Sunday, April 27, 2008

My favorite team

I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan, but I’m also, at heart, a devotee of the game. When I was at Dodger Stadium a couple weeks ago, I was wearing a Sandy Koufax jersey, and one of my friends thought I was being so very disloyal by wearing another team’s colors. I tried to explain to him (in vain) why Sandy Koufax transcended team loyalties for me. It made me think about one of those mythical “favorite teams”. Not just my favorite Red Sox players, but a lineup of the baseball players from today and yesterday that I’ve idolized the most, and would want to have on my All-Time Team, regardless of what’s sewn on the front of the jersey. These aren’t necessarily the best ever at every position, though you could certainly make a good case for a lot of them at their spots. These are the guys I’ve looked up to the most, my baseball role models. This isn’t anything close to an all-Boston team. Ted Williams isn’t on this list. There are only 4 BoSox players on my team, and you could say that one of them is really an Oakland Athletic. My team has two Dodgers, three Orioles, a Cub, a Cardinal, a Pirate, a Giant, and even (gasp) a Yankee. Hey, tough. It’s my team.

C: Jason Varitek
An old school catcher in the modern age. Supremely prepared, tough, smart, and I love watching ‘Tek call a game. He earned the “C” on his chest. Neither of the most recent World Series championship banners at Fenway Park would be there if Captain ‘Tek had not been behind the plate for the past 10 years.

1B: Lou Gehrig
He worked in Babe Ruth’s shadow, but did nothing but play day in and day out with surpassing class, excellence, and respect for the game, his team and his opponents. When he was faced with a debilitating, ultimately fatal disease, he came to epitomize the definition of grace in the face of unimaginable tragedy

2B: Jackie Robinson
#42 transformed the game with his speed and savvy, and irrevocably changed the country with his determination and fierce pride. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. admitted that he never could have achieved what he did had Jackie Robinson not paved the way for him by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson isn’t just one of my favorite players, but stands with Lincoln, Jefferson, Twain and RFK as one of my favorite Americans.

3B: Brooks Robinson
Mike Schmidt had more homers. George Brett had a better average. Still, there was never another Brooks. The Human Vacuum Cleaner was the definitive defensive marvel. He made so many plays that made you shake your head, you came to expect nothing less. And why? Because every year between 1960 and 1975, he was the American League Gold Glove third baseman. That’s never going to happen again.

SS: Ernie Banks
“Let’s play two!” How can you not love Mr. Cub’s pure enthusiasm and love of the game? He actually played more games at first base than short, but this is my team, and I’m calling him a shortstop. Two MVP awards and 512 homers are the hallmarks of the greatest player in the history of the Cubs franchise.

OF: Willie Mays
Say Hey! The term “five tool player” gets thrown around a lot today, but idea started with a guy who wore #24 for the Giants. Mays’ catch of Vic Wertz’s blast to centerfield in game 1 of the 1954 World Series is still called the greatest defensive play in the history of the game. 12 Gold Gloves, 660 homers and 3,283 hits. Who’s the best center fielder ever? Willie Mays or Joe DiMaggio? Take your pick. I’ll take Mays.

OF: Roberto Clemente
Not just a dangerous hitter (4 batting titles), but very possibly the greatest outfield arm there ever was. When he played at Pittsburgh’s cavernous old Forbes Field, Clemente once threw a ball from deep right center field to home plate on the fly to nail a runner at home. The throw was measured at 460 feet. Clemente wasn’t the first major leaguer from Puerto Rico, but he was the first great one, and still the best. He owned the 1971 World Series. He followed Mays as a true all-around player, and finished his career with an eerily precise 3,000 hits before he was killed in a plane crash while trying to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims. The usual 5-year waiting period for Hall of Fame induction was waived for Clemente because if you’re going to get 93% of the vote for a great player and a genuine hero to boot, why bother waiting?

OF: Frank Robinson
The guy won a triple crown, and MVP awards in both leagues. He was the first African American manager in the game’s history, and in his first game as player/manager of the Indians, illustrated the Robinson concept of leadership by homering. He didn’t just ask for respect, he demanded it. F Robby played the game with a fierce, take-no-prisoners energy. And yet, I still say he might be the most underrated player in Cooperstown.

SP: Bob Gibson
1.12. In 1968, Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12 over 304 2/3 innings. That ranks with Cy Young’s 511 wins and Johnny Vandemeer’s two consecutive no-hitters on the list of pitching records that will never be broken. Gibson pitched games 1, 4 and 7 in three different World Series, and had a cumulative ERA of 1.89 in those nine appearances. If I was a manger, and I needed one man to start one game for me, and that game was a matter of life or death, my starter would be Bob Gibson.

SP: Sandy Koufax
Koufax is special for me. The greatest Jewish baseball player in history. After all, he was the kid from Brooklyn who refused to start a World Series game because it conflicted with Yom Kippur. Would I have done that? I don’t know. But I didn’t win 3 Cy Young awards, 5 straight ERA titles, or throw a perfect game, either. Koufax threw a no-hitter every year for four straight years. His postseason ERA was 0.95. He was baseball’s Mozart, and left the stage earlier than anyone wished.

SP: Jim Palmer
Palmer was the first opposing player that I watched in person, tried to hate and couldn’t. He was way too much fun to watch. Palmer may have had 3 Cy Young awards and eight 20-win seasons, but he also owns what I think is the greatest clutch statistic on any plaque in Cooperstown: over 19 years and almost 4,000 innings pitched, Palmer never allowed a grand slam. Not one.

SP: Pedro Martinez
Did you ever see a pitch that made a batter look foolish and say “wow, that wasn’t fair”? Nobody’s done that in my lifetime more than Pedro. In the four seasons between 1997 and 2000, Pedro was thoroughly Koufaxian. In 1999, he had 313 strikeouts and only 37 walks. The following year, his strikeout to walk ratio was even better. When he was at his best, Pedro’s 95 mph fastball was hard to hit, but his 82 mph changeup was the most devastating (and unfair) pitch in baseball. With Pedro, anything could happen on any night.

SP: Luis Tiant
The corkscrew windup. The knee bucking movement. The cigars. The style and charisma. El Tiante was the heart and soul of the Red Sox for most of the 70's. Being in Fenway and hearing the crowd chant "Loooo-ieee" is an experience you don't forget. "Unless you've played with him, you can't understand what Luis means to a team." - Dwight Evans

RP: Dennis Eckersley
You had to love Eck. The long, flowing black hair under the cap, the flailing arms, the blazing heater (or “high cheese” in EckSpeak), the pinpoint control and the everpresent attitude that he was just better than anyone he faced. Even his failures were legendary. That was Eckersley, of course, who gave up Kirk Gibson’s famous pinch hit homer that ended Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Still, how many pitchers have 390 career saves and 197 wins? Just Eck. I loved Eck because he was downright cool.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Kids

Seeing the Red Sox win is exciting, but I’ll tell you what gets me going about this team and why I think the current Red Sox administration is far better than any that has come before: it’s all being led by the best youth movement in the game. In previous generations, we relied primarily on older, well-proven vets. The younger players were superfluous, if they were on the roster at all. It was all about Yaz, Fisk, Dewey, Boggs, Mo Vaughn and Bruce Hurst. When you needed help, you brought in Jack Clark, Tom Brunansky, Otis Nixon and others who arrived in the clubhouse with dusty highlight reels of days gone by. The clock was always ticking. Who knew how many years these players had left?

Now, even though there’s still the old guard (Manny Ramirez, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek, Mike Timlin and Tim Wakefield), the younger generation is infusing the lineup with energy that will continue to dazzle the next generation of Red Sox Nation. Consider today’s roster.

Pitchers: Josh (Mr. October 2003 and 2007) Beckett turns 28 next month. Jon Lester is 24, and Clay (No Hit) Buchholz won’t turn 24 until August. Manny Delcarmen is 26. Craig Hansen, who’s admittedly still finding his way, won’t turn 25 until November, and Justin Masterson, the phenom with the heavy sinker and today’s emergency starter, just celebrated his 23rd birthday last month. Mr. Papelbon, he of the “Here’s My Fastball, Good Luck” demeanor is 27. By the way, do you know old Daisuke Matsuzaka is? He’s four months younger than Beckett.

Position players: First baseman Kevin Youkilis (Wade Boggs with Brooks Robinson’s glove) is the senior statesman of the new generation at 29. The rest of them are all just about the same age. At second, 2007 Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia isn’t yet 25. Shortstop/3B heir apparent Jed Lowrie just turned 24 last week. This year’s Rookie of the Year candidate, Jacoby Ellsbury (a cross between Freddie Lynn and Johnny Damon, only with much more speed), will celebrate his 25th birthday this coming September 11.

Get the idea? We can count on a solid 10-12 years from this young core that already knows how to win and has proven that they have the talent. This mitigates the need to blow insane wads of cash on creaky free agents, and also means that at the trading deadline, Theo Epstein can deal from a position of strength instead of suffering a public panic attack (can you say Eric Gagne?). Coco Crisp can help someone else’s defense down the stretch while he might net us the middle relief guy or spare starter we may need. There are dozens more possibilities to consider because the Red Sox are getting younger, not older. In the sweepstakes for Johan Santana, Theo Epstein categorically refused to give away the farm. As great as Santana is, and will continue to be, Theo knew what this new crop of talent represented, and has a pretty good idea how great they will become. Masterson, Lowrie, Ellsbury and Buchholz for Santana? Nope. During the winter, I read more than a few columnists who insisted that Epstein was being stupid. Bird in the hand theorists said “Look, we know Santana has maybe the best arm in the business right now. Why not?” Just watch this gang of talent playing at Fenway today, and you’ll see why not. Because this is our present, and our future. Santana is incredible, and has filthy stuff. He’s a legitimate no-hitter waiting to happen every trip to the mound, but these kids, combined, will be far better today, tomorrow, and for the next decade. There’s nothing quite like homegrown talent. Just watch.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dodgers 11, Padres 1

On a night when the Red Sox beat the Yankees 4-3 at Fenway, I was 3,000 miles away in California. Ironically, I was about 4 blocks away from Angels Stadium in Anaheim, staying at the Marriott for a company conference. Unfortunately, the Angels weren’t in town. They were up in Seattle facing the Mariners. So, I went with about a dozen colleagues an hour up the road to Dodger Stadium to see the Dodgers host the Padres.

Things you need to know about Dodger Stadium:

  • You can generally get tickets without a problem, and frequently good ones. Had it not been a group of 14, I’d have been able to score killer seats anywhere I wanted in the park. As it was, we had decent field-level seats down the 3rd base line.
  • Even though it’s almost 50 years old, it’s still a beautiful park. Far better than some newer facilities like US Cellular, but definitely not in the same class as Camden Yards. Regardless, it’s more comfortable than Fenway.
  • There’s no such thing as public transportation in LA, so you need to drive, but allow LOTS of time for traffic and parking. I’ve never seen traffic jams quite like that in a ballpark before.
  • Dodger Dogs are excellent: footlong and grilled.
  • Beer is insanely expensive: 11 dollars. Bigger portions than Fenway, but not enough to stop you from saying “I’m sorry, HOW much?”.
  • As you may have heard about southern California, fans arrive late and leave early. Get there early and leave when the game ends. It’s what most sensible non-west coast fans do, anyway.

Dodgers-Padres. The pitching matchup was Chris Young of the Padres against (wait for it) Derek Lowe!! Young had already won a game against LA in San Diego, and when he’s on, he’s terrific. Not last Saturday night, though. Young was batting practice. Rafael Furcal led off the game for the Dodgers with a homer to right, and that was pretty much the ballgame. The Dodgers have some eye-opening young talent, and most of them were on display at one point or another. Rightfielder Andre Ethier was 3 for 5 with a homer, a double and a great diving catch. Matt Kemp replaced Ethier in right and he went 1 for 2 with a homer. Even D-Lowe got on base 3 times, had two hits and 3 RBI. When he was on the mound he was in complete control. After he allowed a run in the first inning, he was dominant for the next 7, and the Dodgers won an 11-1 laugher.

The Padres had a couple problems: First, their pitching was dreadful. I didn’t know Wilfredo Ledezma was still in the majors until he came strolling out of the bullpen, and when he reached the mound I remembered why I thought he had retired: he was worthless, and in fact almost as bad as Young had been. Young, as stated above, should have had a fork stuck in him in the second inning, but Bud Black thought Young would get out of his early game problems. Sadly for both Black and his starter, they only turned into mid-game problems. Young didn’t stick around long enough to have late-game problems.

Their other problem is the Padres rolled over and put their paws in the air. The defense was listless, and the team simply appeared to give up mid-game, as if they all said “oh, ok, we’re behind, so much for this one”. The Dodgers have got some very intriguing kids who will put a scare in the National League over the next number of years, and the Padres should be better than they looked. After all, Jake Peavy wasn’t pitching.

If you get a chance to see a game in LA, definitely do it. Dodger Stadium is worth the traffic.