Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oh Lord, please don’t let Keith Foulke be misunderstood

The celebration won't be quite this wild if Keith Foulke wins a title in the Atlantic League.

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y.—This doesn’t make any sense.

What is Keith Foulke, whose gutsy pitching in October 2004 made him perhaps the most valuable player of the Red Sox’ epic world championship run and who recorded an out 86 years in the making, doing pitching in an independent league?

What is a guy who famously said his favorite part of closing was the first and 15th of each month and declared he’d talk more to the print media if he was rewarded with a truck—like he received for his weekly appearances on WEEI—doing in the Atlantic League, where he’ll have to pitch more than three months to make as much as he made per pitch for the Red Sox in 2006?

What is a guy who said he looked forward to retiring when his Sox contract expired in 2007 and created controversy by saying it was uncomfortable to fly cross country aboard the Sox’ charter plane doing in a league in which teams travel by bus and stay in hotels that are nice, but not big league caliber? And for goodness sake, what is a guy who ticked off anyone who has ever walked into a Burger King doing in a league that prides itself on running a fan-friendly and accessible operation?

“It’s not like I turned down other jobs,” Foulke said in his typically frank fashion Monday, an hour before his new team, the Newark Bears, played the Long Island Ducks in an Atlantic League game. “I just didn’t have any other opportunities.

“I still want to be back in the big leagues, so this is a stepping stone to get me back to where I want to be.”

That Foulke—who emerged from a one-year retirement to go 0-3 with a 4.06 ERA with the Athletics last season despite missing three months due to neck and shoulder injuries—is going to such lengths to return to the majors at age 36 might come as a surprise to those who remember him as the guy who hated baseball (enter the words “Keith Foulke hates” in Yahoo and the search assist function adds the word “baseball”). That’s one of many misconceptions Foulke admits he generated during three eventful and outspoken years with the Sox.

“I’m definitely not a media darling,” Foulke said. “I say what I feel and what I think. I don’t speak to please everybody. I speak my mind and I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not going to try to trick you. There’s probably a lot of people that don’t understand [him].”

It doesn’t bother Foulke that he’s probably remembered less than fondly in Boston, where he had perhaps the shortest honeymoon period of any member of the ’04 champions despite his yeoman work that season: After recording 32 saves, a 2.17 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in helping the Sox win the wild card, he allowed just one run and struck out 19 in 14 innings while appearing in 11 of the Sox’ 14 playoff games. He threw 100 pitches during Games Four, Five and Six of the ALCS as the Sox mounted the most shocking comeback in baseball history before he recorded the final out in all four World Series games.

But Foulke’s knees were hurting before he even showed up to Ft. Myers the following spring—“I still say the biggest mistake I made was trying to fight through it in ’05, should have just taken the year off and gotten healthy”—and he gave up a game-winning homer to Derek Jeter in his first appearance of the regular season. He bottomed out June 28, when he blew a save opportunity against the Indians by allowing five runs in 1 1/3 innings.

Afterward, Foulke made the infamous “Johnny from Burger King” comment in which he said he was far more concerned with what his teammates thought of him than the fans. Foulke said he uttered the words out of defiance and self-confidence, not a disregard for the working man.

“I said I wasn’t going to invite Johnny from Burger King to my World Series party,” Foulke said. “It had nothing to do with the people going out and having to get jobs. The point of the whole statement was I thought we were still going to be good enough to win the World Series. I thought I was still going to be able to be there to help. That’s what it was.”

Declaring he wouldn’t be quick to welcome those who criticized him was just one of the many times Foulke voiced what his teammates were thinking, albeit in his own uniquely acerbic way. Kevin Millar had many of the same thoughts about the doubters in 2005.

Nor, in 2004, was Foulke the only Sox player to believe the team could have found a more efficient way to fly a bunch of 30-something players around the country (note: Foulke’s comments are in the May 17 entry). “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true,” Foulke said. “I just said it’s hard to go coast to coast sleeping in coach, laid across three seats. It’s one of those deals where I wasn’t trying to get anybody in trouble. Somebody asked me about it, I told the truth.”

And he played with Curt Schilling and David Wells, among others, so Foulke certainly wasn’t the only player to find he liked talking a whole lot more when his pockets were lined.
There are no paid radio appearances in the Atlantic League, and the few reporters that make their way to Newark and the league’s other outposts are far more interested in asking him about 2004 than why he’s pitching for the Bears.

“I answer a lot more questions about [2004] than I think about it,” Foulke said. “But to me, ’04 is ’04. If I retired after that year, yeah, [shoot], things would be peachy. But I still want to go out and play for another couple years.”

Foulke is not in the Atlantic League to pen the easy feel-good story about the one-time All-Star who yearns to play one more summer for the love of the game and to travel the nooks and crannies of small-town America. Foulke says he is motivated to return to the majors “…everyday I walk into a bad hotel. My wife just says ‘Hey, it’s another reminder.’”

Yet pitching at perhaps the purest level of professional baseball is also another reminder that Foulke enjoys baseball a whole lot more than his reputation suggests. The most obvious hint was buried in the agate copy of the transactions in February 2007, when Foulke—whose knee woes in 2005 ruined his mechanics and eventually led to an elbow injury—announced his retirement the day before he was to report to the Indians, who signed him to a $5 million deal to be their closer. He liked payday in the big leagues, but not enough to keep pitching hurt.

“My elbow was killing me,” Foulke said. “After spending the two previous years on the DL, I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t good for me. The Indians, I’m sure, [were] a little chapped at me. But I’d have been miserable. And dealing with the injuries and the DL in Boston, I was already miserable enough. That’s no way to live life. It was an honorable thing to do and as soon as I made that decision, I felt 100 times better.”

Foulke spent 2007 recovering from elbow surgery and traveling the country with his family. He is still trying to regain his mechanics at Newark and his fastball-changeup combination isn’t as dominant as it once was (he’s still 1-0 with an 0.75 ERA and seven saves in 11 games). But he said he had fun again coming to the ballpark with the Athletics last season and is enjoying his time with the Bears, where his teammates include Carl Everett, another famously controversial ex-Sox player.

With a laugh, Foulke said he’s “…probably not nearly as worried as my wife” that he’ll never get another shot at the big leagues. So for now he’ll keep riding the buses up and down the east coast and participating in the type of grip-and-grins that he’d never have to endure in Boston or anywhere else—he’s signing autographs before each of the Bears’ games this weekend.

And, perhaps, along the way, he’ll be able to convince people that it actually does make plenty of sense for him to continue playing even though the pay is as low ($3,000 a month) as the odds of resuming his big league career are long.

“The part I don’t like about baseball, I guess you could call it the business side of it—I’m at the ballpark 3:30, 3:45 everyday, but yet I don’t work until 9:30, 9:45,” Foulke said. “That’s a lot of time to kill. I don’t like that part of it. But that’s a part of your job.

“But I love pitching. I love to pitch. That’s all there is to it. That’s why I’m still standing here.”

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