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Monday, March 29, 2004

  When the Columnist Isn't Paying Attention

I admit it - after my idyllic week at spring training, I threw myself back into work, determined to catch up on my backlog so that after opening day I won't have to work evenings when more important things (i.e. games) are happening. I haven't even read the sports pages, really, so my baseball news has come almost exclusively from what I pick up on the ladies' thread of the RedSox.com message board. But I had a little extra time today after lunch, and what better way to spend some mid-day free time than by reading the latest baseball columns in the Boston papers?

As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, the first one I went to was Bill Littlefield's column in yesterday's Globe. I don't know who Bill Littlefield is, but at the end of the column we're told that he "hosts National Public Radio's Only a Game on WBUR," which should tell you something right there. "Only a game?" Where is this guy from?

Read the column if you must, but be forewarned. It's a crock of, um, organic fertilizer. This guy rivals Dan Shaughnessy for the gloom-and-doom award, given to the sports commentator most focused on the dark cloud inside the silver lining. I'm certain he can't be a Red Sox fan any more than Shaughnessy is.

He positions Terry Francona for failure ("if the '04 Sox don't win the World Series, they will have failed...amiability and a thorough familiarity with the glyphs of stats guru Bill James will count for nothing") based on his winning percentage in Philadephia as compared to Grady's with the Sox, which is about as relevant as comparing Lou Piniella's record managing Tampa Bay to his tenure in Seattle and concluding that he really isn't that good after all. He presents conjecture as if it were a law of nature ("so many of the guys who hit well last season have been waking up at 4 a.m. all winter, certain in their bones and blood that they will never hit that well again") without even the slightest hint of a suggestion that anyone but the voices in his head ever said such a thing. He anguishes over the possibility that besides the first two, no Boston starter will get the job done (the team "could fail because Pedro Martinez and [Curt] Schilling combine to win 46 games and none of the other pitchers wins as many as eight") even though no such thing has happened to Wakefield, Lowe, or Arroyo in any season in which they were full-time starters. Oh wait, Wakefield won only 6 games one year. In 20 starts. In 1993. With Pittsburgh.

And all that makes it into the first four paragraphs. Not that it all couldn't be true, you know, talking worst-case scenarios here. A softball-sized meteor could also fall to earth, crash through my roof, hit me in the chest and crush my heart, killing me instantly. Maybe I ought to pick out a casket now, just to save time for my family later on.

But wait, ladies and gentlemen, there's more, specifically the old cliche so often employed by unimaginative sportswriter wanna-bes, that Red Sox fans don't really want to win. We SAY we do, but we really don't. Trust Bill. He knows. After all, "doesn't it seem more likely that fans (as well as those who weren't aware that they were paying attention) would tremble in the scary novelty of this... this... winning, and that they'd wonder how they were supposed to make sense of the next day that would dawn — that day upon which they would have no new pain to embrace, nobody to blame?" That's paragraph five, for those keeping score at home.

As if the knowledgable reader isn't already convinced that Bill is a few threads short of a rosin bag, we get this in paragraph six: "How, exactly, did Tim Wakefield escape Bucknerization after he gave up the home run that beat the Sox in October?" Which of course is proof positive that Bill wasn't watching game 7, so he couldn't possibly know that by the time said pitcher gave up said home run, Sox fans had already had several innings to digest the fact that if the game were to be lost, it would be because of a certain manager's decision in the eighth inning, at which time even the most casual observers (including many a Yankee bandwagoner) scratched their heads trying to figure out why Grady would put Pedro back out there while Embree and Timlin stood ready and helpless in the bullpen, pathetic pleading looks on their faces that screamed, "Come and get me - please!" And if he wasn't paying attention then, it's a safe bet that he doesn't know much else about the Red Sox or their fans.

Which renders, in my opinion, the remaining 28 paragraphs (!) of the column no more worth reading than the phone book. Why bother, when all of it was written by someone trying to sound knowledgable by theorizing that no, fans are happiest when their team loses? What a pinhead.


Cheers of Red Sox triumph so far: 0


Tuesday, March 16, 2004

  Spring Training Redux, the Baseball Part

Let's get down to brass tacks here, Nation. As much fun as it was to write yesterday about the extra-curricular details of my week in Fort Myers, the real reason I was there was for baseball. Here's a bit of what I saw, game by game.

Red Sox (9) vs. Boston College (3) - Friday 03/05/2004 at 1:05pm

This game, like the evening game against Northeastern, was a 7-inning game. And I swear, in that short span of time the college teams managed to get everyone on the field. Talk about hard to keep track of.

Starter Tim Wakefield spotted the kids two runs on four base hits in the first inning. Not his finest hour. He threw 20 pitches, but at least he got two strikeouts. Mike Timlin and NRI Paul Rigdon followed with an inning apiece of hitless relief, after which southpaw Phil Seibel allowed only one hit in two innings for the win. Mark Malaska got knocked around a bit in the 6th, allowing one run. NRI leftie Ed Yarnall finished with a scoreless seventh.

The Sox starting lineup was Tony Womack (DH), Pokey Reese (2B), David Ortiz (1B), Nomar Garciaparra (SS), Terry Shumpert (3B), Doug Mirabelli (C), Adam Hyzdu (RF), Jeff Bailey (LF), and Jeremy Owens (CF). Everyone but Bailey was subbed for by the end of the 6th inning. Prospect Andy Dominique had three RBI, Ortiz and Carlos Febles two apiece. Red Sox batters drew five walks, but also struck out seven times against college pitching. But it was only the second game of the pre-season.

Red Sox (7) vs. Northeastern University (0) - Friday 03/05/2004 at 7:05pm

My scorecard for this game is in shambles, as the rules were evidently thrown out the window and the Northeastern manager subbed for players and then brought the starters back in the next inning. It confused me thoroughly. But I can tell you that Curt Schilling pitched three scoreless innings for the win, allowing only three hits and striking out three. The bullpen combined for four innings of scoreless, hitless relief, an inning each by Bobby Jones, Alan Embree, Edwin Almonte, and Dave McCarty (trying to reinvent himself as an outfielder/pitcher).

The other half of the A-team who didn't play in the afternoon game started in the evening. Starting lineup was Gabe Kapler (CF), Bill Mueller (3B), Manny Ramirez (LF), Kevin Millar (1B), Mark Bellhorn (2B), Jason Varitek (C), Brian Daubach (DH), Adam Hyzdu (RF), and Cesar Crespo (SS). Crespo was the offensive star of the game, with a grand slam in the 5th inning. Starters and subs combined for 11 walks!

Red Sox (7) vs. New York Yankees (11) - Sunday 03/07/2004 at 1:05pm

Bronson Arroyo was brilliant in his first start of the spring, pitching three shutout innings and allowing only one hit and no walks. Jason Shiell relieved him and managed to undo his good work, allowing six runs including two homers in one inning for the eventual loss. Yarnall wasn't stellar pitching the 6th inning either, allowing four runs, and Malaska gave up the last Yankee run in the 7th. Jones, Anastacio Martinez, and some kid I've never heard of named Glaser each pitched one shutout inning. Sox pitching rang up six Ks but allowed four homers, including two to our old friend Tony Clark who never did anything like that when he was one of us. As for the bottom line, you do the math -- if it weren't for Shiell, we would have won the game.

Our batters did a nice job knocking around Old Man River (Yankees starter Jose Contreras) for four runs in two innings, including a double by Millar and a solo homer by Crespo, who also homered in off NRI reliever Jimmy Mann in the 6th. Burks went 2-for-3, infield sub Febles 2-for-2. McCarty was less impressive offensively than he had been a couple days before as a pitcher, going 0-for-4.

Red Sox (9) vs. Minnesota (4) - Monday 03/08/2004 at 1:05pm

This was my first spring training glimpse of Derek Lowe, who had previously started against the Twins in the pre-season opener I didn't attend. He held his own over two innings, allowing one unearned run on three hits. His control was pretty good, with a strikeout and no walks. An unknown named Morla allowed two runs, including a homer to Jose Offerman, in the 3rd inning, and Wakefiled gave up the last Twins run on two hits over two innings. But the rest of the bullpen held up, with Embree, Tim Hamulack, and Almonte shutting them down in the last four innings.

In spite of the high score, there were no real offensive stars for the Sox, with hits and runs pretty well spread around among starters and subs alike. Kevin Youkilis had the most impressive line, 1-for-2 with two walks and two runs scored. Jeremy Owens and a prospect named Murton who was wearing Adam Hyzdu's spring training number batted in two runs each. Seven different Sox batters whiffed, but three others besides Youkilis drew walks.

Red Sox (2) vs. Cincinnati (3) - Tuesday 03/09/2004 at 7:05pm

Pedro Martinez started this one and wasn't his sharpest self, but he said afterward that his shoulder felt good so that's more important. In two innings he allowed one run on a double and a walk, threw a wild pitch, and struck out two. Schilling was brilliant for 3 2/3 innings in relief, allowing ony one run and striking out five. Scott Williamson gave up the winning run, along with a hit, a walk, and a strikeout, in the 8th and took the loss. Jones and Reynaldo Garcia each gave up one hit and no runs.

Gabe Kapler homered in a 2-for-3 outing. Nomar batted in the other Sox run on a sacrifice. Offensively, the game could very well have been won if Red Sox batters hadn't struck out 10 times. But Cincinnati pitching had some good control.

To sum it up...

Based on what I saw, I'd call Schilling and Crespo the shining stars of my week at spring training. Hyzdu made some impressive diving and running catches in the outfield, but he also made a couple mental mistakes. And speaking of mental mistakes, there was a pretty embarassing misplay between Febles and Hanley Ramirez against the Twins, where both of them watched an easy infield pop-up drop between them. It's exactly the kind of play that makes a case for a "team error" statistic. I didn't get to see Keith Foulke, who didn't pitch until a couple days after I left. I was impressed by the hard work of some of our prospects, though I admit that I'm not a good enough scout to be able to tell you from just a few games how I think they'll turn out. But I can tell you that Bronson Arroyo is hands down my choice for the 5th spot in the starting rotation. That boy is cool as a cucumber, and his stuff is impressively consistent.


Cheers of Red Sox triumph so far: 0


Monday, March 15, 2004

  I'm Back. It Was Great.

What can I say? It was a glorious week at spring training! Indulge me while I tell you a little about it.

The trip got off to a slightly rocky start. The night before I left, I worked until 8:00, went home to pack, and finally got to bed around 11:30. The airport limo was picking me up at 3:30am, so I set my alarm clock for 2:45 to leave enough time to take a shower and add to my luggage whatever what-nots I may have forgotten. Trouble was, I set the alarm for 2:45 PM, then proceeded to sleep soundly until 3:40 when the limo dispatcher called me to say that the driver was having trouble finding my house. Needless to say, I didn't have that shower. Good thing my bags were packed and by the door or I would have been up the creek without a canoe.

After throwing on my clothes, splashing water on my face, and pulling a brush through my hair, I flew out the door. I spent the entire ride in to Logan Airport with knots in my stomach wondering what I had forgotten, which turned out to be to call the Red Sox and find out why I hadn't received my game tickets in the mail. I made a note to call them from my cell phone as soon as the Fort Myers ticket office was open.

Let me say that security really doesn't take too long at Logan, which considering that two and a half years ago terrorists hijacked two planes from there and flew them into buildings shouldn't be a good thing. But they have enough security that my POW bracelet set off the metal detector and I got my very own personal search conducted by a friendly TSA employee.

When I got to O'Hare for my connecting flight (yes, American Airlines sent me to Fort Myers, Florida via Chicago, Illinois, and no, I don't understand why) I brushed my teeth, had breakfast, and called a helpful woman at the Red Sox ticket office in Fort Myers, who assured me that as long as I had my order confirmation number, they could reprint my tickets. Which set my mind at ease and allowed me to have a restful nap from Chicago to lovely Southwest Florida International Airport.

And a lovely airport it is, not because there's anything special about it but because when I land there it means I'm just hours away from baseball. I rented my car and drove to the plushly appointed accomodations of Chez Brenken, i.e. the home of one of my friends from the RedSox.com message board. God bless her, Brenken, as she is known on the board, had the wine ready to go, and we drank and talked baseball by the pool, then went for a ride on the lake (more wine), then had dinner (more wine). By the time the game came on MLB radio, I was slightly tipsy and could barely keep my eyes open, but I waited until we had taken the lead before I succumbed to exhaustion and went to bed.

A year ago, I also attended the first week of spring training games, which included five home games at City of Palms Park and two away games at Hammond Stadium, spring home of the Minnesota Twins, right across town. This year I forewent the two away games on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. Friday was a home double-header against Boston College and Northeastern, both of which the Sox won, which of course was a given but it was still fun to see Wakefield and Schilling make their respective first starts.

Having chosen to skip Saturday's away game, I left Chez Brenken for the tropical mirage of Marco Island and my friend Patty's condominium across the street from the beach. It was another perfect day (did I mention that it was in the low 80s and sunny the first four days I was there, after which is was in the mid 70s and sunny?) and we sat by the pool and I didn't put on sunscreen and got an impressive burn. But the pool was like bath water so it was all good.

Sunday brought the Yankees and an unusual amount of riffraff to the ballpark. And let me tell you, some Yankees fans are every bit as obnoxious when they're on vacation or retired as they are at home. A few of them aren't too bright, either. The game was a sellout (most of the Red Sox spring training games are) and Yankees fans loitered on the sidewalk looking pathetic and asking if anyone had extra tickets. I didn't, but even if I did, really, would I have sold them to some obnoxious New Yorker in full Yankees regalia? New Englanders aren't that stupid.

We lost the game, thanks to a Jason Shiell 6-run inning (why is he still on the team?) but starter Bronson Arroyo was terrific and we knocked Jose Contreras around. Seriously, that man should retire now. He looks about 57.

I met a friend's daughter for the game on Monday against the Twins (we played them a lot in that first week) and we hung out for two hours down the third base line getting autographs and pictures. The nice thing about spring training is that the kids can be kids and so can the adults. Hannah got a few autographs and got her picture taken with Bronson, which is a big deal for a 13-year-old girl. We got to see Derek Lowe pitch, and the Red Sox won.

There was a night game on Tuesday, so earlier in the day Patty and I hit the pristine and totally manufactured Marco Island residents' beach. I wore sunscreen this time, took pictures of seagulls, collected shells for my niece, and swam in the Gulf. God didn't make ocean water that warm off the Cape or the Maine coast, and I had a nice swim and emerged without purple lips or chattering teeth or goosebumps. We lost a close game to Cincinnati that night, but before the game I got Nomar's autograph for my 5-year-old nephew, whose soul I'm trying to save from his father, the Yankees fans. And I kept a killer scorecard.

As nice an airport as RSW is to fly into, it's a drag flying out of, in part because that means the end of vacation but also because you've never seen security lines so long. I don't think they're any more careful there; I think they just don't have enough metal detectors and x-ray machines. It's ridiculous. But I made my flight and except for the vicious cross-wind landing at O'Hare (God bless that pilot, whom I thanked on the way out for keeping the plane right-side up) it was an uneventful ride home.

So that was the trip. My next post will be a recap on which players did what and my take on what I saw.


Cheers of Red Sox triumph so far: 0


Tuesday, March 02, 2004

  Look Who's Juiced

According to today's San Francisco Chronicle, six major leaguers got steroids from BALCO, the lab currently involved in a federal investigation. The players named are Barry Bonds, Marvin Benard, Benito Santiago, Randy Velarde, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield.

For those keeping score at home, that group includes two New York Yankees and an former Yankee. I wonder if that's what they mean by "aura and mystique." Not that you'll hear pompous Yankees fans crowing about leading baseball in the use of banned substances. But I digress.

Naturally, those accused should be considered innocent until proven guilty, but really, is it possible to look at Jason Giambi and not think that if only he were green, he'd look just like the Incredible Hulk? Take a look at a picture from his younger days, when he would have resembled Kermit the Frog more than the Hulk, and you'll have little doubt. It's not for nothing that his name has been among the first mentioned in steroid discussions for some time now.

The sad part is that these six players are probably the tip of the iceberg, and the problem isn't confined to just a few teams, either. Chances are that the Red Sox have one or more players who are "enhanced" as well. There are, after all, other places to get steroids besides BALCO. This is a scandal that has the potential to shake the institution of major league baseball to its foundation, and the ultimate question won't be which teams are affected but rather which are affected less than others. What's even more unfortunate is that players who are clean, but more muscular and powerful, will be considered suspect too. It's not fair, but it's understandable.

I can't help but think that the best thing for the non-users will be mandatory testing of all players, which will either catch the users or get them off the sauce and let the guys who achieve through talent and hard work shine through. The players' association will obviously do everything in their considerable power to avoid something so sensible, but the players would do well to fight them.

In any case, this issue isn't going away anytime soon, and many more players beloved and otherwise will be brought down before it's over. I hope none of my Red Sox are among them, but for the time being I'm not ashamed to gloat over the Yankees who are.


Cheers of Red Sox triumph so far: 0


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