Two Boston Traditions: One City, One Heart

Boston Traditions

Boston is woven out of a fabric of a long and rich shared history; for those moments that belong to more than just a few of us, they are part of a history where recollections are shared. They belong not to individuals, but to all of Boston—indeed to all of New England. That’s part of what makes us different: who we are.

July 4th on the Esplanade, high school football on Thanksgiving, the Public Garden, hot summer days on Cape beaches, the MFA, the Pats, Celts, and B’s— we love and treasure them all. But of all our traditions, none shines brighter or more vividly than the Red Sox, or as we Bostonians say, the Sawwx. Once called the only common religion in New England, their sermons are publicly announced every day from April to October, with the rapt attention of a six state congregation attentively listening.

The Boston Marathon, more than a century old, who among us has not run in it, knew somebody who did, or cheered the athletes on. How many of us have not walked down from Fenway after the 11:00AM Monday morning game to cheer the runners on. Who does not mark the third Monday of each April by the words, “Marathon Day. Hey, Sox at 11:00 too!!”

And if there has always been some momentary crossover of these two great Boston traditions, in the year 2013, they truly intersected. In the wake of the pain, sorrow and shock of the Marathon bombings, it remained for a 6′ 3″ slugger from the Dominican Republic who called Boston home, to begin to give voice to our feelings. We all know what he said by now—most of us by heart. But what might David Ortiz have really meant? I think he was talking in part directly to the perpetrators.

To me anyway, what he was saying was “Is that all you got?”

You think you can knock Boston out with a couple of bombs? No way.

Then I think he was speaking to all of us. Scared, frustrated, and angry, the entire city was on lockdown. We were captives in our own homes and communities.

Ortiz said, “Be strong,” words now part of the national lexicon. I think what he may have meant was be strong together. Like a team. Like teammates. We are all sharing this.

So many suffered so much: the families and friends of the four who passed, and those who were maimed and so senselessly injured. But the juxtaposition of the stunning courage shown by first responders, ordinary citizens and the injured battling their way back seemed again to scream out.

“Is that all you got?”

As the spring turned to summer and then summer to fall, through every single action on and off the field, the 2013 Red Sox seemed to evolve into a proxy for how New England felt. We would never forget, and the Sox sought not to have us remember, but rather to honor. The ceremonies, hospital visits, observances and of course, how they played. Whenever it seemed they were down and out—they came back.

“Is that all you got?”

During the winter, thoughts started to turn to today’s Marathon. What would security be like? Surely the organizers would tighten down on scope and size. Guess what? They actually are allowing 9,000 more runners!

“Is that all you got?”

The horror and losses of Marathon Day 2013 will always be with us, but I think I know with great precision the exact moment when we stopped looking entirely backward, and began to look forward with hope and promise. Once again Boylston Street was lined with millions, surrounding this time not runners, but duck boats. When Johnny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia jumped off of theirs to place the World Series Championship trophy on the Marathon finish line, among the real heroes of that long-ago spring day, who did not take a deeper swallow?

“Is that all you got?”

In memory of: Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier

John Lackey Lacks for Nothing Now

John Lackey

Let’s play a game of who am I. In total, they make for a fascinating picture of Sox pitcher John Lackey. In his very first start of the 2009 season, the lead-off hitter was the Ranger’s Ian Kinsler; he had hit two homers against the Angels the night before. Lackey’s first pitch was over Kinsler’s head, the next one hit him in the side. Lackey never made a third, tossed out of the game after two pitches.

In 2008, Lackey led all American League starters in ERA and finished third in the Cy Young award voting. Lackey is one of only 6 major league pitchers who won at least 11 games in each year from 2004 to 2009 and more than a few in big, big post-season games.

In 2011, now with the Red Sox, Lackey went 2–5 with an 8.01 ERA in his first seven starts for the Sox, and in May, he was placed on the disabled list with an elbow strain. He did return though. In 28 starts, Lackey finished the year 12–12 with a 6.41 ERA—his worst season ever. The 114 earned runs he allowed were the most in the American League, and his ERA was the highest in Red Sox history for a starter with at least 150 innings pitched. His doctor later said that the bone spur he removed from Lackey’s elbow was, “the biggest I’ve ever seen.”

Lackey became one of the most despised Red Sox players in recent years due to his poor performance and his public links to the hugely publicized chicken and beer antics in the 2011 clubhouse. He was surly and dismissive to the media. Lackey never acknowledged the rabid Fenway faithful fans or doffed his cap. And his looming divorce became public in September of 2011, even as his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

Lackey missed the entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but yet travelled with the team and was in the dugout while undergoing rehab.

When a Sox rookie came up to the big club, it was Lackey who greeted him and took him to dinner and welcomed him. Of all Sox players, there was nobody who tipped the clubhouse boys and attendants better than Lackey. His teammates loved him.

Prior to the 2013 season, Lackey said he had no regrets about coming to Boston and vowed to change the narrative. He told the Boston Globe, “I thought this place would be good for me,’’ he said. “I’m a guy who likes competing and showing some emotion and that is what they want. When I’m pitching well, I think it’ll be a good thing. And I’m going to pitch well. This thing isn’t over.”

No John—it wasn’t over. Over the course of the 2013 Championship season, Lackey was brilliant. Only poor run support denied him a 15-18 win season.

The postseason? He won three games. Lackey outdueled David Price, Justin Verlander and Michael Wacha. Not a bad hat-trick. He won the series-clinching game 6 in Fenway, pitching superbly. Lackey even tipped his cap to the fans on departing.

I was thinking of all this watching him beat the Orioles last week. For the first three innings he threw nothing but fastballs, nothing Clemens-like, just 90-93 MPH but perfectly spotted. Wow, I thought, he is tough-minded. He’s tough as bark. And I sure am glad that John Lackey pitches for us.

Middlebrooks Heads for Disabled List

middlebrooks  on the DL

As if the Red Sox weren’t already having enough problems scoring runs, the problem just got worse with this morning’s news that third baseman Will Middlebrooks was placed on the 15 day Disabled List.

An MRI taken of Middlebrooks’ right calf this morning revealed a Grade 1 calf strain, the least serious strain one can have, but nonetheless the Sox decided not to push the slugging third baseman this early in the season. Middlebrooks joins teammate Shane Victorino on the DL.

This loss will severely test the weakened Sox offense. Middlebrooks place on the roster, and likely most of his time at third, will be taken over by infielder Brock Holt, called up from Pawtucket. Holt is an OK utility player, but by no means has Middlebrooks’ thump at the plate.

Both Middlebrooks and Victorino are expected back around April 22 barring complications. With Holt and Jonathan Herrera sharing time at third, the terribly slumping Daniel Nava playing every day, Jackie Bradley playing about half the time, and weak bats behind the plate, the Sox lineup has holes in it up and down.

The timely hitting that marked 2013 has been notably missing in the 5 games to-date. It is far too early to draw long-term conclusions, but the appearance of some booming bats would be welcomed.

The Grady Gambit: Now it Needs to Work

Grady Sizemore

It surely must have been a source of tremendous gratification to Grady Sizemore to come out on Opening Day and swing the bat so well, garnering a couple of hits, including a homer. Not too bad for a guy who’d not swung a bat in anger for more than two years. Sox management must have been pleased as well, to see the object of an off-season roll of the dice come up boxcars. However, in the span of only a week or so, the Grady Gambit has been transformed from a, “Gee it would sure be nice,” story to a, “We really need him to play well and regularly,” one.

How’d this happen? First, Jackie Bradley, Jr., the pre-season odds-on favorite to win the centerfield job, has looked tentative and overmatched at the plate. He isn’t making contact and is striking out far too much; and this from the very beginning of Spring Training. And then on the virtual eve of the opener, Shane Victorino pulled a hamstring in the last Spring Training game and went on the DL. Sources say he’s going to be out for approximately 3 weeks. Yikes! Quickly, name another Sox outfielder besides Sizemore, Bradley and Victorino who has ever played centerfield regularly. The answer is: there aren’t any.

So, at least at the outset of the season, it’ll be Grady in there maybe 5 days out of 7 or something like that. Bradley really has to demonstrate to the club that he brings more to the team than his speed and a fine glove. He will get a chance, because the team is simply not going to take any long-term risks with Sizemore by overplaying him in the early part of the season. On the big club, only Daniel Nava could spell Sizemore/Bradley for a few games, but he is certainly not equipped to play there every day. In the minors Bryce Brentz made strides last year, has some pop in his bat and is on the 40 man roster. But he is not likely to get a call this early in the season.

As for Victorino’s return, who knows? He was hurt virtually all of Spring Training and played in only 11 exhibition games. I love the way he plays, but I wish he’d do it more often. As well as he plays Fenway’s big right field, the team would love to keep him there, but he certainly can play at least an adequate center. But that’s just wishful thinking for the next three weeks or so.

So it comes to this: Sizemore, six or seven weeks ago just an afterthought as camp opened, is now being counted on to be their regular centerfielder. Can he stay healthy? Can he be in there on at least a semi-regular basis?

The Grady Gambit has turned into the Grady Gotta Have Him.

Opening Day Thoughts from Around the AL and Sox

Opening Day

Opening Day is upon us. The long, long winter is fading away in the rear view mirror, and around all of baseball hope springs as eternal as the spring flowers. Opening Day—an unofficial day off from school all over New England. Here are some random thoughts from around the Sox and the American League for you.

  • The Sox and Jon Lester have been ‘talking contract’ for about a month now until they announced a “pause” today. (The Sox’ idea.) Since they started talks, the Tigers have signed Miggy Cabrera to a monstrous 10 year $300M deal and the Angels just inked Mike Trout to a 6 year, $140M contract. Note to Sox: Get this done. The prices are getting silly. Bend now rather than break later.
  • Nobody knows how the Grady Sizemore thing will work out, but when he broke in he was Mike Trout before there was a Mike Trout.
  • I really like the Royals this year. They shouldn’t threaten the Tigers, but the playoffs are possible.
  • On the other hand, I think the Rangers are in for a tumble with injured starters and losing Jurickson Profar for 10-12 weeks.
  • Why do I have this feeling that Bryce Brentz is going to be up in Fenway this year and will have an impact?
  • And by the way, the Paw Sox are going to be absolutely loaded this year. Well worth the trip down Route 95.
  • Quick…name the Yankees’ backup shortstop behind Mr. Jeter. If you said Yangervis Solarte you win!
  • Two break through, “where the heck did that come from,” AL players to watch this year: Dustin Ackley of the Mariners and Mike “Moose” Moustakas of the Royals.
  • Shane Victorino tweaked his hammy? Bad karma for an injury prone player.
  • The Sox have lost their last three Opening Day trips to Baltimore. They last won one there in 1982, when they shut the O’s out 2-0. It was Dennis Eckersley with the complete game shutout.
  • Royals’ rookie starter Yordano Ventura won a job as their 5th starter. He routinely throws his fastball 98MPH-100MPH.
  • Getting off to a fast start is important to the Sox. In 2004 they were 15-6 as April ended. In 2007, 16-8. And last year, 18-8. They led the Division at the end of April in all three years that they ultimately won the Series.
  • Mike Napoli, Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts ended spring red hot– Papi not so much.
  • Ortiz has 18 career home runs at Camden Yards; the same as Manny Ramirez.
  • Lester is 15-3 lifetime vs. the Orioles.
  • The Captain-Yaz hit 6 Opening Day homers, a Sox record.
  • Opening Day in Baltimore, 1976: Jim Palmer outduels the Sox’ Fergie Jenkins 1-0. Talk about great pitchers.

It’s the Pitching Stupid!

pitching

For most of their history, the Red Sox have been known for assembling teams best equipped to take advantage of Fenway’s “cozy confines” and of course the looming presence of the Green Monster in left. Powerful right-handed hitters were at a premium and offense was the centerpiece of most Sox clubs. But times have changed. First, under Theo Epstein and continuing under Ben Cherington, it’s the ability to put together a deep pitching staff first that marks the nature of the team. The pitching staff of the 2014 Sox may be its best in years.

In 2013, it was the consistency of their pitching, augmented by timely, clutch hitting that made the Sox World Champions. The pitching? Just really deep and consistent. Aided by the return to good health of Clay Buchholz and the addition of some new arms to what was already the American League’s best bullpen, the Sox pitching should be the team’s greatest strength this year.

In Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Peavy, the Sox have three professionals who’ll keep them in most games. Lester, at only 30, looks to be getting only better. A completely healthy Buchholz, turns the starters into perhaps the second best (behind only the Rays) group in the League. He was 9-0 when he went down last June and he has the best natural stuff on the team. Buchholz ended the year with a 1.74 ERA and has thrown well in Spring Training. Only the lefty Felix Doubront is a question mark among the starters. Still only 25, Doubront filled in for Buchholz admirably in the rotation last year and won 11 games. But he’s struggled in Spring Training and is prone to wildness. Doubront does have terrific stuff, however. If he struggles, look for last year’s surprise Brandon Workman or veteran lefty Chris Capuano to capably take the fifth spot.

It’s the bullpen, though that really sets the Red Sox staff apart. I doubt that anybody not named Uehara could possibly replicate what he did in 2013. Once he assumed the closer’s role, his numbers were other-worldly. But Koji hasn’t allowed a run thus far in Spring Training, and of course he doesn’t walk anybody The two-headed 8th inning monster of Tazawa and Breslow will be back, in a right-handed/left-handed combination that John Farrell used to devastating effect last year. Breslow is assumed to be healthy, although he’s going to start the year in Pawtucket to get in some innings.

Andrew Miller returns from an injured foot, and the big lefty simply is death on left-handed hitters and can be a strike-out machine. I think the Fenway faithful are going to love Burke Badenhop, acquired from the Brewers. His sinker is a notorious killer of earthworms and he throws strikes. Workman and Capueno will initially work out of the pen. Perhaps most importantly, Mike Mujica comes over from the Cardinals. The Cardinal’s closer for 2/3 of the season last year, he had 37 saves until he wore down. It seems to me that he’ll pitch in any high-leverage situation prior to Uehara and he could make for a real difference maker.

As the old saying goes, “good pitching always beats good hitting,” and the 2014 Sox have it.