance to show what he could do.”

“I’m looking forward to the next great baseball player, but I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t care what color he is.”

red-sox-retired-numbers.jpgThe Red Sox will never shed the facts of the team’s racist history; but the birthday party at Fenway for Jackie Robinson, featuring Bill Russell — not to mention our two World Championship teams featuring players from a variety cultural backgrounds – shows that those facts truly are history. History to be remembered, but never to be repeated.

Roger Clemens: Fascinating Theater, and That’s All

roger-clemens-1984.jpgI remember the first time I ever heard about Roger Clemens. It was the early ’80s, I was around 14 years old, and my dad was sitting at our kitchen table reading the Boston Globe sports section aloud, telling about the excitement surrounding a pitcher the Red Sox had drafted out of the University of Texas. The article said Clemens threw heat and that he had Hall of Fame potential. I still remember how that name sounded the first time I heard roger-clemens-big-guy-at-the-plate.jpgit. It sounded like raw talent. It sounded like an ace of spades. It sounded like hope for a franchise desperate to win a World Series. Today, the sound of Roger Clemens’ name has a different ring to it.

Like everyone out there, I have a gut feeling about whether or not Roger Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs. And my gut feeling has been the same for several years, since long before I ever heard of Brian McNamee. The ridiculous improvement of Clemens’ statistics as he got older (especially after his mid-career demise between 1993-1996) says a lot.

But the current public grilling of Roger Clemens serves only one purpose, really. It’s great theater. Riveting entertainment. Clemens is arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher of all-time (his 7 Cy Young Awards are a record) and we all find it fascinating to watch him fight desperately to save his reputation — and his wife’s — with the same competitiveness and bullheadedness that made him a superstar. Yup, it’s fascinating in an O.J. Simpson kind of way.

clemens-hits-manny.jpgYet I can’t think of one reason why it makes any difference whether we ever learn whether Clemens used something, or not (other than to save the credibility of whichever of the two is telling the truth). We already know that performance-enhancing drugs have been part of the culture of baseball in the sport’s recent history. Every team had users. The outcome of every game over the last ten years was probably affected in some way by steroids or HGH. That’s all that really matters to me as a passionate fan of the game. Baseball needs to be cleaned up. Period.

The objective of the Mitchell Report was not to implicate players, it was to reveal the degree to which performance-enhancing drugs have infiltrated the game and to recommend steps to recover the game’s integrity. So can someone tell me how the conversation has degenerated into this made-for-TV-ratings soap opera that has nothing to do with the Mitchell Report’s original intention?

And why does Congress care so much about whether Clemens or McNamee is telling the truth? I don’t get it. Aren’t there many, many more important things for our elected government officials to be worrying about than whether or not Roger Clemens stuck neroger-clemens-red-sox.jpgedles in his butt? Have these U.S. representatives been sucked into this story for the same reasons we’ve all been sucked in — by a fascination with the potential meteoric downfall of one of the most famous athletes of our time, and by the magnitude of the story? How did that hearing today help the people of the United States of America?

So, either Clemens or McNamee is lying. None of us can help but have an opinion about this debate. But unless you make your living from tabloid journalism or you happen to be closely related to Clemens or McNamee, the issue is really irrelevant. Let’s move on. After all, Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers TOMORROW (Thursday, February 14). Rejoice!

The Meaning of the 2007 Patriots

bruschi-and-vrabel.jpgI don’t buy it.

Everyone says the Patriots’ season became meaningless when they lost the Super Bowl to the Giants. All the wins, all the records, all the great feats of 2007 — up in smoke with one pass to Plaxico Burress.

But you know what? I don’t buy into that. And you don’t have to, either. We live in a society that has decided to shower the “winners” with a ridiculously disproportionate level of praise and credit and to strip all value from every other competitor or team that didn’t reach the mountaintop (where there’s only room for one). I don’t really know why we’ve decided to see things that way, but I, for one, particularly in this specific case, do not buy it.

Yes, the Giants won the Super Bowl. They are the Super Bowl Champions. They are to be commended. They earned it. They deserve it. They and their fans should feel awesome. The Patriots did not win the Super Bowl. But the Patriots of 2007 are still one of the greatest NFL teams of all time. And the 2007 Giants are not.

Now I hear you saying: “You can’t consider a team to be the best ever if they didn’t win the championship – you fool!” But that’s only true if we buy into what pop culture has drilled into us since we were tiny tots crawling on the floor in front of Sunday afternoon football games on TV. We have been taught since we were born that only the winner can feel proud, and that every team or competitor that doesn’t win failed. And by God, if you don’t win the big game, well, you’re just a footnote and nothing more. LOSER!

But do you really believe that about the 2007 Patriots? Isn’t part of thetom-brady.jpg reason that it’s so hard for us to make sense of their Super Bowl loss that there’s a deeper part of us that KNOWS they had a truly remarkable season and that they were still — by far — the best football team in the league this year — and THIS DECADE? And this deeper part of us (I’m talking to you, Pats fans) knows they still deserve a parade in Boston. And this deeper part of us ACHES to go to that parade and to cheer for them for playing so incredibly well this year, for giving us a feeling we’ve literally never had before with any team in Boston — a complete, unassailable belief that we are invincible.

OK, so that feeling of invincibility ended up vanishing with less than a minute left in the Super Bowl, but that feeling was still quite a thrill, quite a gift to all of us in Patriots (and Red Sox) Nation. And even in losing to the Giants, the Patriots played with a level of effort that deserves our admiration. So they lost. Does that mean we abandon them? Is the only reason we loved them that they kept ending up with more points than the other team when the game was over? Was that really the only stinking reason?

No. For me, it was more than that. And maybe I didn’t realize that fact until they lost to the Giants. Their wins were a reflection of their beautiful excellence. And I loved them because of their beautiful excellence. Before this season, I always thought of thewes-welker.jpg 1986 Chicago Bears as the greatest NFL team ever. (They were 18-1 too. But their loss came during the regular season, so we don’t hold it against them.) But if I could pick one team in history to win one game against ANY team, I would pick the 2007 Patriots (with a healthy Tom Brady). And you know all the TV sportscasters WANT to say the same thing (because deep down, they know it’s true), but they are afraid to because they know they’ll get ridiculed (as I will) for praising a team that “lost the big one.” They’ll get ridiculed (as I will) for going against the code of our society that says, “Only the winners of the Super Bowl can hold their heads high.” That’s just hogwash. And declaring it so helps me deal with their loss. It relieves some of the pain. It sustains my appreciation of the Patriots, and that feels good. (Try it!)

So, what’s the meaning of the 2007 Patriots? That you can still be considered one of the greatest teams of all time and LOSE the big game. That no team, no competitor is invincible. (When I yelled at the TV, “Why did you miss that??” as Samuel dropped that potential interception on Manning’s final drive, my 8 year-old son said to me, “Because he’s human, Daddy.”) That you can still be considered a “winner” by fans and by commentators even if you come in second. And that, if you choose to buy in to the “rule” that only one team and one set of fans has the right to feel good at the end of the season — well, that’s a rule that’s going to give you a lot of pain in your life.

randy-moss.jpgYeah, I’m incredibly disappointed that the Patriots lost. Still stunned. A little numb. No doubt, winning is better than losing. But I won’t line up behind the people that want to just forget about them. The 2007 New England Patriots were awesome. And one play with 0:35 seconds left doesn’t eradicate an entire season of jaw-dropping performance. Unless you decide that it does. But I just don’t buy it.

Bobby Knight Was My Catcher

catcher-pitcher-conference.jpgLast night I was interviewed on a local cable TV show called The Boston Baseball Heads Show. We talked a little bit about Red Sox Nation, but what I enjoyed most was reminiscing about my years pitching in Boston’s Yawkey Amateur Baseball League, during the 1990s. The host of the show, Dave McKay, is the president of the league and a former manager of one of the teams I used to pitch against, McKay Club.

Even when I was a player on Avi Nelson Club, I hardly ever talked about the team or about playing baseball when I wasn’t at the park with my teammates. Why? No one else wanted to hear about my stupid baseball team. It just wasn’t interesting to anyone else. But man, I thought about pitching ALL THE TIME during those years, and I was obsessed with winning the championship (during my ten years, we never made it past the semi-finals). So it was such a pleasure to actually be ASKED by Dave McKay to talk about pitching and my memories of playing in the Yawkey League. And yet, the brevity of the interview left so many stories and memories untold. Hey, I guess that’s why blogs exist…

One of my favorite memories is of our catcher, Greg, and the things he said to me during our pitcher’s mound conferences. He only called time-out for these meetings when I’d misread one of his signals and thrown the “wrong” pitch, or when I had hit a batter on an 0-2 count, or when I had walked a couple of batters in a row, or when I had started talking back to players who were trying to “rattle” me with trash talk. Greg would walk out to me slowly, and I’d start smiling, bracing myself for the next chapter in an almost comical pitcher-catcher relationship.

Now Greg was one of the older guys on the team. I was about 25, and he was perhaps 38 (which was ancient to me). A little overweight, creaky knees, graying beard, balding. He’d played on lots of teams during his lifetime and somehow he’d hooked on with us. He’d lost some zip on his throws and his mighty swing wasn’t fluid anymore, but you could tell that he had once been great. Every now and then, he’d hit a home run that would make everyone’s jaw drop. And he’d just trot around the bases, expressionless, then walk back to the bench and start putting on his equipment, already focused on the next inning. He seemed to play baseball with a silent, personal vengeance.

bobby-knight.jpgWhen he arrived at the mound for a conference, Greg would remove his catcher’s mask and, in a very calm (but intense) voice, curse me out with all the venom of Bobby Knight. I’m sure everyone observing us had no idea of the thrashing I was receiving, partly because I had the expression of a person trying to hold back laughter. Greg was about a foot shorter than I, and he never looked me in the eye during his epic tirades. He either looked at my chest or let his eyes wander the field while every four-letter word ever invented spewed forth. At the end of his speeches, he DID look me in the eye and say something encouraging, like, “See this glove? Just throw to it.” or, “Next pitch, fastball inside, and we’re out of this inning.”

Funny thing is, I actually found Greg’s berating to be inspiring. Somehow, I knew that he respected me as a pitcher, had extremely high expectations for my performance, and really enjoyed catching me. I knew that his rude remarks were motivated by a deep passion for winning, and it felt awesome to have a teammate who was so driven. When he’d walk deliberately back to home plate, put his mask and glove back on, and crouch behind the batter, I knew that I’d execute my next pitch perfectly and that the batter was doomed.

Greg faded away from our team in the mid-’90s and I haven’t seen him since then. But when I was inducted into the Yawkey League Hall of Fame in 2003, he wrote me a nice email congratulating me on the honor. Of course, it was one of the most meaningful notes of congratulations that I received at that time. Although we were never friends, we had collaborated intensely for a few years as “the battery” for those Avi Nelson Club teams, two totally different personalities sharing a passion for baseball and a deep desire to win.

My 7 Year-Old Son’s Life List

I originally wrote this article for Lifehack.org in April 2007 (click here to view the original). With the new year upon us, I thought it would be appropriate to update and re-publish it here. Enjoy!

7-year-olds-life-list1.jpgLast February, on a rainy Saturday, my then seven year-old son (who was enjoying his budding ability to write) came to me with a small, yellow pad of paper and said, “Daddy, I want to write a list. What should I make a list of?” Suddenly, I recalled reading about John Goddard and the life list he wrote at age 15. His list consisted of 127 things he would like to do or see during his lifetime (for example: Climb Mt. Everest, run a mile in under five minutes, land on and take off from an aircraft carrier, and circumnavigate the globe). Goddard is now 75 years old and, at last count, has accomplished 109 of the goals he wrote as a teenager.

“Why don’t you write a life list?” I suggested to my son. “OK,” he said. “What’s a life list, Daddy?”

In April, while I was tidying up my son’s room, I came across that yellow pad of paper. Since showing him John Goddard’s life list two months earlier, I hadn’t seen or thought about the pad. Behind the cover were nine pages of goals (55 total) he had written over the course of the last sixty days. Some were written in pencil, some in black ink, some in green ink – and all in the painstakingly careful handwriting of a second grader. As I read his life list, I could see his life unfolding before my eyes (not a life of achieving all of the goals on his life list, but certainly a life of adventurous striving).

Before I share highlights of my son’s life list with you, consider:

1. To what degree do you think a young person increases his chances of a fulfilling life by seizing the freedom to dream big, imagining what he wants to achieve, and writing it down?

2. Which habit would you wish for your child more than that of creating exciting mental pictures of the future with a spirit of expectancy?

Check out some of the excerpts of his list (I have corrected his spelling):

pop-and-robert-on-moosilauke3.jpg#2: Run a marathon. #3 Visit the castles in Scotland. #7: Climb Mt. Washington (in New Hampshire). #9: Read a 200+ page book. #10: Live to be 105+ years old. #14: Set a record. #15: Be a dad. #17: Go water skiing. #19: Make something that goes in public. #21: Be able to speak more than two different languages. #23: Invent something. #24: Never get an ear infection until I’m ten. # 26: Be a professional athlete. #27: Visit the pyramids in Egypt. #30: Go to another continent. #35: Be in 125-degree weather. #36: Play 18 holes of golf in par or under par. #39: Be in the newspaper twice. #40: Never wear long sleeves to school on the first day. #43: Eat a wild food. #47: Visit a place on the equator. #48: Be in the hall of fame for any sport. #50: Rescue somebody on a real mission. #51: Win a championship game. #55: Visit any hall of fame for any sport.

Someday, my son will look back on this first life list he ever composed and laugh at some of the things he wrote – just as you laugh at some of them now. But he’ll also laugh at the many things he achieved, and realize that it was that rainy day back in 2007 when these accomplishments and experiences started hurtling towards him – and when his habit of shooting for the moon was born.

Postscript, January 1, 2008:

Today, for about an hour, I drove three of my kids around in our minivan while doing errands. In the spirit of New Year’s Day, I told them I’d record their “Life Lists for 2008” (yes, I did this while driving). Here’s what they came up with:minivans.jpg

8 year-old boy (the one who wrote the life list last year, when he was 7): “I want to make the travel team (baseball), win the lottery, and get a new baseball glove.”

6 year-old boy: “I want to make a 20-foot high snowman.”

3 year-old girl: “I want to make a big snowman too!”

6: “And I want to go to Florida for one whole week, and I want to skate on Squam Lake.”

8: “I want to climb two 4,000-foot mountains.”

6: “I want to climb Mount Everest. And I want to climb every mountain in the universe!”

3: “I don’t want to climb any mountains, Daddy.”

8: “I want to live into the 22nd Century. And I want to be a major league baseball player, with a lifetime average of over .300.”

6: “I want to run all the way to Mount Everest. And I want to drive a car.”

8: “I want to see the castles in Scotland, and I want to run a marathon, and I want to do the Ironman triathlon, and I want to go to the Grand Canyon. I also want to be a dad.”

3: “And I want to be a mommy.”

6: “I want to be a kid. Being a grown up is hard work. So I want to be a kid.”

3: “I want to be a girl!”

8: “I want to be six-feet tall.”

3: “I want to be ten-feet tall.”

6: “I want to make an experiment where a cup breaks. And I want to swim to Florida. And I want to be rich so I can buy Mt. Everest and so I can buy the world.” [Why do you want to own the world? I asked. “Because it would just be fun,” he replied.]

3: “I want to have ten birthdays!”

8: “I want to go to Stonehenge.”

6: “I want to be so strong I could touch a tree and it would fall down.”

3: “I want to buy a happy Hanukah.” [This is totally random…. we are not Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Hanukah.]

8: “I want to get a baseball scholarship to college and to high school. And I want to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.”

6: “I want to write a song, and I want everyone in the universe to hear it, and I want everyone in the universe to like it.”

3: “Me too, Daddy.”

Have you written your life list yet?

Behind The Scenes at Fenway

yawkey-way-at-game-time.jpgLast week, the Red Sox invited me to visit the team’s offices on Yawkey Way. “Why don’t you come by around noon on Wednesday and sit in on a bunch of meetings?” And so I did. Between noon and 4pm, I attended four meetings:

1. A bi-weekly meeting of the team’s vice presidents and directors (I counted 28 of them), led by team president, Larry Lucchino. Each VP/director gave a brief update on his/her area of responsibility and fielded a question or two from Lucchino. Even yours truly was asked to say a few words. (“I don’t mean to put you on the spot, Rob,” said Larry, “but what’s the state of the Nation?”)

2. A meeting led by senior vice president sales/marketing, Sam Kennedy, to discuss the status of the Red Sox Fellows Program’s recruiting efforts.

3. A meeting led by Sam Kennedy and director of client services, Troup Parkinson, with executives from a company that currently spends about a half-million dollars per year in advertising with the Red Sox. The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm ways to reconfigure the deal going forward.

4. A meeting led by manager of community marketing, Mardi Fuller, on “Marketing to Women.”

Rather than give you the blow by blow on these meetings, I thought I’d share with you the most striking take-aways of my afternoon at Fenway:

1. Larry Lucchino has the entire organization under his thumb, and he seems to enjoy being president and getting involved in the details of every aspect of the organization. He ran the VP/directors meeting like an emcee, sprinkling in anecdotes from time to time, quizzing VPs on facts about their area, and handing out praise generously. He is clearly well-liked and highly respected by his charges.

2. Out of the 28 team VP/directors who spoke at that first mfenway-at-sunset.jpgeeting, only two mentioned actual baseball players: Brian O’Halloran, director of baseball operations (he attended in Theo Epstein’s stead), who gave a brief update on minor transactions that had occurred in the last two weeks, and Dick Bresciani, the team’s historian and archivist, who gave a spirited presentation about “this week in Red Sox history.” As a fan, it was striking to see that 95% of the meeting focused on issues that would bore most fans to tears.

3. At lunch, following the VP/directors meeting, I had a chance to talk with Ron Bumgarner, who runs the ticketing operation. “The Yankees and every other pro sports organization laughs at us for the lengths we go to to try to make tickets accessible to regular fans,” he said. And after 20 minutes of hearing about the thought process behind their ticket operations, I believed him.

He confessed that sometimes the lengths to which the Sox go to make things fair have a negative effect on their efforts to make the experience easy. For example, when tickets are available online, some people wait ten minutes to purchase tickets, while others who have waited hours and hours and were “in line” first get nothing. He explained that if the Sox did not pluck folks out of the “virtual waiting room” randomly, the agencies/resellers would chew up all the tickets – because they have the manpower and, more importantly, the programmer power to dominate the “front of the line” and proactively “mole” their computers to butt in the queue. He said that they could sell out Fenway’s 81 games in one day if they wanted to, and that would make their job easy, but they don’t do that because it would not be fair to the “average fans.”

4. I assumed that the Red Sox Fellows Program would cater to the grandchildren of owners and nieces of senior vice presidents, but the meeting on the Fellows Program made it clear to me that the Sox are truly looking for a robust, diverse pool of applicants. Just as the baseball operations people are looking for talented players, the business operations people are looking for talented, capable “fellows” to inject the organization with energy and to develop executives of the future. (For more information on the Red Sox Fellows Program, click here. Applications for the 2008 season are due January 4, 2008.)

5. It was fascinating to me that 80% of the 90 minute-long meeting with the corporate sponsor was spent “developing the relationship” — talking about the 2007 season, catching up on how business is going, talking about mutual friends and acquaintances. Only 20% of the time was spent exploring the future of the company’s business relationship with the Sox, and no actual financial terms of a deal were discussed.

6. The Red Sox have a gigantic “home field advantage” when meeting with potential corporate sponsors at Fenway Park. Sam and Troup probably didn’t notice the awe twinkling in the eyes of the three guest executives (two of whom had flown in from D.C., and one from New York) as they walked down the corridor to the conference room, gazing at the posters and photos of Red Sox greats on the walls. What was perhaps ‘just another meeting’ for Sam and Troup was clearly one of the most exciting business meetings of the year for their guests. When we sat down for the meeting, a snow-covered Fenway Park loomed in the background through the window wall. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you can’t help sprouting goosebumps in that room.

remy-and-orsillo-bobbleheads.jpg7. One question that was raised at the “Marketing to Women” meeting was, “With every game sold out and TV ratings high, and with a broader female fan base than any other major league baseball team, why should the Red Sox care about appealing to women more than they already do?” The two big answers were: Because an organization that appeals to women as well as men will thrive even when the team isn’t winning, and because women represent half of the potential customer base/audience.

Other interesting points raised included: a) Women (and men) spend more time directly experiencing the Red Sox through NESN (and their team of Jerry Remy, Don Orsillo, and Tina Cervasio) than through personal trips to Fenway Park. Therefore, any marketing efforts targeting women need to examine the effectiveness of this channel. b) Men (whom are the default targets of existing Red Sox marketing efforts) have young daughters they want to bring to Fenway Park; they have girlfriends and wives who sometimes accompany them when they attend a game or watch on TV; and certainly “baseball” can compete with all these women for “quality time” in the life of a male fan. Therefore, the more broadly the team appeals to women, the more broadly it will appeal to its default audience of men, as well.cubicles.jpg

8. In the end, the Red Sox offices are still offices where people go to work every day (most are crammed into small cubicles), and the nature of their work is not unlike the work done in other organizations: finance, marketing, customer relations, sales, advertising, public relations, etc. While all Red Sox employees have highly coveted jobs, they don’t walk around exuding excitement and gratitude for their good luck; in fact, I’d say they all looked pretty worn out after a long, strenuous 2007. (I assume the office atmosphere is slightly different in May, during a Yankees homestand, the day after an Ortiz walk-off home run…)

I want to thank the Red Sox organization for welcoming me into their offices for a few hours. Their hospitality rates a ten out of ten, and I appreciate their high hopes for the new roles of President and Vice President of Red Sox Nation.

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?

Say It Ain’t So

Did you have a weird sick feeling while listening to or reading the Mitchell Report? I did.

I was truly afraid that an important Red Sox player would be on the list.

Besides the impact it would have on the team’s ability to repeat as champs next season, why would having an important Sox player on Mitchell’s list be so terrible?

1) Because these guys are almost like family to us. We sit in our living rooms and watch them play every night. We read about them every morning in the paper and we talk about them every day at work. We cheer hard for them. We admire them. We marvel at what they can do as human beings. We imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. If an important Sox player were on the list, the process of readjusting my opinion of the person would hurt.

2) My son, along with the millions of kids in Red Sox Nation who wear the player’s t-shirt, would suddenly realize that their idol was a cheater. And that would be simply devastating. And that’s a conversation with my 8-year old son that I would like to avoid forever.

3) The magic and pride of the 2004 and 2007 World Series victories would be significantly diminished. After 86 years of demoralizing baseball inferiority, we’re finally at the top of the heap in Major League Baseball — and it would be a shame to give New Yorkers the ammo they crave to shoot down our accomplishments.

Many others have written about names of players they were surprised were NOT in the Mitchell Report, but here are the non Red Sox players I was most RELIEVED were not in the Mitchell Report:

cal-ripken.jpg1. Cal Ripken (along with Derek Jeter and Curt Schilling, the anchors of integrity in MLB)

2. Derek Jeter (sure, he’s a Yankee, but he’s also The Man)

3. Nomar Garciaparra (my son’s first favorite player, and still a favorite)

4. Pedro Martinez (would hate to see our 2004 season sullied)

5. Ichiro Suzuki (I like to believe that a human can do what he does, drug-free)

And finally, a quotation from Curt Schilling that really resonated with me (perhaps because, like him, I’m a parent of several children who look up to major leaguers):

“I think the bigger picture is the one that’s getting totally buried in this avalanche, is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of kids that think this is the way to go,” Schilling said. “When you think about the fact that the two greatest players of our generation, arguably of all-time, the greatest hitter and pitcher that ever lived, are potentially the poster boys for cheating, it’s a horrible, horrible testament to today’s athlete.” (see full article here)

And of course Roger Clemens is now concerned about his Hall of Fame chances, but I expect he’s more concerned about how to explain all this to his own kids….

The Physics of the World Series Trophy

ws-trophy-and-kids.jpgI work at a school for kids ages 4 to 14, so when Jerry Remy selected me to be Vice President of Red Sox Nation (after I placed second in the presidential election), I immediately began brainstorming ways to bring “Red Sox love” to the students, teachers, and staff at my school. I like to think big, so I asked the Sox if I could have the World Series trophy for a morning. Miraculously, they responded that the trophy would be between other engagements and in my school’s area on a certain day, making it available to me and my school for perhaps 45 minutes. Unbelievable.

I arranged for the trophy to be a surprise. And what a surprise! I unveiled it at a school assembly at the conclusion of a brief speech to the community on the lesson that there are many ways to “win” in any contest besides getting the most points, getting the highest grade, or winning the gold medal. “For example,” I said, “I didn’t get the most votes in the race for president, but as the runner-up, today I have the chance to present to you THE RED SOX 2007 WORLD SERIES TROPHY!”

Within five seconds of the unveiling, the trophy and I were in a sea of kids (with a sprinkling of adults who had suddenly become kids again). Over the next hour, hundreds of students and teachers posed with the trophy, as did several of the construction workers out back and a few parents who were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Posing for one particular photo, I put my arm around a member of our school’s maintenance staff who was holding the trophy, and his whole body was shaking and trembling uncontrollably. Other adults at the school were moved to tears when they finally cradled the trophy, and the smiles in their “trophy photos” express a wild combination of bewilderment and joy.

The first, second, and third graders lined up against the wall of a long hallway, and I paraded it down the hall slowly so they all could touch it. I wish you could’ve seen the expressions on their faces. (see above photo) Many of them hugged it, several of them kissed it, and their elation was every bit as real as the adults’.

I know physicists say that an object’s gravitational force is proportional to its mass, but then how do we account for the pronounced gravitational pull of the 33-lb World Series trophy? The way in which people at my school were drawn to it – the euphoric look in their eyes, their animal need to touch it and to hold it and to embrace it – well, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And I’ve got my own amateur physicist’s theory:

kieltys-pinch-hit-homer-in-game-4.jpgThe World Series trophy’s mass consists of all the emotions of the season, as experienced by every member of Red Sox Nation. It includes the “mass” of the emotional roller coaster every fan experienced during the Mother’s Day Miracle” on May 13, when the Sox scored six in the ninth inning to beat Baltimore, 6-5. It includes the “mass” of the stress every fan experienced as the Yankees inched closer and closer to us in the A.L. East in August and September; it includes the “mass” of the emotions every fan experienced when Manny connected off of K-Rod for his walk-off homer in game 2 of the Division Series. And it includes the “mass” of every fan’s emotions at the moment Bobby Kielty hit his pinch-hit homer in game 4 of the World Series (pictured here). All these emotions from the 2007 season – and every emotion that occurred between these games, from every fan around the world – are contained within that 2007 World Series trophy. That’s a lot of “emotional mass,” and it helps account for the fact that the trophy has the gravitational force of a moon.

And the 2004 World Series trophy? Well it has the “emotional mass” of 86 years of Red Sox fan experiences crammed inside it. Only a Cubs trophy will ever come close to matching the “mass” of that baby…..

Goodbye, Dr. Steinberg

fathers-day-at-fenway-2002.jpgAs I wrote in my blog article, Fenway Holiday, one of the best days I’ve ever had at Fenway Park took place on Father’s Day, 2002. On that day, I brought my then three year-old son to his first Red Sox game. He insisted on wearing his duck boots (it was a wet day) and on wearing his blue Red Sox helmet backwards (funny, now that he’s 8, he still wears his hat backwards). After the game, my son and I joined thousands of others on Fenway’s outfield grass, playing catch in the shadow of the Green Monster. I’ll always remember the emotional rush of the day — an truly remarkable experience for a young dad — and I remember thinking, this is my favorite day as a parent.

That was my introduction to Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox’ Senior Vice President for Public Affairs who, last week, accepted a front office position with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Steinberg, who invented Fathers Day at Fenway, transformed the fan experience for all of us in Red Sox Nation, and the news of his departure made me truly sad. Am I being overly sentimental? No.

With Steinberg in the front office, we knew there was someone with power who was thinking about the kids of Red Sox Nation, and someone who was tending to the sacredness of the Fenway experience 81 games per year. Steinberg designed the Fenway experience for Fenway first-timers, which injected magic into the game for all fans, every game, regardless of the win-loss outcome.

Certainly, winning changed the tone of the fan experience at Fenway Park. But so much of the joy we’ve grown accustomed to at Fenway was masterminded by Steinberg. He is a treasure. He is L.A.’s treasure now. Seems a fitting destination for the Walt Disney of baseball.

Red Sox Nation will miss him. And we are grateful to him.

Sports Center Missed These…

Some of the greatest sports moments of the day never make it onto ESPN’s Sports Center. Two perfect examples:

amaker-at-harvard.jpg1. On Saturday night, Harvard’s men’s basketball team defeated the Michigan Wolverines before a sell-out crowd at Lavietes Pavillion in Cambridge, 62-51. That’s right, an Ivy League team that has NEVER won the Ivy League Title (a drought that’s comparable to the Red Sox’s 86-year ordeal) beat the one-time Big Ten powerhouse, a team full of Michigan’s best high school players, almost ALL of whom are on scholarship (Ivy League teams cannot give scholarships). I’m not a Harvard graduate, but I was in attendance and I was rooting hard for the underdogs.

At the end of the game, hundreds of Harvard students stormed the court. Has that EVER happened at a Harvard basketball game? And has there EVER been a bigger win in Harvard men’s basketball history? I think the only win that comes close was a victory over Boston College, at the Heights, several years ago.

amaker-at-duke.jpgSports Center loves great stories, and this victory has a doozy…. Harvard’s new coach, former Duke guard Tommy Amaker, was fired as Michigan’s coach last year. He could have taken a major division 1 coaching post this season but opted for Harvard and the challenge of winning their first-ever Ivy title. Amaker is too classy to call this victory “revenge,” but it is what it is — a coach who was fired by a big-time program went to a coaching graveyard against the advice of his old mentor (Coach K) and then defeated the school that fired him. Awesome.

roberts-final-pitch-11-07.jpg 2. Last weekend, I played the 355th game of wiffle ball vs. my 8 year-old son and his best friend in our backyard, and the way the game ended will be talked about for years and years at our family’s kitchen table. In over three years, I have never beaten these two kids. (Yes, to handicap myself I do bat lefty and I let them hum the ball from a pitcher’s mound that’s about 25 feet from home, but these guys don’t win because I’m not trying, they win because they earn it.) Last weekend, for about two and one-half seconds, I thought victory was mine…. and then, it was snatched away.

Bdaddy-hits-it-deep-11-07.jpgases were loaded, two outs, I was down by two runs, bottom of the last inning, 2-2 count. My son hucked a fast curveball over the plate and I pulled it, driving it deep to right field… way back, way back…. could this be Daddy’s first victory ever at Fenway West?… then his friend soared over the plastic green fence, glove arm outstretched, caught the ball, and slammed to the ground. GAME OVER. My son and his friend screamed, ran to each other, and chest-butted. I just stood there, stunned at what I had just seen.

christopher-makes-the-game-saving-catch-11-07.jpgI knew at that moment that I would write about the game on this blog, and I knew exactly what I would say – that sometimes, the most elegant, miraculous, unbelievable sports moments happen right in our own backyards, when no fans are watching and nothing is at stake except individual pride. That catch was, truly, every bit as good as the best Coco Crisp catches, and the fact that it saved the game and a three-year unbeaten streak made it an instant classic. No film crews were there to record the incredible play – it will never make it onto The Best Damn Sports Show’s 50 Greatest Catches of All-Time – but the three of us who were there may never forget it. Indeed, our heroic, 8 year-old right fielder may never make a catch as great as that one the rest of his life. Don’t you just love sports??

I Fake A Smile November Until Opening Day…

Some November thoughts from the Vice President of Red Sox Nation:

1. First of all, let it be known that the VP of RSN became a dad for the fifth time on the same day that Mike Lowell re-signed with the Red Sox (Novembedrew-bledsoe.jpgr 19). When my new little daughter is grown up we’ll still be talking about what a great day November 19, 2007 was in Red Sox Nation! (I lobbied my wife to name her Lowell, but to no avail…. just as I lobbied hard to name my second son Drew when he was born during the second quarter of the Patriots’ AFC Championship victory vs. Pittsburgh on January 27, 2002… Bledsoe came off the bench to win that game…. but, alas, our son had already owned a different name for an hour by the time the game ended.)

2. What Curt Schilling and Mike Lowell did (signing contracts to stay on a team they love for fewer years and less money than they could have received elsewhere) is unbelievably rare in professional sports. How many players can you name who have done this? mo-vaughn.jpg99% of the time, the player complains “my team doesn’t respect me” and “doesn’t want me as much as the other team does” and then they say it has nothing to do with money, but with “respect” when they take the extra year and the extra $15M. All of us in Red Sox Nation need to appreciate these guys for choosing US over millions of dollars that were available to them elsewhere. And I congratulate Curt and Mike on seeing the big picture. There actually aren’t many people who have retired as certified Red Sox Legends (and who see the priceless value of doing so) and these two have put themselves in a position to do just that.

3. I am THRILLED that the Yankees have re-signed Posada, Rivera, and A-Rod for the same reason I’m thrilled the Sox have re-signed Schilling a-rod-and-varitek.gifand Lowell. The Sox-Yanks rivalry is such a gift to us sports fans in Boston, and having the same players involved over a long period of time gives the rivalry real substance. The distinctive story lines that have already developed involving these players and many of their teammates will get carried over to another season and now there will be another ending to this particular rivalry’s story.

In my late-’70s childhood, we learned to boo Chambliss, Randolph, Dent, Nettles, Munson, Piniella, Jackson, Guidry, and Gossage. And these guys stayed together for a stretch that was long enough that they were THE YANKEES of their era.reggie-and-bucky.jpg I’m happy for the children of Red Sox Nation — that their childhoods will be enriched by a consistent set of Sox/Yankees rosters. This is part of the reason I was distressed when the Sox traded Nomar, and when Damon signed with the Yankees. I’m really happy that, for at least the next three years, all of us in Red Sox Nation will get to witness the thrill of ninth inning comebacks vs. Mariano, and we’ll get to watch A-Rod’s daunting figure in the on-deck circle, and we’ll be graced with the emotion that Posada brings to big games — and that all these great athletes we love to boo will be wearing the hated pinstripes. It just makes life better that way.

Manny Being Magnanimous

About a week ago, my dad wrote an email to an unknown person who had left some great comments on my blog during the Red Sox Nation campaign. He wanted to say “hello” and “thanks for the support.” This “mystery commenter” immediately wrote back, revealing herself to be an old friend of my father’s and telling an amazing story about an encounter with Manny Ramirez on the day of the Rolling Rally. The story is too good to not share with Red Sox Nation on this blog. Here are excerpts from that email…

Dear Jim,
Whoo Hoo!  Yes, c’est moi!  Some communications are best kept secret until they aren’t secret any more!  And here is a story for you!  There is something in the wind …

I am a Red Sox fan, but “one step removed,” not having frequented a game for some twenty years, if truth be told … however, I am a total fan of sport as a way of building character, sense of fair play, earnest and skilled competition, and a profound sense of the holy AND totally identify as a member of Red Sox Nation. A number of people who are my clients for consultation, etc. are wildly active members of Red Sox Nation … and for the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, on Tuesday [the day of the Rolling Rally], I wore a Red Sox tee-shirt given to me by one of my clients who knew I was watching every single game during the playoffs and World Series.

So, continuing my story … to my dismay, due to work obligations and deadlines re: a written project, I wasn’t really able to go to THE PARADE. But I did wear my Red Sox tee-shirt all day!  And, at 4:30 p.m yesterday [the day of the parade], I had an appointment to provide consultation for a colleague who has significant vision problems, so I go to her home for our meetings. Her home is located in the Ritz condo building off Tremont Street.  Arriving 15 minutes early, I sat for a bit in the (ever so nice) lobby, wearing my Red Sox tee-shirt.  And, while reading there, wearing my Red Sox tee-shirt, in walked none other than Manny Ramirez (this is the building where he lives), who noticed me sitting and wearing my Red Sox tee-shirt, came right over, sat down in the seat right across from me and struck up a 15-MINUTE conversation with me!!! 

He was as nice and interesting and conversationally engaged as a person could be and we talked about a range of related topics including: my congratulations to him and to the team, my appreciation for all they give to so many of us who just love the team and Red Sox Nation, what Red Sox Nation means to children, how wonderful it is to “get lost for three hours+” in a GREAT game in a world where so many tragic and terrible realities occur, how important it is for skill and practice and fun to be combined in people’s minds and experience, when the players will get their World Series Champion rings, how great it is that there is a President and Vice President of Red Sox Nation, what Manny finds interesting about Boston, how Boston is different from Cleveland, and how he feels about his fans.  (He told me he loves them — “it’s all for the fans!”)  He talked about the parade and the reaction of the fans and the whole of Red Sox Nation. Then, after fifteen minutes of chatting, I had to get to my meeting and he had to get going too, and as I headed toward the elevator, the concierge said to me: “Unbelievable!  Manny never does that — you just had a fifteen minute private audience with Manny!” And I said, “Yes, and what a delightful, very nice, sweet, and interesting person he is!”

WOW! Life is full of surprises!  And how wonderful!
Shalom/Sallam/Peace

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.