Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Lilliputians of Landsdowne

Eddie Gaedel, not a former Red Sock
Yesterday we looked at the tallest players in Red Sox history so for symmetry’s sake today we will look down to the shortest players. These are the Lilliputians of Landsdowne…

Catcher: Frankie Pytlak, 5’7” 1941-1946
When you are this short, do you even need to crouch behind the plate? Pytlak was acquired along with future All Star pitcher Joe Dobson from the Cleveland Indians before the ’41 season. After one subpar season behind the dish, he was summoned by Uncle Sam to infiltrate the Nazi Army as America’s littlest soldier, slipping undetected under Nazi watch. When he returned to baseball in 1945 at 36 years old, he had lost all baseball ability, playing in just 13 more games over two seasons posting an OPS of .335.

First base: Joe Judge, 5’8”, 1933-1934
What the short group may lack in talent over the tall group, they are certainly making up for it in awesome names. Besides Joe “My Name Is” Judge, the next three shortest first basemen were named Stuffy, Squanto, and Dolph! Judge was actually a really good player for a long time with the Washington Senators, finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting twice. By the time he came to Boston, he was 39 years old, but still gave the team average performance in 123 at bats spread over two seasons.

Second base: Cliff Brady, 5’5” 1920
Who was positive that this spot was going to go to Dustin Pedroia? Everybody’s favorite little scrapper was actually 19th shortest on this list with a generous official height of 5’9”, but I’d be shocked if he was more than 5’7” in real life, which would place him in a big tie for 6th. Second base is the land of the little guys, where all the hustliest, scrappiest, tenacious, big-hearted dirt dogs make their living. Brady scooted around the keystone for just one season, but I’ll bet his tiny stature and even tinier batting average made him a favorite of crotchety old sports journalists. Because the great thing about small guys is that they really know how to do the little things that you just can’t capture in a box score. Pun intended.

Shortstop: Herb Welch, 5’6”, 1925
What is the etymology of the word “shortstop”? It appears to be a relic of the way the position used to be played as more of a short fielder type drifting between the infield and outfield. Sadly it has nothing to do with it being the position where they put the shortest players. Welch played just one tiny season for a very bad Red Sox team that won only 47 games. He was so bad that he couldn’t even beat out starting shortstop Dud Lee, who hit just .224 that season. Were it not for Welch, this spot could have been occupied by a player nicknamed Pee-Wee or Rabbit. Wouldn’t life be more fun if Pedroia had a nickname like Pee-Wee or Rabbit? How about Petey Rabbit?

Third base: Eddie Foster, 5’6”, 1920-1922
Are you sensing a pattern yet? So far our most recent mite last played in 1946. As anybody who has ever helped their younger sister move into the third floor of an old house in a city will attest, people used to be a lot smaller. Foster played for the Sox in the roaring twenties at the tail end of a solid, but unspectacular career. He also played for the Red Sox team that had the most players 5'7" or under with five (Foster, Brady, Ed Chaplin, Hal Deviney, Jigger Statz).

Left field: Gene Rye, 5'6", 1931
Another shorty, another cup of coffee guy. This is getting sad. Most sports fans love rooting for the little guy who overcomes long odds to flash some measure of success and help his team to some grand victory. But if you exclusively root for the little guy you are going to root for some really bad ball players. I'll take the hulking giants who launch 500 foot homers over the scrappers who lay down a well timed bunt any day. Rye had 7 hits in his 39 at bats and was never heard from again. He also played for the Red Sox when they wore pin stripes so that is extra sad.

Center field: Nemo Leibold, 5'6" 1921-1923
One year removed from the shortest team in Sox history, Leibold was traded to the Red Sox for Hall of Famer Harry Hooper. Little Nemo was a nice ball player but he was certainly not worthy of being traded for a future Hall of Famer. He had a little bit of success but Nemo was unable to FIND his way at the plate and was waived two years later. Sorry for the obvious Pixar joke. This collection of players have been very uninteresting and difficult to write about.

Right field: Skinny Graham, 5'7" 1934-1935
I've said it before (in this post and elsewhere) we need player nicknames back! What about Josh "The Texecutioner" Beckett? Carl "Swag" Crawford? Kevin "Handsome" Youkilis? Andrew "Shaggy" Miller? Jon "The Head Hunter" Lester? J.D. "The Greatest Show On Earth" Drew? OK, maybe that last one wouldn't fly, but let's get back to the days of apt nicknames that aren't just combos of first and last names (A Gone) or abbreviated last names (Buch, Pedey, Lack, Youk, Ells).

Pitcher: Frank Morrissey, 5'4" 1901
Was Frank the great grandfather of depressing crooner Morrissey? Was the source of his sadness that his flesh and blood was so small and only played 2 major league seasons despite an exquisite 2.23 ERA? Was "Our Frank" written in his honor? The answers to these questions may never be known. As the final player on this list, Morrissey is also the smallest. Therefore he is granted the Golden Eckstein award for his over-sized heart, determination and ability to make grown men weep.

On our entire list of the shortest players in Red Sox history, we have one player who could be considered an All Star (Joe Judge) and 5 cup of coffee players. In a competition between tall and short there would be absolutely no contest. It may be fun to find the next Rudy or Eckstein, but if you want a winning team it is probably better to look up than look down. Not to be a heightist, but these days the tall rule the earth.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Giants of Fenway

Two things I really like to utilize on my blog are Baseball-Reference’s Play Index (but you already knew that) and OPI (Other People’s Ideas, not some crazy new baseball stat). Today’s OPI comes from a great blog called The Platoon Advantage. A couple months ago they wrote about the tallest and the shortest players to ever play major league baseball at each position. So on this beautiful June day, I am going to “borrow” this idea, starting with the tallest players ever to don the Red Sox (in the event of a tie, I'll go with the longest tenured player).

Catcher: Bob Tillman, 6’4”, 1962-1967
The catcher position is not one that is typically associated with height. X Dad (6’3”) and I (6’2”) both played the position, but usually catchers are just a bit shorter because it is difficult for a taller man to get down in the crouch and pop out of it. Tillman is one of 7 catchers in Sox history to be this height (including Jarrod Saltalamacchia). In his rookie year, Tillman blasted 14 home runs in just 81 games. Two years later he was the team’s regular catcher and had his best season of his career with an OPS 16% better than league average. Tillman flamed out the next year and during the Impossible Dream Season of ’67 was sold to the Yankees (ya, these two teams used to actually make deals together).

First base: Tony Clark, 6’8”, 2002
No surprise here. Clark is one of the biggest men to ever play baseball and the tallest position player ever to wear a Red Sox uniform. We are also 2 for 2 in players who have played for the Sox and Yankees. Clark did very little for the Sox in his one year with the team, in fact he had his worst season of his career at only 30 years old. The year before he had been an All Star with the Tigers, but he completely lost it when he came to Boston. He would go on to have a few more decent seasons as a part-time player and he was a prominent member of the MLB Players’ Association.

Second base: Mike Andrews, 6’3”, 1966-1970

Another position for the height challenged. Andrews was the team’s starting second baseman as a 23 year old rookie during their improbable run to the ’67 pennant. He made the All Star team two years later before being traded to the Pale Hose in 1970 for Hall of Famer Luis Apparicio. The trade of a 26 year old (Andrews) for a 37 year old (Apparicio) seems like an odd swap, but Apparicio had the reputation as one of the best short stop glovemen ever (the only reason he made the Hall of Fame in fact) and the team had just acquired second baseman Doug Griffin for Tony Conigliaro so a replacement was already there.

Short stop: Hanley Ramirez, 6’3”, 2005
HanRam had a 2 game cameo for the Sox in 2005, but was shipped out after the season for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. I was surprised to see that the second base crop was generally taller than the short stops. Also, how is it possible that Jed Lowrie, Alex Cora, Nomar Garciaparra and John Valentin are all the same height (6’0”)? I thought Nomar towered over most shortstops like the other 2/3 of the holy trinity, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.

Third base: Mike Lowell, 6’4” 2006-2010
What a tall trade that was. In addition to Lowell and HanRam being the tallest at their respective positions, Beckett (6’5”), Guillermo Mota (6’6”) and Harvey Garcia (6’2”) were all baseball giants. Lowell was a great addition to the Red Sox after being considered the price of business for acquiring Beckett. He won the World Series MVP in 2007 (and also finished 5th on the regular season MVP ballot) and was a key contributor offensively and defensively in his five years here. He is also my celebrity lookalike, so that’s pretty neat.

Left field: Ted Williams, 6’3” 1939-1960
Another surprise position. Left field is a spot, especially in Fenway, where you should be able to hide your hulking sluggers who can’t field well, but the tallest left fielders in Sox history are shorter than the tallest catchers. Teddy Ballgame is one of 6 players at this height, but is by far the longest tenured and certainly the best of the lot. Of course you could put Williams on just about any baseball list and he would be the best of the lot. 521 career home runs, .344 average, .482 OBP (highest all time), .634 slugging. The magnitude of this man’s career is staggering. Enough to give a serious brain freeze. Too soon?

Center field: Jerry Mallett, 6’5”, 1959
Ah the immortal Jerry Mallett. Played a total of 4 games for the Red Sox in 1959, going 4 for 15 with 1 RBI. Today, Mallett sits on his front porch in Texas bouncing his grandson Tully on his knee telling him stories about the show: “You know Tully, it was the greatest 21 days of my life. You never touch your luggage in the show – somebody else handles your bags. It’s great. The ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, the women have long legs and brains – it’s a smorgasboard.”

Right field: Tom Brunansky 6’4”, 1990-1992
I plan on doing a Back to the Future with Brunansky one of these days so I’ll keep this brief. He was acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990 to take over right field in the middle of a pennant race. On the last day of the season, Ozzie Guillen came to bat for the White Sox in the top of the ninth and hit a ball down the right field line that could have won the game and cost the Red Sox the division title. Then this. Brunansky needed every inch of that 6’4” frame to propel the Red Sox into the playoffs (here's another look at the catch with local news star Bob Lobel).

Pitcher: Gene Conley, 6’8”, 1961-1963
Conley began his career as a member of the Boston/Milwaukee Braves, which means at one point in his life he was a property of my family, so I’m going to call him “My Giant”. My Giant made the All Star team and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in his first season. My Giant would make two more All Star teams (one with Milwaukee and one with Philadelphia) before he was acquired by the Red Sox in 1961. My Giant pitched two mediocre seasons in ’61 and ’62 and in ’63 was a disaster for the Sox and he called it a career.

As you can see, extreme height is not a sought out quality in a baseball player. There have been plenty of tall players in baseball history, but most of the best players were of normal height. Even Ted Williams at 6’3” would not be considered any type of height freak. That does not mean that being tall is necessarily a hindrance to being a good baseball player either. Guys like Randy Johnson and Frank Howard had great success in their oversized bodies. As a relatively tall person myself, I find it much more fun to route for the men who shop at Big and Tall than those who shop at Brooks Brothers Boys like David Eckstein (and Tom Haverford). Tomorrow, we’ll examine those diminutives of the diamond and see who were the shortest players in Red Sox history (Spoiler Alert: You will not find Dustin Pedroia anywhere on that list).

Monday, June 27, 2011

Back to the future with Tony Conigliaro

Hello again, X Mark here. In this installment of Back to the Future we are going to learn about a player near and dear to X Dad’s heart. Let’s take the WABAC machine to the year 1962. Today we will explore the career of one of baseball’s great, tragic heroes. We set the WABAC controls for the town of Lynn, MA, the city of sin, (let’s hope we come out the same way we went in) and just like that we are standing in the hometown of 17 year old phenom Tony Conigliaro

Tony Conigliaro was as local as local can be. Born in Revere, he grew up in Lynn and attended St. Mary’s High School. In 1962 at the age of 17, Conig was signed by the home town Boston Red Sox. This was 3 years before the amateur draft so the Red Sox had a unique advantage to sign the young outfielder. Sexy Boston Sports’ Director of Fan Relations Sadie Sloe Gin often comments on how much more fun it would be if pro teams were comprised of mostly local athletes. Setting aside the huge disadvantage that New England teams would face these days (most talent in all sports besides hockey comes from outside this region now), this belief was 100% accurate in the 60’s. After just one season in the minor leagues, in which he hit 24 home runs in only 333 at bats, Conig ascended to the majors and became an instant fan favorite because of his local connection and prodigious talents.

In 1964, Conig opened the season batting 7th and playing centerfield for the Boston Red Sox. In the second game of the season, the home opener, he homered on the first pitch he saw from White Sox starter Joe Horlen and the legend of Tony C was born. Though he struggled in his first month as the starting center fielder, he shifted to left in May and immediately went on a tear. From May 3 to July 26, Conig posted a triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .296/.361/.553 with 18 homers and 15 doubles in 284 at bats. His right handed stroke made him perfect for taking advantage of Fenway’s Green Monster. Sadly, his hot rookie season came to a screeching halt on July 26 when he broke his arm after being hit by a pitch. He would return just over a month later to continue his torrid hitting (.960 OPS in the last month), but the lost month cost him a shot at the Rookie of the Year award (he lost to Minnesota’s Tony Oliva who had 84 extra base hits and a sparkling .323 average).

The following season, at just 20 years old, Tony C was installed as the Red Sox starting right fielder batting cleanup behind future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. The powerful duo led a strong Red Sox offense that finished third in the league in scoring that season, but all those runs would not be enough. The Red Sox rotation featured just one pitcher with an above average ERA and of the four starters with 30 or more starts, Earl Wilson finished with the fewest losses with 14. They were the worst staff in baseball. The team finished with 100 losses (the last Red Sox team to reach the century mark in losses) and in 9th place in the 10 team American League. Conig’s considerable efforts that season were for naught.

If his rookie season thrust him onto the baseball scene, his sophomore campaign vaulted him to icon status. Despite missing time with a broken arm from being hit by a pitch for the second consecutive year, Tony C led the American League in home runs with 32. He was (and still is) the youngest home run champ ever. Here are the 10 youngest home run champs:

Rk HR Year Age ▴ Tm Lg
1 Tony Conigliaro 32 1965 20 BOS AL
2 Eddie Mathews 47 1953 21 MLN NL
3 Johnny Bench 45 1970 22 CIN NL
4 Joe DiMaggio 46 1937 22 NYY AL
5 Juan Gonzalez 43 1992 22 TEX AL
6 Ted Williams 37 1941 22 BOS AL
7 Hank Aaron 44 1957 23 MLN NL
8 Jose Canseco 42 1988 23 OAK AL
9 Orlando Cepeda 46 1961 23 SFG NL
10 Prince Fielder 50 2007 23 MIL NL
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/27/2011.

That list includes 6 Hall of Famers, a two time MVP winner, the Czar of Steroids and one of today’s biggest superstars, but none of them did it as young as Tony C. 

Stardom was a certainty for the local boy. He was handsome and bold. He dated movie star Mamie Van Doren. He was such a big draw that he released an album in 1965 featuring the tracks “I Can’t Get Over You” and “Little Red Scooter” and he even performed on the Merv Griffin show (this video is a MUST WATCH). What a heart throb.

In 1966, Conig continued to be a terror for American League pitchers, but again, the Sox finished in 9th place. Then, in 1967, things started to change. The pitching staff that had finished last in the league in 1965, was now middle of the pack. Yaz and Tony C, already the leaders of a potent Red Sox offense, took their games to another level. Yaz, that season’s MVP, would finish the season leading the league in home runs, RBI and average, the last player to capture the Triple Crown. 

Conig was also having his best season, posting an OPS 42% better than league average and making his first All Star team. His season reached its pinnacle on July 23rd when he stroked his 100th home run, becoming the youngest player ever to reach this round number. Below is the full list of players who have reached 100 home runs before their 23rd birthday:

Rk Player HR Age G PA Tm
1 Mel Ott 115 17-22 677 2640 NYG
2 Eddie Mathews 112 20-22 440 1875 BSN-MLN
3 Alex Rodriguez 106 18-22 513 2271 SEA
4 Tony Conigliaro 104 19-22 494 2047 BOS
Generated 6/27/2011.

That’s it. 4 players. 2 Hall of Famers, one future Hall of Famer and Tony C. If someone said in July of 1967 that Tony Conigliaro would not be a Hall of Famer they would probably be spit on by everyone within ear shot. Barring injury, this kid was on a meteoric rise to super stardom, possibly even challenging Ted Williams as the most prolific hitter in Red Sox history. Unfortunately for our young hero, the lords of baseball are a cruel bunch.

On August 18, 1967, the Red Sox were facing the California Angels at home. The team sat in fourth place, 3 games back of the Minnesota Twins. Gary Bell took the mound for the Sox that day opposing Angels starter Jack Hamilton. Hamilton was a baseball nomad. At 29 years old, he was already on his 4th major league team, traded to the Angels that season by the New York Mets. He was making his 14th start for the club that day. Tony C was in the lineup playing right field and batting 6th. Hamilton blew through the Sox lineup the first time through only allowing one walk and one single, to Conig, and Bell countered with blanks through the first 4 innings as well (he would take a no-hitter into the 7th).

In the bottom of the 4th, first baseman George Scott led off with a single, but was erased trying to advance to second. Then, perhaps prophetically, a smoke bomb was launched onto the field, delaying the game for 10 minutes. Centerfielder Reggie Smith followed with a fly out and it was Conig’s turn to bat with 2 down and nobody on. Remember how I mentioned that he had missed time with two separate broken arms from being hit by pitches? Well Tony C was notorious for crowding the plate. "'He hangs over the plate as much as anyone in the league,' Hamilton said later." He also wore one of the old time helmets without ear flaps because they were not yet mandatory throughout the league.

So Conig steps to the plate to face Hamilton in his second at bat. He comes right up to the edge of the plate and leans his chiseled body over in defiance. Hamilton rears back and fires and, “’It was a squish’, recalls (Rico) Petrocelli, the on-deck hitter, ‘like a tomato or melon hitting the ground.’” The ball struck Congliaro square in the left cheek and he dropped to the ground as if he had been shot. Petrocelli and the team trainer ran over to his aid as he lay in a heap in the batter’s box. He was carried off on a stretcher to be treated at a local hospital. He had broken bones in his face and his vision became eternally blurry. As his teammates celebrated their improbable run to the 1967 AL Pennant, Tony C was on the sidelines watching with his one good eye.

Remarkably, he would return to the Red Sox for the 1969 season and would experience the thrill of playing alongside his brother Billy in the Red Sox outfield.. After a mediocre season by his standards, Tony C opened the ’70 season as a man on a mission and finished with a career high 36 home runs. Then, almost immediately after the season, he was unceremoniously traded to the Angels for young second baseman Doug Griffin (Hamilton was no longer on the club). He managed just 266 at bats that year as the eye problems finally got the best of him and he posted just a .620 OPS. For the next 3 years he toiled in the Angels farm system before receiving his release in 1974 and signed with the Red Sox during spring training of 1975. He had 57 at bats for the ’75 AL Pennant winners, but was unable to positively contribute from a DH slot that was needed for youngster Jim Rice. On June 12, 1975, Tony Conigliaro played his last major league game.

Conig would go on to receive some broadcasting opportunities, never wanting to shrink from the spot light. In 1982, on his birthday, he auditioned to be an analyst for the Red Sox for WSBK-TV in Boston. Two days after his audition, his brother Billy was driving him to the airport when he suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 37 and slipped into a coma. He woke up 4 months later, but he had suffered some serious brain damage. For eight years, the once great slugger was reduced to a near vegetative state. Famous for his resolve, it was assumed that eventually the boy wonder from Lynn would pull through, but it was not to be. On February 24, 1990, Tony Conigliaro passed away of pneumonia and kidney failure at the age of 45.

Tony Conigliaro was one of the greatest young hitters the game ever saw. He was Boston’s answer to Mickey Mantle: young, charming, unlimited potential. But for one errant fastball from a journeyman pitcher, Tony C would be mentioned in the same breath as Williams, Yaz and Rice in Boston baseball lore. As it was, he was a dominating force for the first 4 years of his young career and set records that may never be broken. He was an inspiration for millions around Boston including a pre-teen X Dad who marveled at his promise. I’ll leave the final words to Peter Gammons from his de facto obituary in Sports Illustrated over a week after Conig’s passing: "Today's young stars, so arrogant in their celebrity, should take a moment to think about Tony C, whose tragic life testifies to the fragility of human excellence. "

Friday, June 24, 2011

Get to know your Interleague Foils

I’ve been a bit of a naughty blogger over the last 2 weeks. Not only have my columns been sparse (and misleading), but I’ve neglected to inform my faithful readers about the odd opponents your Boston Red Sox have had of late. In this latest round of interleague play, the Sox have played a lot teams that we don’t usually see against our crimson footed ballers. Even though some of the teams we’ve played and are about to play have been pretty bad, there are some interesting stories surrounding most of them. Here is a quick rundown of the 2 most recent and 3 future NL teams to square off against Boston.

Milwaukee Brewers: One of Alice Cooper’s favorite cities to visit (as the natives call it, Mill-E-Wah-Kay) is home to one of the better teams in the National League. While their chief competitors in the NL Central (Reds and Cardinals) boast deep lineups and pitching staffs, the Brewers are so top heavy they would make Dolly Parton jealous. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are possibly the best hitting duo in the NL and Rickie Weeks the top second baseman. After that, the hitters range from average to Yuniesky (a common baseball slang for terrible). The rotation is similarly top heavy, or at least should be. The club acquired Cy Young candidates Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum in the offseason to join fellow Cy contender Yovani Gallardo in a menacing front three. Marcum has come up aces, but to this point the G-men have disappointed (though Greinke  has an 8.89 SO/BB ratio so I’m 88.9% positive his 4.77 ERA is a fluke). If this team could make a couple upgrades, especially at short, they could challenge the Phillies for best in the NL. Unfortunately they already made their upgrades in the offseason bringing in Greinke and Marcum so there is nothing left to trade away.

San Diego Padres: The current home of Westboro’s favorite Swede has very little going for it in the way of on field talent. Anthony Rizzo, acquired from Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, looks like he could be the next great Padre to play for 5 years and then be traded away. Cameron Maybin is an interesting case study in fallen prospect trying to make good on his past promise. And that’s about it. Basically when your closer is your best player, you are going to have some issues winning ball games (just ask the Royals from the last 3 seasons). Gun to my head though, I’m pretty sure I’d rather live in San Diego and root for the Padres than live in Boston and root for the Red Sox, so really, what is all this for?

Pittsburgh Pirates: What an exciting up and coming team (can you tell I’m about to suck up to fellow UMass alum and Pirates GM Neil Huntington?)! The team has valiantly clawed back to .500 in a winnable NL Central behind budding superstar Andrew McCutcheon (one story I read compared McCutcheon’s first three years in Pitt to Barry Bonds’ and McCutcheon came out on top!). The team is a bit of a Motley Crue, but they are finding ways to get the job done. McCutcheon stars as Tommy Lee, swinging the biggest stick. Joel Hanrahan is Nikki Sixx in the closers role, as he was given up for dead by the Washington Nationals but is now one of the best in baseball. Kevin Correia is enigmatic lead guitarist Mick Mars, the leader of the pitching staff with 9 wins but oddly only 4.3 strikeouts per nine. And second baseman Neil Walker is singer Vince Neil because, hey, same name (they don't need cuff links to spark a conversation). They will probably experience a fall from grace this season, but the farm has been expertly stacked with high upside arms and if you look at it just right you can envision a contending Pirates team in 2 or 3 years. Also, make sure you marvel at their ball park; possibly the best of all the new ones besides maybe San Francisco.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are the Red Sox/Yankees of the NL. There's been enough said about them so let's move on.

Houston Astros: As I mentioned in my previous post, there are some serious issues in Houston right now (Must. Resist. Obvious. Apollo. 13. Joke.) The team that once laid claim to the Killer Bees now runs out a lineup that would be generously nicknamed the Mildly Annoying Fruit Flies. Sadly, the team has been led by a micromanaging owner that clung to the past too long, wasted money on an outfielder called “The Horse” (not because of his speed), and over the last decade neglected to spend money on the draft or internationally where the great Astros of the early 2000’s found the majority of their talent. Luckily, there should be a new owner approved soon by Bud Selig and his boys club that will hopefully bring a new philosophy to this depressed franchise. Until then there is even less to care about with this team than with the Padres.

I hope this little NL primer (a word I just found out rhymes with "Jimmer" and not "Rhymer") was helpful. The 9 game road trip begins tonight and I fully expect the Sox to continue their dominance of the weaker league. Now if they could only figure out what the h to do with Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Private Jet Only Has 2 Hot Tubs Waaaah!

Now that our long Nation-al nightmare is over, the Boston Red Sox appear to be who we thought they would be before the season started: an offensive juggernaut with solid pitching and defense. The team is firing on all cylinders at this moment as their top heavy offense (Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz) carries the team through the temporary loss of key players (Crawford, Lowrie, Buchholz) and anti-contributions of a few role players (McDonald, Cameron). On June 22, we rightfully sit in first place in the East with the most runs scored in baseball and second best run differential in the game. So why do Sox fans still stress?

The beginning of the season seemed almost euphoric for Boston fans. The team sucked. Theo's moves were failing. Big ticket guys looked like bums. Fans thrived. Now that the team is dominating, people seem restless like they don't know what to do with themselves. The search for a new catcher has been put on hold. The disastrous back of the rotation has been fortified by a rested John Lackey and a revolving door of effective fifth starters. The shortstop controversy is all but over with Jed Lowrie on the shelf for a while. The panicky reports of Dustin Pedroia's "serious" injury turned out to be off base. The bullpen is coming together. The only thing that people can really complain about is J.D. Drew's poor performance, but after 5 years of the same complaints, which are only now reasonably true, you people just come off petty.

This is how we arrive at the latest non-crisis dominating the New England airwaves: what to do with David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez during the nine game interleague road trip? First, let me channel Dr. Evil, "You can't decide which All-Star to start each game? Boo-frickity-hoo!" Ok, bald cap off, pinkie down, lazy eye straight and....ok I'm back.

For those who haven't heard, Gonzalez recently approached Terry Francona to let him know he would be willing to play right field during the NL road trip so that both he and Ortiz could stay in the lineup (when AL teams play in NL parks during interleague play they play by NL rules, which means no DH, Ortiz's "position").

In between dragging on and on about the Bruins (please just let the season die!!!), this is all that Boston sports radio can talk about. Some think it's a good idea and some do not. Some think that those two bats are too valuable to the team to keep either of them out. Some think that it would increase Gonzalez's chance of injury. Some think he's too slow to defend right field. Some think that sitting Ortiz for nine games would throw off his timing. I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and imagine you were a fan of the Houston Astros.

The Astros are the final opponent on our NL roadshow. They currently boast (anti-boast?) the worst record in all the land (27-48). When the Red Sox come to town about a week from now do you know what the Astros will be worrying about? Do we start Angel Sanchez or Clint Barmes at short stop? Do we keep running 300 pound Carlos Lee out to left field every game? Should J.R. Towles and his .198 average or Carlos Corporan and his .133 average start at catcher? How long should we let J.A. Happ, the centerpiece to the Roy Oswalt trade, stay in the rotation before demoting him to AAA?

You see, these are real problems. Trying to decide which of your All Star first basemen to start over the course of 9 games is not a problem, it's a minor inconvenience. Sox fans sound like Dave Chapelle in Half Baked going to rehab for being addicted to weed, while Astros fans are looking at us like Bob Saget from the same movie, "I used to suck dick for Carlos Lee. You ever sucked dick for Adrian Gonzalez?"

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I'll quickly address what the Sox should do in this situation, but I will say that whatever they do won't matter much one way or another. If Gonzalez and Ortiz were the only two good hitters in the lineup, then I could maybe see an argument for keeping them both in during interleague, but we all know this lineup is stacked. I would not play Gonzalez in the outfield for one single inning and I think it is completely acceptable to sit him for 2, 3 or even 4 games during this 9 game trip to get Ortiz some starts. These are my reasons:
  • Increased risk of injury if Gonzalez plays right.
  • Gonzalez cannot play right and would probably give up some outs and extra bases that a normal right fielder would not.
  • Those lost outs and extra bases are more valuable than the outs and extra bases that the Sox could possibly lose on offense by sitting Gonzalez.
  • This is because of the different probabilities: Gonzalez is much more likely to give up more bases and baserunners than his replacement is to not get on base or hit with power.
  • This is because his "replacement" would be either Drew, Cameron, Reddick or McDonald. None of these guys are superstars, but in 2-4 games can easily hit as well as Gonzalez would while playing far superior defense. We aren't exactly talking about starting Tanner Boyle over Gonzo.
  • Not only would Gonzalez be a disaster in right, but he'd be playing behind Ortiz who is way below average at first. This is called a cascade of problems.
  • Ortiz and Gonzo wouldn't be sitting the entirety of these games either. If you weren't aware, with the pitcher hitting in games, teams are forced to use a lot of pinch hitters. Luckily for the Sox, whoever they start, they'll have a pinch hitter with one of the top 5 OPS in the American League.
  • Finally, in 4 games the difference between two players, even if they are the worst and best in the league, is so small that it would have very little outcome in the results.
Hopefully this calms everybody down. There is no need to get worked up about any of these personnel decisions. It's 9 games, 6 of which are against crappy teams. Gonzalez will play some, Ortiz will play a little less, but the Sox offense will still dominate. Just be happy that you don't root for the Houston Astros.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Today We Spell Redemption: B-R-U-I-N-S

After my B’s lost to the Flyers last year in one of the most epic collapses in sports history I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t get wrapped up in this shit again. The road to Lord Stanley’s Cup seemed so wide open at the time. 3-0 series lead, all we had to do was win 1 out of 4 and we were in the Conference Finals. Then our hot young goaltender, Tuukka Time, remembered he was just a spring chicken and the series was lost. We all assumed that he was too young and stupid to notice the gravity of the moment, but really we mixed up our clich├ęs and found out that Tuukka Time was too green and inexperienced to keep up with playoff hockey. Playoff hockey. There is nothing in this world quite like it.

My parents say that I could skate before I could walk. I’m pretty sure it’s just a cute anecdote they use to speak of my love of the ice, but I’m not entirely ruling out its plausibility. When winter would roll around, I would come home every day after school, sling my Bauer skates over my shoulder and walk down to the town reservoir. It usually took at least a month from the first frost before the ice would freeze over enough to get on it, but I still went down to the water every day to sit and wait. They say a watched pot never boils, but if any of them took the time to watch a reservoir freeze, I’m sure the saying would be different. As the ice grew out from the shore, I would run through scenarios in my brain.

As much as I wanted to not care anymore, the 2010 offseason was shaping up to be an incredible one. Our Achilles heel the prior year was scoring. There were times where it would feel like our offense couldn’t score on a soccer goal being defensed by an 8 year old girl. So Chiarelli did something about it. Before the draft, he traded one of our two first round picks to the Panthers for Nathan Horton, a dynamic young scorer trapped on a shitty team. Then, on draft night, Chiarelli sat back and waited for Tyler Seguin to fall into his lap with the second overall pick, which was obtained the year before in a brilliant trade with the Leafs for Phil Kessel. We were now blessed with two young offensive dynamos to go along with Marc Savard returning from his concussion and Old Man Recchi coming back for one last go around.

The scenarios started when we lost the ’88 cup. I was but 4 years old, but the following winter I was on the banks of “The Res” imagining a world in which I was young Glenn Wesley (he was a lefty so he was my guy) shutting down the Great One and leading the underdog B’s to victory. I was upset about that Cup loss, but with guys like Wesley, Ray Bourque, Ken Linseman, Craig Janney and Cam Neely on the team I just figured we’d be back plenty of times to get that Cup.

Even with the offseason additions and returns, I was still skeptical about opening my heart back up to this team. Then the puck dropped for the first time and all those years of wishing and hoping and praying flooded my soul and I was back in. Luckily, my unwavering support was rewarded early on. We jumped out to a 7-2-0 start and best of all the boys were scoring! As much as it seemed like we were close to winning it all last year, we were never dominant, we just got some lucky breaks and had a hot goalie. Now? Now we looked unstoppable. Mike Felger would tease Tony Maserotti on the Sports Hub that the B’s fans were already lining up on Causeway for the parade, but it really felt like this would happen.

We returned to the cup just two years later, to again face the juggernaut Oilers. This time felt different though. Bourque and Neely formed the best defense/winger combo in the league and the unstoppable Gretzky was out in LA, the team now belonging to Mark Messier. My boy Wesley, just 19 during the last Cup run, was now a huge part of the team, having made the All Star team the year before. I was also signed up for organized hockey for the first time ever. I wore number 26, just like Wesley, and I pretended every opposing player was Wayne Gretzky and it was my job to stop the Great One. As great as things looked for the B’s, the story remained unchanged. We lost to the Oilers 4-1 and I finally realized the weight of being a Bruins fan.

After the hot start, the team cooled off a little bit. Tuukka Time started to struggle so we had to lean hard on our former Vezina winner Tim Thomas. Then the team stopped scoring and it looked like we would have a repeat of last year. Horton was looking like a bust and Seguin couldn’t get on the ice. Savard suffered another concussion and Recchi looked old. We no longer held the top spot in the conference; we were just another team. Had I made a mistake coming back to this team? If it felt like I had been cheated on the year before, now I had come back into the relationship wondering, "what was all the fuss about?"

Over the next decade, hockey and I had a complicated bond. It soon became evident to my young fragile mind that no matter what the B’s did, they were doomed. We added Adam Oates. Didn’t matter. We lost Neely to a broken down body, which was set in motion by that bastard Ulf Samuelson. Even our beloved Ray Bourque was released from our clutches to Colorado where he finally captured the coveted cup (alliteration!). Worst of all, we started missing the playoffs, which if you know anything about hockey, let alone as much as I do, you know this is nearly impossible to do. Everybody makes the playoffs. But we were falling short. I was also going through some things with my own hockey playing. I had great stick intuition and was a mean defender, but my feet were growing at an astronomical rate. This made skating increasingly difficult, and eventually they got so big I couldn’t find skates that fit anymore. At just 12 years old, I had to give up my lifeblood.

We finished in 3rd in the East and lined up for a tough matchup with the despicable Canadiens. For those who haven’t suffered through season after disappointing season with the B’s like me, I have to tell you that there is nothing I hate more in this entire world than the Montreal Canadiens. They make my blood boil. They make me want to vomit on a baby deer. Thankfully, Ol’ Timmy stood on his head just enough times and we beat those assholes in a nail biting 7 games. Then it was time to bust through recent history and face the Flyers again. We sprinted out to a commanding 3-0 series lead, which 99.9% of the time assures a series win. However, after experiencing that .1% the year before against the same team, fear ruled logic in Game 4. Fortunately, sensing our unease, the B’s scored a dominating victory, 5-1, and the sweep was complete and some of our demons exorcised.

Losing the ability to play hockey and following a frustrating at best Bruins team put a huge damper on my fandom. I used to bleed black and yellow, but as I made my way through college the only things that were black and yellow were my overworked liver and jaundiced skin. In ’02 we finished with the best record in the East behind our new young core of Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov, but we lost in the first round to the fucking Canadiens. Two years later, we had the second seed in the East, a young franchise goalie in Andrew Raycroft, and my cousin Patrice made a strong debut. Again, we lost to the Canadiens in excruciating fashion in the first round and Raycroft was terrible the next year and gone the year after that. In ’06 we missed the playoffs again and traded franchise cornerstone Thornton at the trade deadline to San Jose, where he became the league’s MVP. I was on the brink of destruction.

Reaching the Conference Finals felt like a major victory already. After heartbreaking early round losses this was a big step for the team. We were going up against a favored Tampa Bay Lightning, but I felt we had a great shot against them. I mean, hockey in Tampa? Come on, this was Original Six against Bettman’s Bogus Expansion. By the grace of God, we had that red bearded wonder Tim Thomas and, like he had so often this season, guided his team to victory. We were going to the Stanley Cup finals to face the Vancouver Canucks! Holy shit!

I know it’s silly to put so much into following a sports team. I mean, Tim Thomas doesn’t care that I stay up nights replaying his best saves in my head and wondering if he can make the Hall of Fame despite having such a brief career on top. Players come and go and basically I just cheer for a bear head on a black sweater. But you know what? This means something to me. I love that I can walk into any bar in Massachusetts in May and nod my head at another dude with a beard and know that he grew that beard because the B’s were making a playoff run. I love that the bro sitting next to me right now probably doesn’t know Michelle Bachmann from Michelle Obama, but I bet he could tell me Milan Lucic’s playoff plus/minus. The black and yellow bond us.

Last night, we won our first Stanley Cup in 39 years. This was for the generations of fans who never got to see the great Bobby Orr soar through the air. For all the fans who died never getting to see the B’s hoist the Cup. The team fought harder than any other team and they deserved this victory. Even down 0-2, I always knew we would win it. Even the boos of the sore losers from Vancouver couldn’t diminish the hugeness of this moment. At last, the B’s are on top of the hockey world. Now I can die in peace.

Oh ya. Last night was the first hockey game I've ever watched start to finish and none of the personal stuff in this post is true. Just thought it would be fun to jump on the bandwagon like everybody else.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Mavs are NBA Champions

Here are my scattered thoughts on the NBA Finals. I am going to attempt to go longer than any other writer before mentioning the losing team. Shouldn't be too hard...

Congratulations to the Dallas Mavericks for winning their first ever NBA title. The team has only been around since 1980, but they suffered through some really terrible years before acquiring Dirk Nowitzki in the 1998 draft (one pick ahead of Paul Pierce). Since then, they have won 50 games every year for 11 years, lost the 2006 NBA Finals and the following year became just the third number 1 seed to lose to a number 8 seed (Golden State). This is the culmination of a lot of roster tweaks around one of the best players of all time…

Speaking of the German, he has never been one of my favorites, probably because I have a hard time enjoying the way most European’s play the game. But he kicked some serious ass in this series and it is good to see him win one. Maybe I never watched enough of him, but seeing his arms extend 20 feet into the sky over the defender to shoot a rainbow jump shot is one of the finest things I’ve seen on an NBA court since Mariah Carey put on a Michael Jordan jersey dress for her half time performance at the 2003 NBA All Star Game. In the span of 2 months, Dirk has solidified himself as the best Euro player of all time, shed the “soft” label, distanced himself from Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, become the most relevant German-in-America since Kissinger and fueled the flames of a ridiculous argument that he is now Larry Bird’s equal…

I don’t want to bring the negativity while I’m trying to celebrate the Mavs’ win, but the Bird-Nowitzki comparisons need to stop. They are both tall, blonde, gangly and have beautiful jumpers, but Bird’s overall game is way more impressive than Dirk’s. And as Jason Segel reminds us in the trailer for Bad Teacher (which, even though it stars Cameron Diaz, looks kind of funny if you watch the Red Band trailer), the only argument here is 3 to 1…

Dirk may have won finals MVP, but he had a ton of help. Jason Terry was a tiny black Bill Walton in this series, providing a massive boost for the team off the bench. He is their second best scorer and single handedly kept the offense in the game in the first half while Dirk was shooting 1-12. He also knows how to say the word “strength” (not “strenf”) as Sexy Boston Sports Linguistics Expert Sadie Sloe Gin pointed out…

Sadie also noticed Tyson Chandler giving some woman (his mother? his wife?) a big hug during the post game celebration, saying the lady must be thinking “I’m gonna be rich!” Little did Sadie know that Chandler is a free agent this offseason, dominated the playoffs,  gave a new identity to Dallas’ defense and plays for an owner that has given out massive contracts to the likes of Raef LaFrentz, Erik Dampier and Brendan Haywood. Chandler and all of his women are going to be very rich indeed…

Speaking of the owner, as SportsGuy33 (Bill Simmons) pointed out on Twitter, it was very disappointing to see David Stern hand the Larry O’Brien trophy to the founder of the Mavericks instead of to Mark Cuban. I wonder if the two have some kind of verbal restraining order that prohibits either of them from communicating to the other in public…

The moment was not without unintentional comedy, thankfully. As David Stern handed the trophy to Mavs founder Don Carter, he congratulated “Don and his wife Linda Jo”, who was nowhere to be seen. Then, like Bruce Springsteen pulling Courtney Cox to stardom in his Dancing In the Dark video, Carter yanked Linda Jo through the sea of giants on the platform to join him for this historical moment. I’m also not entirely sure she didn’t think she WAS Courtney Cox at this moment…

It’s usually fun to see a great player win his first championship at 38 years old, but Jason Kidd is still a wife beater so I’m going to go out on a limb and say we shouldn’t celebrate him…

Brian Cardinal stepped up with some solid defensive plays and toughness last night that gave the Mavs a little emotional bump. Cardinal takes his rightful place alongside Brian Scalabrine, Mark Madsen, Jack Haley, Jud Buechler, Matt Bullard, Kurt Rambis and M.L. Carr (honorary member) as members of the With Hustle and Inspiration Teams Excel (W.H.I.T.E.) club…

Your last two Finals MVP (Dirk, Kobe Bryant) shot a combined 15-51 in the clinching game…

A big thanks to Mike Breen for really capturing the moment of one of the NBA’s greatest players winning his first championship and also the first championship for his franchise. Wait, what? He didn’t capture it at all? Instead of using his outside voice, he culminated the victory with all the excitement of Dwight Schrute’s birthday banner for Kelly Kapur (“It’s your birthday.”). And it’s not like using subdued calls for big moments is Breen’s thing. In this video at the 5 minute mark (WARNING: It’s last year’s Lakers’ win), you can hear Breen excitedly yelling about the pass ahead to Gasol and the Lakers winning back to back championships. The finish wasn’t as tense this year, but the moment was just as big. Shame on you Mike for not treating it as such… 

Of course the Miami Heat (13th paragraph before a mention! That’s definitely a record this year!) did everything they could to sap the excitement from the moment. After going the last two minutes of the game without fouling (more on this in a minute) despite an 8-11 point deficit, Chris Bosh fouled Jason Kidd, down 11, with 18 seconds left. After a Nowitzki layup 10 seconds prior, the Heat turned the ball over and Kidd grabbed it looking to dribble out the clock. With security scurrying around the court to secure the perimeter and the Dallas bench spilling onto the floor, this looked like it would be Kidd’s chance to do a victory lap in the heat of the moment of his first championship. Then the alien predator threw his tentacles around the point guard and the momentum faded. To add insult to injury, Coach Valderamma called a 20 second time out after the foul shots, again pouring sand on the flames of victory. What could he have possibly been discussing in that 20 seconds? Reminding LeBron and Bosh that they should hold off on crying until the locker room cameras can get a good focus on them so they look like they really cared? Saying his final farewell before Pat Riley fired him on the way back to the locker room? Maybe he was waiting for the last of the front runner Miami fans to finish their getaways that started with a full 2 minutes left. Either way, poor form on the Heat…

For the second year in a row, a LeBron James team gave up at the end of a game within reach. Just like in Game 6 of the Cleveland-Boston series last year, the LeBron team inexplicably failed to foul or play offense with a sense of urgency. Last year, LeBron’s “excuse” was that he had one foot out the door and was trying to grease the skids for his exit from Cleveland. This year? Who the f knows. This guy has lost all credibility despite his considerable talents. There is such a thing as shrinking from the moment, but LeBron in this series was like a penis in a bucket of ice water…

On a larger scale, this was a great Finals matchup that proved very popular with viewers. Hopefully it reminds the owners and players just how far the league has come and how strong a product the league presents every night the Timberwolves aren’t playing. As Simmons reminds us on his new site,, the league is staring down the barrel of a lockout. With more great talent than ever, strong teams in top markets (LA, Boston, NY, Miami, Chicago), a huge international presence and big personalities including legitimate villains, the league absolutely has to continue riding this wave of popularity. If we lose part of the season next year, there is a good chance that hockey, the sport that can’t even get its championship on network television, will surpass the NBA. Figure it out fellas and long live the NBA!