I have already had my rants about players not prepared for the Red Sox season. Now I want to credit some role players, who are always prepared.
Ryan Hannigan: Hannigan hit a home run in the final Exhibition game in 2016, threw out a baserunner and almost threw out another one. He really looks like a plumber playing for Local 1721, but he handles pitchers expertly and he makes the perfect battery-mate for a guy named O’Sullivan. Makes glad the Irish heart from South Boston.
Brock Holt: Is there a better name for a baseball player than “Brock Holt”? Holt is less obscure, but who would have picked him as a starting left fielder at the beginning of Spring Training? He does all the little things: bunts, moves the runner along, takes the walks, hustles in the field from seven different positions. Small wonder he was an All-Star utility infielder last year. Now he’s platooning with Michael Young in the most famous left field in baseball.
Steven Wright: Son of Tim Wakefield. I would love to know what makes knuckle-ballers so resilient. If the knuckler forgets to dip out of the hitting zone, the knuckle-baller philosophically watches it arc into space and land in the parking lot, then sighs, and turns to the next batter, who flails helplessly at the next pitch. Live by the butterfly, die by the butterfly. The best part of Wakefield and Wright is the total lack of ego, which says, start me, close me, give me the mop, send me for coffee, I’m just here to do my job. My job is to release pitches from my finger tips and hope for the best.
Ruben Amaro: Jaws dropped when he left an administrative job in the front office to be a first-base coach for the Red Sox. This is like the school superintendent deciding to return to the classroom. I wish more would follow Amaro’s example. He loves baseball more than power, and he wants to work where he can have the most impact. He may be a throwback from the halcyon days of baseball, when managers played and executives left them alone. I like to think he is true to baseball’s eternal spirit.
Opening Day Fans: We start every year thinking our team will make the playoffs and who knows what can happen from there? Is there any other game with the potential for dreams like that? There are five teams in every pro sport who plan at the beginning of the year to sell playoff seats and always do. There are a dozen more who are chronic re-builders. Not so in baseball. The Chicago Cubs and the Kansas City Royals are favored to go to the World Series. If anyone had predicted that five years ago we would have been glad to take their money. Baseball is the land of dreams.
Dream on, fans, we are all headed for the playoffs.
With more guts than brains, but a lot of brains, Shane Victorino was the heart of a Red Sox team that played above its talent in 2013. Yes, David Ortiz is the soul of the Red Sox, and Mike Napoli played hurt and hefty with the bat, but Victorino was a Kamikazee in the field and at the plate, a magnetic field of hustle that pushed the Sox into over-achievement and beyond.
Except for his penchant for running through walls, Victorino would be my choice for center field in the spring. He is fearless to a fault, chasing down balls with reckless abandon. He was Gold Glove quality in the tough Fenway right field, but he had fewer close encounters with immovable barriers than in center field, and that kept him in the line-up in mid-season. And you had to love a guy who would try to throw out runners at first base after fielding the “automatic” single on one hop. He joked with acquaintances who would hustle into first ahead of his throw, but he was dead serious about throwing out the unsuspecting.
He was no less gritty in the batters’ box, leaning over the plate and inviting pitchers to hit him. Many did, but mostly by his reluctance to stand aside with a fastball bearing down on him. I kept expecting umpires to warn him about leaning in to the pitch, but he found the stance that eluded their scrutiny. He took many for the team, while turning on the pitches that caught too much of the plate, like the one he hit for a grand slam in Game Six of the World Series.
He is the only switch hitter I’ve seen abandon one side of the plate for his own advantage. Plagued by an injury that weakened his stride on the left side, he batted right-handed for the rest of the year, with thundering results. Many times I’ve wished switch hitters would give up on their weak side of the plate, Jerrod Saltalamacchia comes to mind, but they doggedly move to the pitcher’s opposite side, even when said pitcher handles both righties and lefties with efficiency. Victorino broke that tradition and hit right-handed most of the second half of the season.
We knew Victorino’s body was damaged in some way the entire year. He sat on the bench for a few weeks early in the season, but mostly he just played hurt in too many places to mention. When he got on base he ran on gimpy legs and still stole timely bases. We may have forgotten his injuries because they rarely affected his performance, but he was hurting in some way from May to October.
Victorino and Jonny Gomes were Ben Cherrington’s “impact” players who were worth more than their statistics revealed. They were energy in the dugout and inspiration on the field. But when you consider Victorino’s fielding, you have to give him the nod as the daily charge in the Red Sox engine. He was “Boston Strong” and “Hawaiian Hustle” in one tightly-wound package.
When I think of the Red Sox repeating in 2014, I think: if only Victorino stays well. Other players will make their contributions, but Victorino will set the pace.
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at
(“The Pitcher,” Robert Francis)
John Farrell understands that pitching is the art of learning from failure. He was not a great pitcher himself, and he has nurtured a host of Red Sox pitchers through failure, among them Cliff Bucholz, Felix Dubront, John Lackey, and most recently John Lester.
Pitchers and quarterbacks are unique for throwing to miss the target. If you put the ball right into the strike zone or right into the receiver’s hands you risk a home run or an interception. Instead you throw to the batter’s weakness or the receiver’s strength, and the difference, as a poet once said of his craft, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
It was utterly painful to watch John Lester struggle with the strike zone on Friday night at Comerica Park. The man has won nineteen games in a season and thrown a no-hitter. As recently as this season he has flirted with a hitless outing, where his curves and cutters were biting the corners and baffling big league all-stars. He started Opening Day in 2012 and 2013, the projected ace of the pitching staff.
Lester was missing badly Friday night, turning Jerrod Saltalamacchia into a goalie blocking shots low outside, low inside. Some pitches were just off the plate and his eyes pleaded with the umpire to see them into the strike zone.
After Miguel Cabrera launched a three-run homer into the Tiger bullpen, I yelled at John Farrell on my television screen, “Now will you take him out?” It was 6-5, the Sox leading by one fragile run. But Farrell waited with the infuriating patience that baseball managers uniquely display. He waited while Lester walked the hapless rookie Garcia in the fifth and Pena, the ninth batter in the order in the sixth, then struck out Omar Infante.
Now he comes out and takes the ball from Lester with a pat on the back. The former journeyman with the Cleveland Indians sends his ace to the showers on a strikeout. Only a pitcher would understand what that meant to John Lester. He left on a high note after five innings of very low notes, many of them in the dirt.
In the meantime I’m gasping, “At last!” At least I wouldn’t have to witness the so-called ace squandering the rest of his five-run lead. Some shred of humanity in my cold fan’s heart is saying, “Yeah, but did you see the hell that guy went through for five and two-thirds innings? The man was practically on the cross.”
Remarkably it is the humanity of a baseball manager that makes him great, not his ruthlessness. Leave it to the basketball coaches to scream and throw balls at their players, the baseball manager has to reason with a pitcher and pat him on the rump when he takes him out of the game. And he keeps sending him out to pitch every five days, even though his cutter is biting the dust and his curve ball is missing the corners.
As baseball scribes declare, the game is a game of failure. You get a hit every three chances at the plate, you’re an all-star, every four times, you’re on the bench, every five times, you’re back in the minors. Your fastball catches the clean-up hitter napping, you’re a crafty hurler; it catches the sweet spot on the ninth hitter’s bat, you’re a chump who’s lost his control.
A little like life, isn’t it? A game of failures, where the strong accept and learn from them, and the weak are defeated by them. And our mentors and managers are there, patiently enduring our failures and patting us on the back for the smallest success.
The talk about trading Jacoby Ellsbury is descending to the lowest level of supply and demand. Technically players are property and a business has to control its assets and liabilities, but doesn’t it matter that Ellsbury was drafted and coached through the Red Sox farm system and was part of the last team to win the World Series? Is there any identity to a team, other than its wins and losses and paid attendance?
I realize I’m writing about a bygone era, when players hung on to teams for a whole career, the days of Yastrzemski and Evans. (Oh yeah, there was Carlton Fisk). But there is some pride in bringing a player of the caliber of Ellsbury or Lester or Pedroia or Buchholz to the majors to All-Star quality. Teams ask relentlessly to acquire these players, but it doesn’t mean we should ship them off at the first tempting offer.
Major League teams ought to have some identity other than the logo on their uniforms. Even the cynical Yankees had their Riviera and Pettit and Jeter and Posada. That was the Yankee identity during the years when they shipped out dozens of players and hired new mercenaries every year. Those guys became the ethos of a team of rent-a-stars. The Red Sox knew who they were playing when they went into Yankee Stadium.
Now that the Red Sox have shipped off their rent-a-stars they have a chance to forge an identity around Ortiz and Pedroia and Lester and Ellsbury. All the talk about moving the infirm while they still have legs to travel is degrading to a player who has busted his tail through the farm system and seven years with the parent club. And it’s not mere sentiment to keep a player of Ellsbury’s talent the year before he becomes a free agent.
Ellsbury is a bonafide lead-off hitter with power. How many years did the Red Sox pine for a good lead-off hitter? How much did they miss a reliable lead-off hitter last year? Now that he’s signed to a contract, they want to trade him for a back-of the-rotation pitcher?
So I’m not participating in the speculation about disposing of the weak while he still has market value.
But if you’re talking Cliff Lee or Felix Hernandez, I’m listening.
Sitting in the Monster seats at jetBlue Park, Fort Myers, you can look past the center field scoreboard and see actual jets angling sharply into the sky as they leave South Florida International Airport. It’s a nice image for Spring Training, a smooth and successful launch, in fact, dozens of them in the course of one game.
Over the weekend, I witnessed several other smooth launchings in Fort Myers, a couple of skyrockets from Cody Ross and David Ortiz, some dazzling breaking balls from a couple of Andrews– Bailey and Miller, some whip-like pickoff throws from Josh Beckett, and wall-busting doubles from Lars Anderson, the best spring hitter to miss the cut.
Regarding Anderson, Bobby Valentine said, “He may be delayed, but he won’t be denied,” (at the Red Sox Destinations Barbeque) showing good control of alliteration, but not a strong sense of legal principle. Not to quibble, but the legal principle is “Justice delayed is justice denied,” and it has a certain aptness for the athletic first baseman, who has leveled a major league swing for several Spring Trainings past.
This spring Anderson has hit, run and fielded with big-league skill. He leads the team in RBI’s (7) and equals the formidable Cody Ross in OBP (.520). He has handled every play at first and taken a turn in left field. He has swatted the first pitch and worked the count to 3-2 and walked four times. He has shown poise and aggressiveness and hustle, all the attributes you need to break into a Major League line-up.
Probably his most prominent flaw is playing behind Adrian Gonzalez, with Kevin Youkilis available to back up first base. But Youkilis should really stay at third base when he’s healthy, and the Red Sox need another substitute in the outfield to go with Darnell McDonald, who happens to bat right. Anderson bats left.
Jason Repko, who has been mentioned as the fifth outfielder, bats right. I’m a fan of Repko, because he can throw runners out and he can bunt. But he has not shown he can hit this spring, and the Twins apparently gave him up for some such reason. It does not seem right to bring a weak-hitting outfielder up to Boston, when you have as deadly a hitter as Anderson in Pawtucket.
I remember six springs ago when Jacoby Ellsbury was sent down to season in Pawtucket. He was brought back in June, and the rest is history.
It’s early in the season, let’s give the rookie a shot.
The Lars Anderson (no relation) Bridge spans the Charles River from Cambridge to Boston. This is the final reason Lars Anderson belongs in Boston. It’s poetic justice, justice that cannot be denied.
Apparently Jason Varitek misjudged his marketability when he decided to file for free agency in 2008. And apparently the Red Sox overestimated the availability of catchers when they started negotiating with Steve Boras. So the parties have arrived in January with nothing but embarrassment to show for their Winter’s labors.
On the balance sheet for 2009 many baseball fans can sympathize. Items we imagined as “assets,” such as real estate, are depreciated and immovable. We are not bargaining for anything except to break even and survive our economic winter. Some are bargaining just to hold on to those assets until another Spring Training.
So we feel your pain, Red Sox management and disgruntled catcher. We get that no one’s going to win on this negotiation. Do you? Can you just scale down your expectations like the rest of us? Can you complete the roster and be glad you have an experienced catcher and a satisfying job respectively?
We’re not asking a lot of 2009: a job, a house . . . a shot at the World Series. Help us make a piece of that dream come true.