Friday, June 26, 2009

Double trouble for the Courant

Those in the trenches once again pay for corporate's screwups. Photo from Gerry Brooks' blog.

I’m sure the first book I read cover to cover was See Spot Run or something like that, but the first words I actually remember reading were in The Hartford Courant sports section. Many a weekday morning was spent eating my breakfast with my elbows imbedded in the newspaper. Inevitably, that was followed by me making a mad dash for the bus stop with my mother and a soapy washcloth in hot pursuit. She’d scrub and scrub but my elbows didn’t become clean until about 1994.

Likewise, I imagine the first televised images I ever absorbed were a Tom and Jerry cartoon or an episode of Sesame Street or maybe The Magic Garden on WPIX 11. But as a future unemployed sportswriter, the most pivotal figures in my development as a media observer were local news anchors such as Gerry Brooks, whose hilarious “The Brooks File” essays on WFSB (the local CBS affiliate) were must-see TV every Saturday night. (My favorite, about how men are never satisfied with how they mow the lawn, aired right after mowing the lawn became part of my chores at home)

So you can understand how I felt young and old all at the same time earlier today, when my oldest and best friend from Connecticut sent me a link to a blog by Brooks in which he notes the Courant ran the same Boston Globe story twice on a single page in today’s sports section.

That Brooks, who has been the co-anchor of the nightly news at WVIT, Connecticut’s NBC affiliate for years now, has a blog is cool. That he tackles touchy media issues in it, despite having every reason not to, is even cooler. That he has to write about the Courant running the same Globe story twice on the same page is incredibly disheartening, yet also not all that surprising.

A year ago, the Courant wouldn’t have had to worry about running the same Globe story twice because it would have, you know, actually staffed the Sox game in Washington. And replacing its once outstanding road coverage of the Sox with a Globe story is a kick in the pants to the Courant readership. Apparently, Sam Zell doesn’t think readers are savvy enough to go online to boston.com or head to the local convenience store and buy the Globe. Giving your readership reasons to read and buy the competition: Only in journalism.

Sad, too, is the line from Brooks in which he writes of “…sav[ing] the sports section for last to linger over the box scores and Dom Amore’s fine baseball coverage.” I can appreciate leaving the sports section for last (even though it was always the first thing I read), especially now, as I lament how it’s impossible to savor the Courant sports because it’s so thin.

There was a time when Amore was one of several writers providing the Courant with fine baseball coverage, not the only one. Now we can only wonder what will be axed first as the Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America, hurtles towards the day when another newspaper inherits that honor: Amore and the baseball beat or the box scores, which are a morning ritual for a newspaper’s core readership but an easily disposable feature for newspapers trying to live up to the execrable mantra of “do more with less.”

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

The death of Michael Jackson and the evolution of “Breaking News”


Nobody ever made pop magic sound as effortless as Jackson did from Off The Wall through Bad. Photo from this site.

Yeah, there’s not even a tangential connection between the Red Sox—or even baseball—and Michael Jackson, who died Thursday at age 50. And hopefully this doesn’t come off as awkwardly misplaced as SportsCenter’s piece, which was centered around the non-Tweeter reaction of Shaquille O’Neal and the Tweets of Andy Roddick, Lamar Odom and Dennis Rodman. Seriously.

But the breaking news coverage of Jackson’s death provided a fascinating case study in how the media, and in particular how it is absorbed by the masses, continues to change by the day. Most notable to me were the identities of the first outlet to report the news and the last to confirm it as well as how many ways the rest of us had to learn, discuss and dissect the news in the intervening two hours.

TMZ.com, home of mutually embarrassing encounters between paparazzi and D-level celebrities, probably shed its outsider status (at least when it comes to its reputation as a news-gathering source, being owned by Time Warner makes it difficult for one to remain an outsider) for good by reporting Jackson’s death at 5:20 p.m.

The more traditional news outlets and networks followed suit over the next hour or so, but CNN didn’t declare Jackson dead until 7:25 p.m., when it got confirmation from the Los Angeles coroner. CNN’s caution reflected well upon the traditional media, but it also provided more evidence of its increasing irrelevance.

I thought it was reasonable for CNN to wait for independent confirmation, because to get something like this wrong would be a crippling blow to a network’s credibility. But taking two hours to confirm the news that the entire world was already discussing didn’t reflect well on CNN, either.

Of course, CNN and the other news networks are spending most of the day tackling and discussing more worldly issues, so should they be punished for running behind the more renegade likes of TMZ.com? I mean, I kind of doubt Wolf Blitzer and Keith Olbermann expected to spend their shows talking about Jackson and his legacy.

That said, CNN looked hopelessly out of touch in its pre-confirmation coverage, during which it asked others about the death of a man whom it had not yet declared dead. A CNN anchor interviewed a TMZ producer, which was both ironic and a rather sad sign of surrender.

CNN also had dreadful man-on-the-street interviews in Times Square, which is the type of cheese perpetuated by small-town newspapers and TV stations trying to establish a local angle for the Super Bowl, as well as a phone interview with Jackson spokesman Brian Oxman, who was near tears and talked of hugging the crying members of Jackson’s family yet never said Jackson was dead.

That, too, was an interesting symbol of how the immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle has rendered the spokesperson largely powerless, at least when it comes to managing breaking news. CNN and Oxman would have been better off had Oxman not picked up the phone.

That 24-hour news cycle alternately sustains the all-news networks and diminishes its impact. Long gone are the days when the reader or viewer was a passive observer in the news-gathering process. Jackson’s death was the latest reminder of how the media is, now more than ever, a participatory experience in which those who consume the news are at least as powerful as those who disseminate it.

I was with my wife at her mother’s house on Long Island when I got a text from a friend in Ohio informing me of Jackson’s death at 6:02 p.m. I went online to Yahoo!, whose featured story on its front page was about Jackson being hospitalized. My mother-in-law and I then checked a few message boards we frequent, all of which had threads about Jackson’s death. Twitter had its biggest day since Election Day and there were so many Google news searches for Jackson that Google originally thought its site was being attacked.

When we got home a few hours later, I visited Facebook, like any good procrastinator, and found the status updates were predictably Jackson-themed. One friend from high school unwittingly summarized the new age of media by writing she couldn’t believe “…I learned this from reading posts on facebook instead of on the local news.”

Alas, that the traditional media had little to do with how we learned about and absorbed the news of Jackson’s death was as predictable as his death was surprising.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Can Smoltz keep making history in his career's second act?


John Smoltz says hello to Boston tonight (well, actually, he'll do it in Washington). Photo from this site.

John Smoltz will join some rare and accomplished company when he throws his first pitch with the Red Sox tonight. (He’ll also prove me wrong, a decidedly less difficult feat) Smoltz is only the eighth player in history to play at least 20 years with one team and then join another. Remarkably, he’s the fourth player to bolt the Braves after at least two decades (the first three were Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro). And you thought Boston was the home of bad baseball breakups!

Six of the first seven are in the Hall of Fame, but only one of Smoltz’ predecessors played more two seasons after departing his longtime home. Ty Cobb hit .343 in two seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics but was just 27-for-51 in stolen base attempts. Aaron and Willie Mays, who were first and third on the all-time home run list for more than 30 years, each batted below .240 as they quietly closed out their careers with the Brewers and Mets, respectively.

Spahn (Mets and Giants in 1965) and Harmon Killebrew (Royals in 1975) played one season apiece while Phil Cavarreta, the lone non-Hall of Famer in this group, received a grand total of four at-bats in his second season with the White Sox in 1955.

Given his age (42) as well as his oft-repaired right shoulder, Smoltz is more likely to fashion a brief coda with the Sox than he is to follow in the footsteps of Niekro, who pitched for the Yankees in 1984 and 1985 and joined the 300-win club in his final start with the Yankees before he pitched for the Indians, Blue Jays and Braves over the subsequent two seasons.

Niekro went 50-44 with a 4.27 ERA and 1.51 WHIP over his final four seasons, numbers that were below his career norms yet also essential to his Hall of Fame candidacy. With 210 wins, Smoltz is unlikely to reach 300, yet as the only player in history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, as well as a history of excellence in October, his resume is already worthy of Cooperstown.

But Smoltz, whose competitive fire and athleticism are the stuff of legend, has made it clear over the past several weeks that he expects to thrive with the Sox and enjoy the kind of success he had the previous three-plus seasons with the Braves, for whom he went 47-26 with a 3.20 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.76 before he underwent shoulder surgery last June.

“It will be a success,” Smoltz told reporters yesterday. “I came back with a mindset that it’s not about stories or saying I can do it again. It’s about pitching and getting hitters out. The end result is going to be that, and in three, four or five starts from now, I think you’ll see why I feel the way I do.”

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Of book releases and the photographs and still frames in my mind


Will Fighting Words reach Cliff Poncier-like heights in Belgium? Photo from this site.

Pardon this entirely self-absorbed post, but it’s not every day a book you worked on for five years lands in your hands. Fighting Words arrived at the Beach residence at 6:42 p.m. last night, and I’m told it should be in bookstores virtual and brick and mortar alike within the next 10 days or so, so please keep an eye out for it and buy a copy for yourself, as well as one copy each for 149 of your closest friends!

Before I wrote my first book, I figured the first time the author got to see the final product was when it was delivered to his doorstep. That was particularly untrue in the case of Fighting Words, as I was very fortunate to be involved in every phase of the editing process with Bill Nowlin and the rest of the great staff at Rounder Books. I’d read every word dozens of times and knew the layout of the book better than I know how to get around my neighborhood.

So as excited as I was to open the books, as elevated as my heartbeat was and as determined as I was for my wife to capture the moment on film, I can’t say I reacted like Vincent Vega and the hoodlum Ringo did to the opening of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. That said, if Joe Stranger had walked into our apartment and tried to take a copy, I would have channeled Jules Winnfield: “I went through too much (TV edit) the last five years on account of this book to just hand it over to your ass.”

The great thing about wanting to write a book is how perfect the idea feels and sounds in your head, and sometimes even in proposal form on the computer screen. Every word will flow easily, every source will speak willingly and expansively, The New York Times will gush about it, it’ll head to the top of the best-seller lists, Oprah will beg me to appear on her show, I’ll replace the toilet paper in my house with $100 dollar bills and Stephen King will wish he was me.

The scary thing about actually writing a book, other than how 99.9999999999999 percent of us neither get rich nor famous off of it, is the permanence of it all. Blogging, and even writing for websites—and, way back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth that everyone thought was flat, newspapers—is quite fulfilling and hopefully generates some interest among the readership.

But today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s bird cage liner and today’s blog post is one of hundreds out there about the Red Sox. Unless you write something really good (or, gulp, really bad), the shelf life is incredibly brief. And that’s fine. We know that going in.

But a book is there forever, warts and all. It might be ironic, albeit in the Alanis Morrissette way, that writing a book involves multiple drafts and edits, yet once it’s out, there’s no second take. If it sucks, it sucks. A movie can be saved by the director’s cut DVD. Not a book.

I know how easy it is to be in a bookstore, pick up something and put it back, never to think of it again. I know how easy it is to scan a book and find misspellings or incorrect facts or other flaws with it—to say this was a good idea, but the author could have done a better job. What if that’s me?

Actually, there’s no what if about it. It will be me. No book is perfect and no book will satisfy everyone, particularly its author. Even typing this, I can think of things I wish I’d done differently.

I’m reminded of what Rob Bradford said during an interview last June about how writing a book—particularly in Boston—subjects an author to some of the same second-guessing and instant criticism that so many of us partake in on a daily basis. “I remember when I did that first book [Chasing Steinbrenner] and the criticism started coming on message boards,” Bradford said. “That hit hard. Then you realize this is what the players get all the time.

“That’s one thing you have to be ready for and a lot of guys aren’t. A lot of guys are very thin-skinned.”

Rob makes a great point, and I’m determined not to be one of those guys. And if it gets really bad, well, I’ll just channel Matt Dillon as Cliff Poncier in Singles and ask my wife to only read me the positive parts of reviews. At the very least, I’m hoping I’ll be huge in Belgium, or at least in Brookline.

***

While the box of books didn’t emanate a golden glow as I opened it, I did feel that that opening it and flipping through the pages for the first time should have been accompanied by a clips montage set to the tune of Green Day’s “The Time Of Your Life.” Five years is a long time to work on a book—Bill to himself: “You ain’t kidding”—and a lot of things have happened, good and bad, in the process.

I think of how I began the project as an unemployed freelance writer living on Long Island, and how I ended it as an unemployed freelance writer living on Long Island. I think of Yankee Stadium, which was The House That Ruth Built in October 2003 when the idea for this book came to me while I was covering the ALCS, and how it’s now The House That Greed Built.

I think of October 2003, when I covered one of the middle games of the ALCS at Fenway, and how I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. I stayed in Quincy, for crying out loud. Do you know how much it costs to take a taxi from Quincy to Fenway? A lot.

I think of April 2004, when Fenway and everything about it still intimidated the hell out of me the first time I was there to cover the Sox. I think of how easily I became acquainted with the nooks and crannies of Fenway as well as Boston, how a guy born in Connecticut and living on Long Island somehow figured out a bunch of back roads in the Back Bay and prided himself on beating The System when it came to parking near the Park.

I think of the Days Hotel on Soldiers Field Road, what a great deal it was and how it provided a pretty good approximation of home. I think of walking to the Brooks that is now a Rite-Aid to buy water and newspapers before a game. I think of the time I was running late for an interview with Josh Beckett—who only talked the day after he pitched—and as a result parked my car at the McDonald’s across the street from Brooks, and how the car was still there an hour later. Beat The System again.

I think of all the press box meals I consumed and all the weight I gained at Fenway Park, all the laughs I enjoyed in the park, all the times I looked around the greatest sporting venue in America and could not believe a guy like me was covering the Red Sox on a daily basis. I think of how if it was up to me, I’d never have left my job.

I think of the peaks and valleys that come with writing a book—of the original idea and how it was so different from the final product as well of the nights I was convinced I was never going to finish it and the nights that I never wanted to stop writing because I finally had some momentum. I think of all the hours in the Boston Public Library and the stacks of books next to my chair. I think of all the interviews I had high hopes for that didn’t really pan out (and, in a couple cases, never occurred), but more of the interviews I had high hopes for that did pan out.

Most of all, I think of my Mom, and how she was healthy in October 2003 and how she was healthy when I sent the final draft to Bill in July 2008 and how my knowledge of Boston’s back roads and parking meters and good hotel deals came in so unfortunately handy in January 2009, when we took her to Dana-Farber in a last-ditch attempt to control the cancer ravaging her body.

I think of that terrible week, how we stayed at the Days Hotel and how often I drove by Fenway Park and the Rite-Aid that used to be a Brooks and the McDonald’s, and how I’d mention my memories of those places to my Dad and my sister, not because I thought they’d be interested but because it was a few seconds in which we didn’t have to talk about the unthinkable.

I think of how much I wish it could be 2004 or 2005 or 2006 again, or even 2007, when I sensed my job slipping away and was convinced it was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. I think of how much I want to get back to Boston and the good memories I have, even if they’ll always be tinged with sadness because I can’t share them or this book with Mom.

I think of how five years is a long time to work on a book, and how, this morning in particular, I wish it’d only been four years.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Like the six-man rotation, Daisuke Matsuzaka never really panned out

Daisuke Matsuzaka hasn't generated a whole lot of smiles this season. Photo from this site.

Daisuke Matsuzaka rendered all the chatter about a six-man rotation moot by getting lit up again Friday, when he gave up six runs on eight hits and two walks in just four innings as he fell to 1-5 by losing to the Braves. To the surprise of no one, the Sox announced Saturday that Matsuzaka’s next turn in the rotation would be skipped and then placed him on the disabled list Sunday with "shoulder weakness."

Maybe Matsuzaka is just having a bad season and stashing him away is a matter of sparing he and the Sox more embarrassment. And make no mistake: This IS a historically bad season. As Tony Massarotti wrote last week, Matsuzaka is faring this badly even with some of the best run support in baseball. He should be 5-1 in spite of himself.

But Matsuzaka’s mysterious ailment—this is the second time he’s been disabled this season and the third time in 12 months—conjures up memories of Matt Clement, who was sidelined in 2006 with an injury that nobody could quite identify until he went under the knife and learned his right shoulder had basically exploded. Clement never threw another pitch in the big leagues, and it’s worth wondering when or if Matsuzaka will ever start again—if not in the majors, then certainly with the Sox.

Even if Matsuzaka is reasonably healthy by spring training, the Sox can’t justify heading into 2010 with him ahead of the likes of Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden. Under John Henry, the Sox have been reluctant to eat money in order to move an underachieving player, but the guess here is the Sox will make the Edgar Renteria exception and absorb some or all of his contract in order to ship him to a National League team.

Regardless of what happens to Matsuzaka and for whom he pitches between now and the end of his contract in 2012, we can presume that this weekend’s news also renders moot the talk that Matsuzaka—whose workload and between-starts regiment in Japan were legendary—could prove that Major League Baseball teams were too careful with their pitchers and unreasonably tethered to the concept of the pitch count.

Even in the midst of all the gushing about Matsuzaka’s revolutionary potential, though, there were notes of caution. Buried in the end of the Tom Verducci story linked above were quotes from the Sox as well as Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras, indicating some level of concern over his ability to remain healthy long-term as well as the possibility that Matsuzaka couldn’t throw until exhaustion and beyond and expect to succeed against deeper and more potent American League lineups. (I’m going to presume Boras didn’t express such sentiments during negotiations, during which he said Matsuzaka would be known in America as “Fort Knox”)

So why, then, did the Sox sign Matsuzaka to a six-year deal if history did indeed suggest that Japanese pitchers tailed off dramatically after their second year in America?

In the interest of full disclosure, I bought into much of the Matsuzaka hype following the 2006 season, when I thought he was a better risk than anybody else the Sox could have signed or acquired (alas, the story I wrote for Ye Former Employer was for premium subscribes only). He was only 26, he allowed the Sox to spread Red Sox Nation worldwide and they barely spent more to sign him ($52 million) than they did for the right to negotiate with him ($51.1 million). And even the total outlay was about $23 million less than what the Giants spent for Barry Zito, who was the top starter on the 2006 free agent market.

Zito’s got a much better chance of going down as one of the all-time worst free agent signings (he’s 25-37 with a 4.77 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP for the Giants) than he does of living up to that deal. If Matsuzaka is finished—whether as an effective starter or for good—he won’t join the company of Zito and Mike Hampton, even if his peak looks like one of the great fluke seasons of all-time: Matsuzaka finished fourth in the AL last year with 18 wins and third with a 2.90 ERA despite throwing just 167 2/3 innings and leading the league with 94 walks.

In addition, signing Matsuzaka seemed like a reasonably safe investment at the time because the Sox—as hard as it is to imagine now, what with me spending the last week foaming at the mouth about how to work six starters into five spots—had an incredibly thin rotation. Fourteen pitchers made at least one start for the Sox in 2006, but only three of those hurlers—Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield—made as many as 16 starts.

Schilling, Wakefield and David Wells, all of whom were at least 40 years old by New Years Eve 2006, combined to make 62 starts. Nine starts were made by pitchers who began the season at Double-A (Kason Gabbard, David Pauley and Devern Hansack). Lenny DiNardo, Jason Johnson and Kevin Jarvis combined for 15 starts. Kyle Snyder was designated for assignment by the Royals in June and then made 10 starts for the Sox.

The Sox could not have known that their young and homegrown pitchers would mature so quickly and present them with the surplus of starting pitching they now enjoy. When Matsuzaka was signed, Beckett was coming off his first 200-inning season, one in which he posted a 5.01 ERA, and Jon Lester had just been treated for cancer. Neither Clay Buchholz nor Michael Bowden had pitched an inning above Single-A. Now, Beckett has a 20-win season under his belt, Lester has thrown a no-hitter and looks like one of the best pitchers in baseball and the Sox’ rotation is so deep that Buchholz and Bowden can’t crack it and are stuck dominating Triple-A.

Maybe that’s Matsuzaka’s legacy in Boston: One of the placeholders who bought the Sox time to nurture that young talent. Not bad, but not what you’d want for $103 million, either.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Derek Lowe


Derek Lowe didn't have a lot to celebrate during the regular season in 2004, but he sure made up for it in October. Photo from this site.

Derek Lowe, the architect of one of the most interesting careers in recent Red Sox history, returns to Fenway Park with the Braves this weekend, when he will make his first start in Boston since he left the Sox following the 2004 season. So this seems like a perfect time to post Q&A with Lowe that was one of the most interesting interviews I conducted for Fighting Words.

The summer of 2004, as you no doubt remember, was a tumultuous one for Lowe, who remained in the rotation all season despite posting a 5.42 ERA—easily his highest as a full-time starter—and evoking memories of his final season as a closer in 2001, when he lost the job to Ugueth Urbina and was so unpopular in Boston that he actually feared for his safety after blowing a save against the Yankees in late August.

As he did in 2001, Lowe felt his mindset was unfairly questioned, which led to the famous press conference at his locker on July 8, when Lowe wondered why people thought of him as a “mental Gidget” whenever he struggled.

Nobody was wondering about Lowe’s mindset by the end of October: He began the 2004 playoffs as the forgotten man on the pitching staff, but he ended the season on a historic high note by winning the clinching game in all three postseason series and turning into a lockdown ace against the Yankees in the ALCS and the Cardinals in the World Series.

Still, even with that brilliant burst, it was clear Lowe, who became a free agent after the World Series, would not be re-signed by the Sox. So all summer, I felt a sense of urgency to interview Lowe, who was a difficult guy to corral.

The first time I went up to him and told him what I’d like to talk about, he said he appreciated the interest but had no desire to talk about the media. The next time, he pointed to his neighbor Bronson Arroyo, said “Talk to him instead” and bolted for the door (I did talk to Arroyo, BTW).

I wanted to try one more time, so I went to Baltimore for the final series of the regular season, figuring that maybe the combination of meaningless games (the Sox and Yankees had already clinched the wild card and AL East, respectively) and the more open and relaxed setting of the visitors clubhouse in Camden Yards would yield some success.

Lowe was watching TV in front of his locker—a Cubs-Braves game, I think—so I made some small talk with him before I popped the question. He half-laughed, half-groaned and began making his way to the bathroom, which was situated between a row of lockers and featured an open entrance.

I followed him (I wasn’t going to follow him into the bathroom, mind you), and right before Lowe stepped into the bathroom, he tapped Doug Mientkiewicz on the shoulder. “Hey this guy wants to talk to you about the media,” Lowe said.

I told Lowe he’d already done that once and I really wanted to talk to him, because I figured six years in Boston made him one of the most interesting guys to talk to about the relationship between the Sox and the media. He said he had nothing to gain and a lot to lose by talking to me about the media. I told him I understood his reluctance, that I had no interest in making him uncomfortable and that I still hoped to ask him a couple questions.

“You’ve got two minutes,” he said and stepped back out of the bathroom.

As you’ll see below, Lowe got on a roll with the first question and we ended up chatting for a lot more than two minutes, as Lowe references at the end of the interview. He goes into candid detail about his relationship with the press in Boston and admits, warts and all, that he enjoyed most of his interactions with reporters in Boston and felt he was treated fairly given his long tenure. He also indicated how much he enjoyed playing in Boston and that he wished every player could have experienced what it was like to play for the Red Sox.

Unfortunately, an entire chapter about Lowe’s 2004 and his trials and tribulations in Boston ended up on the cutting room floor as the scope of the book changed. Nearly five years later, I’m still grateful for the time he provided and still look back on this interview as one of a handful that really invigorated me and made me feel as if I was on to something with this idea. Hope you enjoy reading the Q&A as much as I enjoyed conducting it.


Had you heard anything about the Boston media before your arrival from Seattle?

You notice the media, but you don’t really, truly notice it until you move up in stature on a certain team, if that makes any sense. Like when I started out in ’98, I was 0-10 at the start [Lowe lost his first eight decisions with the Sox from September 1997 through June 1998], so I didn’t really notice it. I never got booed—or never really got any questions, even—the first two years. Long reliever most of the time, I came into the game when the game was out of hand. If I gave up a lot of runs, no big deal. 2001, when I was a closer, I struggled mightily in the month of April, and I think that’s when you really [begin noticing the media]. I think what makes it difficult is there’s so many people who read the paper. Everybody sees it and it makes it tough. You really have to be a strong-minded person. We try to tell people ‘Don’t read the papers, don’t listen to the media, you’ll go crazy.’ There’s going to be some factual stuff about you, there’s going to be some non-factual stuff about you. But you can’t let it affect you, because you won’t be able to sleep at night trying to worry about what the papers are thinking about you. Because the bottom line is some are going to like you, some aren’t going to like you.

But as a whole, I think if you’re honest with them, if you’re accessible to them, if you don’t lay blame, it can be very black and white. If you’re doing good, they’ll write good things. When you’re going bad, they don’t sugarcoat it. And that, maybe to me, is the difference sometimes, when [things are] going bad. Maybe other cities try to find an excuse for it—you know, hey, he pitched badly, he didn’t have on his good shoes or anything. But here there is none. You either produce or you don’t. They don’t care why you didn’t, they just know you didn’t. And they can get really nasty at times. And this is not just me—I’ve seen it happen with [other] people. And I think that being said, I think a lot of players shy away from coming here—not all, but you do hear rumbles and grumbles of people. ‘How in the world do you play in this city?’ But this is really all I know. I can’t really say anything about Seattle, I wasn’t there long enough. So this is all I had known, all I had become accustomed to.

You have to look at it too: They have a job too. This is how they pay the bills. And so they have bosses. And unfortunately, negativity sells. I think that’s not just in Boston, that’s—you know, you go to the grocery store, you pick up a tabloid or one of those stupid things, if they have all positive stuff on the front page, no one’s gonna buy it. If someone’s doing something bad, people pick it up. Like the Boston Herald—eight pages of Red Sox stuff. There’s not eight pages [of material]. Eight pages of positive stuff, you’re not going to find it. There’s someone always struggling on the team. You have 25 guys. But it is, like I said, this is all I’ve known. I’ve enjoyed it. I think they’ve been a little fair to me about my career. So that’s all you can ask, is for them to be fair.

There were a few times this year when you walked into the media room after a decent start and said there are always more people in there when you struggle than when you do well.

It’s true though. [There’s] nothing that has been said about me, good or bad, that hasn’t been written already. We’ve got to try to have fun with it, because it’s true, it’s exactly what I said: You have a good game, no one really cares that I went seven innings [and] gave up no runs, because you’re expected to. And that’s not really going to be as big a selling point the next day. Where if you pitch like I did in New York [Sept. 18], go an inning, give up six runs, they’re blocking me [at his locker]. But you know that going in. That’s going to be more of a story, if you’re inconsistent. They’re like that with everybody. They don’t do it just because you’re a starting pitcher. They do it with everybody.

What was it like the week before the start against the Rangers, when you had the discussion with reporters and wondered why you were considered a “mental Gidget” whenever you struggled?

It really wasn’t that week. It was more like weeks or months prior to that. The whole season, it seemed like. They kept talking about the mindset I had and so it just kind of got tiresome to come into the clubhouse every day and have media guys asking me how my head is and how I’m going to bounce back from my last start. And it just got to the point [where] I had to ask them questions: Why is it every time I pitch bad it’s a mental thing, but every time I pitch good, no one ever mentions it? Like I was telling them, it’s called poor pitching. But that goes back to having played here, where I felt like I was in a situation where I could communicate with them. I wasn’t cussing or yelling. When they have questions about us, they come to us. I think I showed them respect. Questions about them or their article—I can go to them. I think it was easy for me to do that and they were honest with me. They gave me the reasons why. If I had a poor relationship with them, who knows what would have happened over the years.

How did you end up having a good relationship with the press after the 2001 season?

At that point, I still had three years left on my contract. So why do I want to dig my own grave? You’re going to be there for three more years, why make it more miserable for yourself saying negative stuff? Whenever people read that, it’s going to bring more negative attention to me. So the less attention you can get for yourself, I think, the better. Just keep your comments short, don’t draw attention to yourself. If you do that, it’s one of the top two or three places to play.

You seem to get along well with most of the beat guys though.

Yeah, we get along. I kid with them, they kid with me. But at the end of the day, we both know that we’ve both got a job to do, and I know what their job is. I think, for the most part, you see the same guys around—the same beat writers who are here all the time. I think they want us to win. It’s not like they want us to lose. They do root for you. And like I said, having played here since ’97, I now a lot of them have kids, have babies and so on. ‘How’s your family doing, yada yada yada?’ So when the game’s over, we all have places to go. We have families to go to. And so while you’re here, try to make it as enjoyable as you can.

Do you think it’s worse here for a closer when he struggles than elsewhere?

I think failing here is worse at every position because we haven’t won since 1918. So every year is gonna be their year. So I think every time you lose you don’t just lose the game for the Boston Red Sox, you lose it for the whole New England area. And I think as far as the fans go, I think it’s unique pressure. Take this year, for example. We sold out all 81 games before the season ever started. So when you only have that game to go to—like when you have a ticket for June 6 and that’s your game to go to and you go there, I come in the ninth inning, I blow the game—it’s hard. It isn’t like you can just say ‘I’ll go watch them next weekend.’ To me, just because you can only go to that game, knowing every game is sold out before spring training, that has to be special to them.

Do you think the press shoulders the team’s failures here?

Yeah, because again, we haven’t won, and so they want us to win. They want this whole thing to come to an end. But, again, I have enjoyed playing here. Like I said, we had our ups and downs. You’ve just got to, as much as you can, try not to read the paper, or it makes [it] that much harder for yourself to play here.

Have you been able to do that?

Yeah, absolutely. Good games, bad games, I don’t have to read about it the next day to see how I did. I know how I did. If you wrote something, you would have to tell me what it says and [where it was] written. And I think that comes with experience, because knowing how I struggled—I read it all the time in 2001 and it would drive you nuts, because then you put more pressure on yourself, because you know what people are saying about you. When you know what they’re saying about you—like I said, you know how you’ve done. For me, personally, not reading it is the best way to go.

What was it like in 2002, when you threw a no-hitter and won 21 games the year after you lost the closer’s job?

They were good. Again, when you’re playing well, they don’t sing your praises. They’ll write good things about you if you’re doing good. They’re not going to find negatives just because. If I had a bad game if I didn’t pitch well, they try to give you the benefit of the doubt for guys who have been here a long enough time and showed them a little respect. [They’ll] give you the benefit of the doubt until you consistently prove them wrong. It’s a neat place to play, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t ever get the opportunity to play here.

Were you asked about 2001 a lot in 2002?

Yeah, yeah. I also get it this year, too. This year, I’ve really been struggling. I’ve been up and down, all over the place, so you get the questions: ‘What’s different this year than the previous two?’ But again, [reporters] try to give you the benefit of the doubt, like I said.

Are the two minutes up yet? [Lowe grins]

One more question: What was your perception of Nomar Garciaparra and his relationship with the press?

I think what happened in the off-season—he’d done so many great things here, and to find that you might be moving on, I would imagine he was a little bitter because of all the negative talk. And he was getting frustrated, because they kept thinking he was faking his injury. Just a lot of things going on that really weren’t too positive. But to his credit, he went out and played the game 100 percent every single day. If you ask him, he probably learned a lot from playing here. But [it’s] probably good for him right now to be somewhere else.

Everyone’s different. Our superstars—Nomar, Manny and Pedro, the three most talked about guys on the team—that’s just them and you can’t force people to talk, to force people to be in the limelight. You are who you are.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hey now, Tim Wakefield's not an All-Star

Will Tim Wakefield bag the All-Star appearance that eluded Mike Timlin? Photo from this site

I’m quite sure Terry Francona wishes the Red Sox had managed to win Game Seven of the ALCS last year, a victory which would have made him the manager of this year’s American League All-Star team. But with every win Tim Wakefield earns, I’m betting you that somewhere deep inside, Francona is glad he’s not the guy who has to decide whether or not Wakefield deserves a spot on the AL roster.

Actually, the two managers are part of a committee that determines the All-Star reserves and pitchers. But when players who aren’t selected despite worthy resumes are looking for someone to blame, they never blame the committee, only the managers. And Major League Baseball pretty much condones this: Check out how those fine folks not-so-subtly pass the buck to the managers in this press release announcing last year’s All-Star teams.

It’s especially uncomfortable when an All-Star manager has to tell qualified players on his own team that they’re not going to the Midsummer Classic, as Francona learned in 2005, when Mike Timlin and Matt Clement were none too pleased to miss out. Clement ended up going as an injury replacement, but Timlin was right: His best chance at an All-Star Game berth came and went with, well, no berth. (But here’s a consolation prize, Mike: An appearance in this weekend’s Hall of Fame Classic)

And if Francona thought Timlin’s case made for an awkward situation, imagine the ordeal that could come out of having to leave Wakefield—the very definition of a sentimental favorite—off the team.

At 42, Wakefield would likely be the oldest first-time All-Star since Satchel Paige, the Negro Leagues veteran who wasn’t allowed to reach the majors until he was 42 and who made the All-Star Game for the first time at 45.

At an age when most pitchers are winding down or retiring, Wakefield has turned into one of the game’s most consistent pitchers: He averaged 12 wins and 187 innings per season while compiling a WHIP of 1.29 from 2003 through 2008.

Wakefield is also on the verge of becoming perhaps the most decorated Sox pitcher ever. He’s made 380 starts for the Sox, two shy of Roger Clemens’ team record. He’s 112 1/3 innings away from toppling Clemens and becoming the club’s all-time leader in that category. And with 173 wins in a Sox uniform, he’s just 20 away from breaking the record shared by Clemens and Cy Young.

That’s not to say Wakefield is better than Clemens or Young, of course. But he has produced one of the most impressive careers in the history of a franchise rich with tradition, and he hasn’t been racking up meaningless wins and innings: He’s been a vital contributor to the Sox’ finest era in almost a century.

Add into the equation Wakefield’s reputation as one of the most selfless players, on and off the field, in the game and how warmly received his inclusion on the team would be by fellow players and the fans alike and what better way is there to reward Wakefield than with a well-deserved trip to the All-Star Game?

Except…he’s not among the most deserving candidates.

Wakefield is certainly having a fine season. With nine wins in 13 starts, he’s tied for second in the AL in wins with Kevin Slowey and more than halfway to setting a career high in wins. He’s thrown 82 innings, one-third of an inning less than Sox leader Josh Beckett. He’s recorded nine quality starts and has lasted at least six innings 10 times in 13 starts.

And Wakefield was the Sox’ best pitcher when the team needed him the most: He posted a 1.86 ERA and threw seven innings three times in four starts in April, during which Beckett, Jon Lester, Brad Penny and Daisuke Matsuzaka combined to post a 7.29 ERA and barely averaged five innings per outing.

But Wakefield’s peripheral statistics indicate his gaudy win total is at least partially a result of good fortune and better run support. He is 7-2 in nine starts since May 1, yet has posted a 5.77 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP while allowing opposing batters to hit .306 against him.

He ranks fourth in the AL in run support (9.66), and he’ll move up two spots after today’s games, when both the Rays’ Jeff Niemann and the Rangers’ Brandon McCarthy will no longer average an inning pitched per team game.

Overall, Wakefield is tied for 23rd in the AL in opponents’ batting average (.256), 28th in ERA (4.39) and 33rd in WHIP (1.41). There are 19 pitchers who rank ahead of Wakefield in all three categories. In addition, Wakefield’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.34 (47 whiffs/35 walks) is fourth-worst among AL qualifiers.

None of this is intended to minimize the season Wakefield is having, or the contributions he continues to make to the Sox. And Wakefield is not the type to raise a ruckus if he’s not selected to the All-Star Team, which Joe Maddon should learn if he and the rest of the committee remove sentiment from the selection process next month.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Said I wasn’t going to talk about the six-man rotation anymore, but I lied

Will Daisuke Matsuzaka revolutionize American baseball--by becoming the sixth member of the first six-man rotation? Photo from this site.

Turned out that Tuesday was indeed the day the Red Sox revealed their plans for John Smoltz. As expected, Smoltz will make another start for Triple-A Pawtucket tonight before entering the Sox’ rotation next Thursday against the Nationals.

Somewhat surprisingly, Terry Francona said the Sox could employ a six-man rotation for the time being. Not surprising was the careful way in which Francona delivered the message.

“It might be [a six-man rotation] for a time or two through,” Francona told reporters Tuesday. “It certainly could happen. I don’t know that we need to make our rotation out a week or two ahead of time.”

That’s Francona’s well-practiced way of saying you can ask all you want but he ain’t saying squat. But addressing the six-man rotation without actually committing to it is a typically savvy move by Francona and, by extension, Theo Epstein, as well as another example of the increased cautiousness with which Francona and Epstein have operated over the past few years (you can read all about that in the final two chapters of Fighting Words, aha, another plug for the book!).

Francona and Epstein learned long ago it doesn’t make sense to make any declarations in Boston, because to officially change one’s mind is to invite days and days of stories examining why the Sox changed their mind.

In fact, the most pivotal move of the Epstein/Francona era occurred without an official announcement. It was abundantly obvious that Jonathan Papelbon was the Sox’ new closer when he trotted out of the bullpen and preserved a one-run victory by retiring the Rangers in order on just 11 pitches in the Sox’ first save opportunity of the 2006 season. But Francona continued to insist during the subsequent series in Baltimore that the Sox wanted to find a way to return Keith Foulke to his old role.

“The aim is to get Foulke back as the guy where, every time you get to the ninth, you hand him the ball,” Francona said. “I really do want that to be where we end up. This isn’t the passing of the torch. I really would be happy if we can get to that.

“There might be times when the starter goes five, ‘Pap’ can pitch two innings and sort of force my hand to use Foulke in the save, which is good. I want to make sure that when we give him that responsibility, that he’s ready to tackle it, and we’re not hoping that it works or we need a lineout.”

Of course, none of that ever happened and Foulke had already passed the torch to Papelbon, who pitched at least two innings seven times that season but never appeared prior to the eighth inning. Foulke didn’t pitch the ninth inning in a save situation at all in 2006—in fact, he entered in the ninth inning just 10 times in 44 outings and did so with the Sox tied or trailing by three runs or less only three times—and didn’t record his next big league save until 2008, when he pitched for the Athletics following a one-year retirement.

Nor have Francona and Epstein said anything concrete about Nick Green overtaking Julio Lugo at shortstop. Then again, is there a need to confirm the obvious? Green has started 11 of the Sox’ last 15 games and the Sox are 27-9 when he starts at shortstop, as opposed to 10-13 with Lugo. And notice the familiar verbiage used by Francona when he was asked recently how he’s going to juggle Green and Lugo once nominal starter Jed Lowrie returns.

The intentional ambiguity of Tuesday, meanwhile, provides the Sox plenty of flexibility—to either scrap the six-man rotation before it ever actually begins, implement it indefinitely or just stick with it as the temporary solution envisioned by Francona.

“But that wouldn’t be the worst thing for a short period of time,” Francona said. “Again, not for a long period, because guys don’t pitch enough. With days off, the All-Star Break, you have too many good pitchers that won’t pitch enough. But for a short period of time, we could live with that, yeah.”

We’ll have an idea of what’s going to happen by Saturday morning. If Daisuke Matsuzaka pitches poorly again Friday against the Braves—and let’s be bluntly honest, that’s about as likely as a sellout that night at Fenway—then maybe Matsuzaka is either sidelined with a case of Oliver Perez-itis (apparently, it’s catching among Scott Boras clients) or sent to the minors and the six-man rotation never gets off the ground. It’s well worth noting that Smoltz’ first turn in the rotation will come on the day Matsuzaka would typically pitch.

But if Matsuzaka pitches well—or if the Sox can’t convince him to go on the DL, to the bullpen or to Pawtucket—then the six-man rotation is a reality, at least for a little while. And “a time or two through” takes the Sox to the week leading up to the All-Star Break, and if the Sox are doing well with it, why wouldn’t they maintain the unusual alignment until the Break or even beyond?

In addition, as noted below, the Sox’ rotation lines up prior to the All-Star Break in such a fashion that the club can plan for extra rest for the two starters most likely to be selected to the game—Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield—while also ensuring no. 1 starter Josh Beckett starts the first game after the Break with seven days of rest, a reasonable figure given the Sox’ All-Star Break actually lasts four days:

June 16: Wakefield
June 17: Penny
June 18: Lester
June 19: Matsuzaka
June 20: Beckett
June 21: Wakefield
June 22: OFF DAY
June 23: Penny
June 24: Lester
June 25: Smoltz
June 26: Beckett
June 27: Matsuzaka
June 28: Wakefield
June 29: Penny
June 30: Lester

July 1: Smoltz
July 2: OFF DAY
July 3: Beckett
July 4: Matsuzaka
July 5: Wakefield
July 6: Penny
July 7: Lester
July 8: Smoltz
July 9: Beckett
July 10: Matsuzaka
July 11: Wakefield
July 12: Penny

It gets a little more complicated after the Break, since the Sox play six games before their next off-day. To maintain the six-man rotation as constructed prior to the Break would mean Beckett would make his second start of the second half on six days rest. Unless, of course, the Sox keep Beckett on his regular turn at the expense of Matsuzaka:

July 17: Beckett
July 18: Smoltz
July 19: Lester
July 20: Penny
July 21: Wakefield
July 22: Beckett

I won’t bore you by projecting the rest of the season for the second straight day. But don’t be surprised if we’re in projection mode in late July because the six-man rotation is still working, even if nobody ever actually confirms the Sox are sticking with it.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Joy of six?

Will going to a six-man rotation allow the Sox to blossom? Boooooo!! Boooooo!!! Terrible pun! Photo from this site.

Today is supposed to be the day the Red Sox announce what they’re going to do with John Smoltz and the challenge of working six starters into a five-man rotation. But Peter Gammons reported on Baseball Tonight last night that the Sox are likely going to remain in four corners mode, so to speak, for another week or so and that Brad Penny will probably start Wednesday against the Marlins while Smoltz makes one more start at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Gammons also indicated that keeping the status quo for another week will allow the Sox to “…wait and see what happens with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who hasn’t had the same stuff and could end up on the DL.”

But what if Matsuzaka pitches well enough against the Braves Friday to stay on the big league roster? That really wouldn’t do anything to solve the rotation in the long term, since regardless of how he fares Friday, Matsuzaka is still the weakest link in an otherwise sturdy chain.

Of course, as Tony Massarotti pointed out Monday, Matsuzaka’s contract makes it awfully difficult to send him to Pawtucket (or Portland, or Salem, or Greenville). And sending the $100 million man to the bullpen would be embarrassing, for both Matsuzaka and the Sox.

In addition, banishing Matsuzaka to the minors introduces another wrinkle: What do the Sox do if a rotation spot is created and Matsuzaka is pitching well in Pawtucket? Do they promote him and once again overlook Clay Buchholz, who is already tiring of life as The Best Pitcher Not Pitching In The Majors?

The Matsuzaka issue means the best solution—not a perfect one, but the least imperfect one—is going to a six-man rotation.

The problem with the six-man rotation, other than how the mere concept of it probably makes Nolan Ryan want to give anyone who suggests it the Robin Ventura treatment, is what a team will do if injury or ineffectiveness strikes a pitcher (or two). But the Sox are so deep that they could overcome multiple losses: Former starter Justin Masterson is in the bullpen and can either immediately become that sixth starter or make a spot start or two until the rotation can be realigned to the traditional five-man unit. And of course there’s always Buchholz in Pawtucket, as well as Michael Bowden.

Another problem unique to the Sox is that their no. 1 starter, Josh Beckett, doesn’t love the idea of a six-man rotation. Taking Beckett’s concerns into consideration (you’re welcome Josh) was a key factor when I mapped out a six-man rotation for the remainder of the season.

I don’t proclaim this to be perfect, but I think it could work beginning next Tuesday, the day after an off-day. The projected starters for the Sox’ final 99 games are listed at the end of this story, but here’s the rundown of the workload for the six Sox starters:

Josh Beckett: 19 starts (14 on regular rest***, two on five days rest, one on six days rest)
Jon Lester: 18 starts (nine on regular rest, four on five days rest, two on six days rest, one on seven days rest)
Tim Wakefield: 18 starts (five on regular rest, seven on five days rest, two on six days rest, two on seven days rest)
Brad Penny: 17 starts (seven on regular rest, four on five days rest, two on six days rest, two on eight days rest)
John Smoltz: 14 starts (one on regular rest, two on five days rest, two on six days rest, three on seven days rest, two on eight days rest, one on nine days rest, one on 10 days rest)
Daisuke Matsuzaka: 13 starts (none on regular rest, two on five days rest, two on six days rest, three on seven days rest, three on eight days rest, one on nine days rest)

***Regular rest is defined (well, by me, anyway) as a start made on four days rest or a start made on five days rest because of an off-day

Also, you’ll notice that each starter has two fewer starts listed inside the parentheses than outside them. That’s because I’m not counting the days of rest prior to his first start in this alignment, nor the days of rest prior to his first start after the All-Star Break (since it’s an obvious place to provide starters extra rest even for teams that aren’t trying to shoehorn six pitchers into five spots).

Beckett and Lester, not surprisingly, make the most starts on regular or nearly regular rest. Smoltz pitches almost exclusively on extra rest, which seems to be prudent given he’s 42, is coming back from shoulder surgery and was signed with October in mind. Wakefield, who has spent time on the disabled list in each of the last three seasons and turns 43 in August, gets more rest in the second half than he does the first though he still ends up with 18 starts, which is an acknowledgment of how solid he’s been most of the season.

I honestly intended for Penny to pitch with extra rest more often, but he’s pitched well enough—and, more importantly, seems healthy enough—to entrust him with mostly regular work. And Matsuzaka is the clear sixth starter because, well, he’s the Sox’ ninth-best starter at this point.

In addition, I’ve planned it so that the Sox have their three best starters—Beckett, Lester and Smoltz, the latter of whom is perhaps the best postseason pitcher of all-time—ready to start the first three games of the AL Division Series on regular rest, though it requires Smoltz making a tune-up start on three days rest on the regular season finale.

Obviously, there are tweaks that can be made. As well as Lester is pitching, there should be a way to make sure he makes as many starts as Beckett, but I do believe the Sox would love to find a way to somehow limit Lester’s innings in the second half so that he doesn’t end up throwing 230-plus frames for the second straight year. And the optimal six-man rotation would have Smoltz available out of the bullpen every time Matsuzaka pitches.

And crap, I didn’t even think about how rainouts could screw this up. Oh well. At least the Sox have already made their trip to Cleveland and therefore don’t have to worry about a game being postponed due to locusts.

Full disclosure time: I’ve had a crush on the idea of a six-man rotation since the end of the 2007 season, when I wrote a similar piece for Ye Former Employer. So all apologies if this sounds familiar, and I promise I won’t go to this well again this year. Probably.

The Sox have 99 starts to make, 99 starts to make…

June 16: Wakefield
June 17: Penny
June 18: Lester
June 19: Matsuzaka
June 20: Beckett
June 21: Wakefield
June 22: OFF DAY
June 23: Penny
June 24: Smoltz
June 25: Beckett
June 26: Lester
June 27: Wakefield
June 28: Matsuzaka
June 29: Penny
June 30: Beckett

July 1: Lester
July 2: OFF DAY
July 3: Smoltz
July 4: Wakefield
July 5: Penny
July 6: Matsuzaka
July 7: Beckett
July 8: Lester
July 9: Smoltz
July 10: Wakefield
July 11: Penny
July 12: Matsuzaka
July 13-15: ALL-STAR BREAK
July 16: OFF DAY
July 17: Beckett
July 18: Smoltz
July 19: Lester
July 20: Wakefield
July 21: Penny
July 22: Beckett
July 23: OFF DAY
July 24: Lester
July 25: Matsuzaka
July 26: Wakefield
July 27: Smoltz
July 28: Beckett
July 29: Lester
July 30: Penny
July 31: Matsuzaka

Aug. 1: Wakefield
Aug. 2: Beckett
Aug. 3: OFF DAY
Aug. 4: Lester
Aug. 5: Penny
Aug. 6: Smoltz
Aug. 7: Wakefield
Aug. 8: Beckett
Aug. 9: Matsuzaka
Aug. 10: Lester
Aug. 11: Penny
Aug. 12: Wakefield
Aug. 13: Beckett
Aug. 14: Smoltz
Aug. 15: Lester
Aug. 16: Matsuzaka
Aug. 17: OFF DAY
Aug. 18: Penny
Aug. 19: Beckett
Aug. 20: Wakefield
Aug. 21: Lester
Aug. 22: Smoltz
Aug. 23: Penny
Aug. 24: Beckett
Aug. 25: Matsuzaka
Aug. 26: Wakefield
Aug. 27: Lester
Aug. 28: Penny
Aug. 29: Smoltz
Aug. 30: Beckett
Aug. 31: OFF DAY

Sept. 1: Wakefield
Sept. 2: Matsuzaka
Sept. 3: Lester
Sept. 4: Penny
Sept. 5: Beckett
Sept. 6: Smoltz
Sept. 7: Wakefield
Sept. 8: Lester
Sept. 9: Penny
Sept. 10: OFF DAY
Sept. 11: Beckett
Sept. 12: Matsuzaka
Sept. 13: Lester
Sept. 14: OFF DAY
Sept. 15: Wakefield
Sept. 16: Beckett
Sept. 17: Smoltz
Sept. 18: Penny
Sept. 19: Lester
Sept. 20: Matsuzaka
Sept. 21: Beckett
Sept. 22: Wakefield
Sept. 23: Penny
Sept. 24: Smoltz
Sept. 25: Lester
Sept. 26: Beckett
Sept. 27: Matsuzaka
Sept. 28: Wakefield
Sept. 29: Penny
Sept. 30: Smoltz

Oct. 1: Lester
Oct. 2: Beckett
Oct. 3: Wakefield
Oct. 4: Smoltz

ALDS (if the Sox open on Tues., Oct. 6)

Oct. 6: Lester
Oct. 7: Beckett
Oct. 9: Smoltz
Oct. 10: Wakefield

ALDS (if the Sox open on Wed., Oct. 7)

Oct. 7: Beckett
Oct. 8: Lester
Oct. 10: Smoltz
Oct. 11: Wakefield

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Monday, June 15, 2009

In which Brad Penny recognizes the pot calling the kettle black

Next up: Brad Penny telling Joe Girardi that the jerk store called and they're all out of him! Photo from this site.

Today is June 15 (hi, I’m Captain Obvious, Derek Jeter’s cousin thrice-removed), which means that the Red Sox can now create a rotation spot for John Smoltz by trading Brad Penny. Of course, the best solution is probably giving Daisuke Matsuzaka the Fausto Carmona treatment, and maybe that’s what the Sox will do, $100 million investment be damned.

But if Penny has thrown his last pitch for the Sox, he’s leaving on a high note that even George Costanza would admire.

Penny had his most impressive start of the season Thursday when he was regularly clocked in the high 90s throughout a 117-pitch effort. One of those fastballs hit Alex Rodriguez in the back in the second inning and angered Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who on Friday complained about the plunking and griped about Penny’s intent.

Of course, Girardi complaining about the Yankees getting hit is the type of hypocrisy so blatant, it’s almost not worth dignifying with words. Fortunately, Penny thought otherwise and unloaded on Girardi Saturday, telling reporters that he doesn’t “…give two [hoots] what Joe Girardi says” and suggesting Girardi spend more time managing and less time playing commissioner.

Penny didn’t bother mentioning how regularly Yankees pitchers have used Sox hitters for target practice this year, nor how it’s ticked off the mild-mannered John Farrell. The Yankees have hit nine Sox batters this year, as opposed to just three plunkings of the Yankees by Sox pitchers. When Jason Bay was hit by Jose Veras Wednesday it marked the sixth straight game in which a Yankees pitcher hit a Sox batter. Nor did Penny mention that the Yankees, for all of Girardi’s caterwauling, lead the league in hit batsman (38 through Saturday, one more than the Sox).

Nor did he mention one of Girardi’s pitchers is Joba Chamberlain, who apparently thinks pitching is a carnival game and the baseball in his hand is a softball and Kevin Youkilis’ head is a bunch of milk jugs. Chamberlain also hit Bay May 5 after Bay homered in consecutive games.

Of course, the Yankees instigating beanball battles and then painting themselves as the victims is nothing new. In 2000, Joe Torre managed to blame ESPN for Roger Clemens trying to kill Mike Piazza during a July interleague game. When Clemens—hopped up on Ben Gay around the groin and nothing else, wink wink—chucked a broken bat at Piazza in the Subway Series, Torre wailed about how unfair it was to think Clemens was intentionally trying to hurt Piazza.

But when Clemens was on the Blue Jays and regularly hitting the Yankees, Torre was singing a different tune.

Girardi himself is no stranger to wondering why everybody’s picking on him. As the Yankees’ catcher in 1999, he was mystified when he was ejected from a Yankees-Mariners game that devolved into a brawl when the Yankees’ Jason Grimsley plunked Edgar Martinez following a home run by—there he is again!!!—Alex Rodriguez. It was so long ago that Rodriguez and Jeter actually were BFFs who spent the brawl laughing with one another.

But unlike Girardi’s complaining, there was something almost begrudgingly admirable in Torre’s hypocrisy. It was the passive-aggressive arrogance of it all, the equivalent of the star quarterback holding his hands in the air and proclaiming his innocence in a hallway brawl, all while he deftly sticks his foot behind him and trips another kid.

Torre’s a pretty good manager, but he would have been a great politician. Torre is so slick, he could walk into an igloo, declare it wasn’t that cold and have teeth-chattering Eskimos hand over their layers of clothing and believe it was the right thing to do.

He works a room like few managers or coaches in any sport, mastering the concept that a smooth delivery is the best form of spin control. He speaks earnestly, looks his questioner in the eye, drops a few “no doubts” to make said questioner feel as if he was revealing some great and deep truth and references new-age pap like “one heartbeat” that nonetheless sounds more organic and sincere than anything generated by Pat Riley or Phil Jackson. And maybe, for good measure, he’ll tell a story about how he caught Bob Gibson back when men were men and nobody got suspended for good country hardball.

And of course whenever there are multiple beanings in a game, Torre always mentions that he hopes there’s no lingering effect, thereby subtly painting the other team as the bad guys if they retaliate the next day.

Nobody ever wonders about his role when his pitchers start throwing at the head, not even in June 2007, when, after the overworked Scott Proctor entered in the ninth inning of a 9-3 game that had already featured four beanings and was the first Yankees pitcher to try to take off Youkilis’ head, Torre declared he was happy the Yankees “…showed some fight.” Nor did anyone seem to doubt Torre nearly three months later, when he told Youkilis that Chamberlain wasn’t picking up where Proctor left off.

Girardi is plenty slick in his own right: He spent all of one year as a bench coach with the Yankees before he was hired by the Marlins in 2006, when he won Manager of the Year honors and got fired anyway because of a personality clash with owner Jeffrey Loria. Girardi then worked for the YES Network and Fox Sports in 2007 and parlayed that season in the public eye into a gig as Torre’s successor.

But Girardi lacks that extra special layer that allowed Torre to escape scrutiny despite his multiple head-hunters. His people skills—inside and outside his clubhouse—were so lacking last year that the Yankees ordered him to undergo a Tom Coughlin-like metamorphosis. Girardi is better this year, but the Marine persona means he’ll never spin nor ever win over a crowd like Torre.

It doesn’t help Girardi that the Yankees are not the pillar of excellence they were under Torre, when they were the best, most consistent team in baseball. And if they wanted to plunk other teams and point fingers about it, well, there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it.

Indeed, if the Torre-led Yankees were the heartthrob star quarterback, the Girardi-led Yankees are said quarterback five years later, after he’s quit the State U. football team, flunked out of school and gained 80 pounds. The layer of invincibility is gone, so now when he acts like a jerk, people recognize he’s acting like a jerk. Just ask Brad Penny.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The sun will rise, the sun will set and the Red Sox will beat the Yankees

The Yankees probably enjoyed this role reversal movie a little more than the one they're starring in right now. Photo from this site.

I know this isn’t a terribly original thought after the Red Sox’ stirring 4-3 win over the Yankees last night, but as someone who was living in New York during the Yankees’ recent dynasty, it’s still mind-boggling to see how dramatically the two teams have switched roles.

(So who stars as the Sox in the movie version? Kirk Cameron or Fred Savage?)

To watch the Sox last night was to once again be reminded of the Yankees from 1996-2001. It was always the manager opposing Joe Torre who left his ace starter out there too long. It was always the other team that was mixing flotsam and jetsam in a desperate attempt to bridge the gap between starter and closer. It was always the other team helplessly watching as the Yankees received clutch performances from role players such as Tim Raines, Chad Curtis, Jim Leyritz and Luis Sojo.

Now it’s Joe Girardi who is trying to coax 120-plus pitches out of CC Sabathia on a cold and rainy night and indicating his interpersonal skills might be better than his managerial skills. It’s the Yankees who are turning the eighth inning over to rookies like Phil Coke, who spent six years in the minors before he made his big league debut last season, and Alfredo Aceves, who spent six years in the Mexican League before he signed with a big league organization.

Fun fact: As good as the Yankees’ bullpen was during the dynasty—when the likes of Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson and Ramiro Mendoza excelled in setting up Mariano Rivera, whose dominance in a set-up role in 1996 redefined the role—it never had a season like the one Sox relievers are authoring. Manny Delcarmen’s struggles last night raised the bullpen’s ERA to 2.88, still the best in baseball. The Yankees’ lowest bullpen ERA between 1996 and 2001 was the 3.22 mark it fashioned in 1997.

And it’s the Yankees watching as Brad Penny, rescued off the scrap heap and seemingly not long for the rotation with John Smoltz returning, regularly hits the high 90s in allowing one run in six innings. It got worse after Penny left: Rocco Baldelli, who is battling a rare muscular disorder that saps his strength and has forced him to spend what should be his peak years as a reserve, made a diving, game-saving catch in the eighth and Nick Green, who collected 121 big league at-bats the previous three seasons, delivered a key hit in the bottom of the inning and ranged well to his right behind second base to rob—irony alert!!—Derek Jeter of a hit leading off the ninth.

It makes you wish this was 10 years ago, when George Steinbrenner was healthy and making his employees miserable, because can you imagine the fun he’d be having watching Green—who spent all of last season with the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate—beat the Yankees?

“Cashman! You let this guy get away! This is on you if we lose the pennant by one game! How did you let this happen?”

“But Boss we have a sure-fire Hall of Famer at shortstop and our middle infielders missed 21 starts last year.”

“Shut up! You’re not allowed to spend Thanksgiving at home! You’re going to watch Nick Green videos and eat Chef Boyardee out of a can!”

The Red Sox are better than the Yankees in every way—the micro and the macro, the measurable and the intangible. If everything seems to go right for the Sox, it’s because they prepare better than anyone else, just like the dynasty-era Yankees.

Along those lines, there’s a pretty good chance the Sox dominated the Yankees in the draft room the last three days, too. The Sox have drafted and signed 14 big leaguers since 2003. Three of their top draftees (David Murphy in 2003, Dustin Pedroia in 2004 and Jacoby Ellsbury in 2005) are in the majors and their top picks in 2006 (Jason Place), 2007 (Nick Hagadone) and 2008 (Casey Kelly) are still in the system and still viewed as prospects (and, in Kelly’s case, much more than that).

The Yankees have drafted and signed nine big leaguers since 2003. Phil Hughes (2004) is in the majors and Ian Kennedy (2006) made it to the bigs in a little over a year, but Eric Duncan (2003) is stalled at Triple-A and likely headed for minor league free agency after the season, C.J. Henry (2005) now plays basketball at Kansas, Andrew Brackman (2007) walked 10 batters in 3 1/3 innings in a start at Single-A in late May and Gerrit Cole (2008) couldn’t come to terms with the Yankees, which is a lot like Bill Gates getting outbid on EBay.

On draft day and every other day, the Sox are the dominant team and the Yankees are in futile pursuit. And unlike role reversal movies circa the late ‘80s, this is no fad.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

John Henry, a two-paper city turns its lonely eyes to you

Will those who tote the tape recorders (not pictured) for The Boston Globe one day report to John Henry? Photo from this site.

The battle between The New York Times Company and The Boston Globe got uglier and moved towards a potentially catastrophic end game this week, when the Boston Newspaper Guild on Monday rejected the Times’ proposed wage cut of more than eight percent as well as reductions in health benefits and retirement packages. The Times—which threatened to close the Globe in April but said Tuesday it has no plans to shut the doors—responded by declaring an impasse in negotiations and announcing it would implement a 23 percent wage cut beginning Sunday. The union filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board Tuesday.

Late yesterday, news broke that the Times has retained Goldman Sachs to solicit bids for the Globe. The Globe’s sources are two potential bidders for the paper, which quite frankly are two more bidders than I would have anticipated. Even Rupert Murdoch, who has never minded taking a bath with a newspaper in order to build his empire, appears close to selling The Weekly Standard.

The concept of someone, anyone, stepping in to buy the Globe and save it from potential extinction sounds good, but sometimes the newspaper business feels like a modern-day fable—or maybe a modern-day Twilight Zone, I’m not really sure—in which those who are viewed as the saviors are actually more ruthless and bent on destroying the product than their predecessors. Ask anyone who works—or used to work—for Sam Zell and the Tribune Company, or those at Newsday on Long Island who work—or used to work—for a paper that now charges its readers 50 percent more to read a whole lot less.

If you think Times management is cold, imagine the ax in the hands of Jack Welch, who was placing a cutthroat emphasis on the bottom line back when today’s newspaper barons were pledging Phi Beta Trustfund. It’s a sad day when Welch, the former CEO of General Electric and "Voice of the Fan" on NESN (snort), makes a good point about how a newspaper’s management engaging in the type of behavior that it would typically criticize.

Along those lines, the Globe’s best hope for survival still might be Sox owner John Henry, who was reportedly interested in making a bid for the Globe—perhaps in conjunction with buying the Times’ stake in the Sox—less than two months ago. Talks apparently didn’t get beyond the exploratory stage, as evidenced by the following statement released by the Sox Apr. 30: “Neither John Henry, Tom Werner, nor any affiliates of the Boston Red Sox are involved in any sales discussions or negotiations with regard to the acquisition of the Boston Globe.”

But Henry has already displayed the deft PR touch that will be needed for whomever is willing to try to figure out a way to streamline operations (i.e. cutting staff) while keeping a dinosaur around long enough to figure out a way to make money on the online product. Henry and his ownership group already won over a fan base that wanted nothing to do with “outsiders” owning the Red Sox, and that occurred long before the Sox won two championships in four years.

Henry and Co. remain popular even though ticket prices have consistently climbed upward, Sox games are no longer on free TV and management has figured out a way to profit from just about every element of the fan experience.

That said, Henry and his management aren’t tone-deaf either—as evidenced by the decision this year not to raise ticket prices—which automatically makes them better than 98 percent of media companies. And unlike most of the people running those media companies, Henry at least sounded sincere when he acknowledged the traditional importance of newspapers during his brief flirtation with the Globe in April.

Of course, it’ll take a lot more than savvy and sincerity to save the Globe, and Henry didn’t become a billionaire (or turn the Red Sox into the closest thing baseball has to a dynasty this decade) by allowing emotion to dictate his decision-making. It would be difficult to blame him if he passes on the Globe, figuring that newspapers are money pits beyond repair.

If that’s the case, let’s just hope that whomever buys the Globe doesn’t leave us wondering if the paper would have been better off if it were allowed to perish, leaving us with bittersweet memories of what it once was instead of bemoaning what it no longer is.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

In the long run, bagging themselves plenty of homers won’t do the Yankees much good

Mindy McCready--err, Lurlene Lumpkin--is going to pen a sad song about the Yankees and Homers. Photo from this site.

Well, all that optimism over the new-look Yankees lasted all of a night. The Red Sox waxed the red-hot Yankees Tuesday night, 7-0, and then won again Wednesday, 6-5, to improve to 7-0 this season against their arch-rivals, their longest winning streak to open a season against the Yankees since way back in 1914.

Josh Beckett’s streak of consecutive 100-pitch starts ended at 10 Tuesday because he was so good—he allowed just one infield single and struck out eight in six innings—that the Sox could afford to pull him after 93 pitches. It was Beckett’s best outing against the Yankees since he tossed a five-hit shutout in the Marlins’ World Series-clinching victory in 2003, and the latest proof that the Yankees’ title drought seems likely to last at least another season.

The Yankees might have better makeup than usual and maybe even a bunch of newcomers who can handle the unrelenting pressure of New York, but none of that makes up for the fact their homer-happy brand of baseball (the Yankees lead the majors with 95 homers after going deep three times Wednesday) doesn’t usually translate well to the playoffs.

The Yankees, of all teams, should know the risks of relying on the homer, and the benefits derived from not doing so. This is likely to be the seventh time in eight seasons the Yankees rank among the top five in the majors in homers. Of course they haven’t won a World Series in that span, though they made the playoffs every year except last season (ironically, in that it’s not ironic at all, 2008 was the only season in which they fell out of the top five in homers).

Yet from 1996 through 2001, during which they ranked higher than 10th in homers just once, the Yankees won four World Series and lost another in the ninth inning of Game Seven.

The Phillies proved last year it’s possible to hit a bunch of homers in a joke of a home park and win the World Series—they finished second in the majors in homers—but the last team to reach the World Series the same season it led the majors in round-trippers was the 1995 Indians, who went 100-44 but lost to the pitching-rich Braves in the Fall Classic.

Three of the top five teams in homers began Wednesday with at least a share of first place (Yankees, Phillies and Rangers), but to watch the Sox is to think they’re the most likely candidate to knock one—or more—of those teams out of the playoffs. Beckett and Jon Lester, each of whom regularly dial it up to the mid-to-upper 90s, will front a rotation that could also feature John Smoltz, who is perhaps the best postseason pitcher of all-time, and Clay Buchholz, who is a man among boys at Triple-A.

Tim Wakefield is the farthest thing from a fireballer, but he’s also been the Sox’ most consistent starter this season and could provide a pretty drastic change of pace if he’s healthy and in the rotation in October. And that doesn’t even account for Brad Penny, who will probably be traded by the All-Star Break, or Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been the Sox’ sixth-most effective starter thus far.

In defense of the Yankees, they attempted to add some power to the rotation, as well, by signing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But Burnett’s next playoff game will be his first, and his two games at Fenway this season (0-1 with a 12.91 ERA) don’t exactly engender confidence in his ability come October. Sabathia, meanwhile, has a 9.47 ERA with 17 walks in 19 innings in his last three postseason starts, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares tonight as he tries to help the Yankees avoid the sweep.

Of course, the additions of Sabathia and Burnett were all but negated when the new Yankee Stadium turned out to be a lot like the old Coors Field. It’s tough to remake oneself as a pitching-first team when pop flies land in the seats…which means the Yankees will find it pretty difficult to remake themselves come October as well.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Here's hoping the draft isn't catching

Ryan Leaf, too, wonders why Major League Baseball would want to mimic the worst thing that ever happened to him. Photo from this site.

Major League Baseball’s draft day is here (and seriously, I’ll refer to it by their designated term—“First-Year Player Draft”—the same day pigs fly out of my backside). And the fact it’s actually going to take three days to complete what used to be done in less than two is the latest indicator that MLB is trying to turn the draft into something that it’s not—an event on par with the NFL draft.

After televising the first round live on ESPN during the afternoon the previous two years, the draft will take place and be televised in prime time tonight, when it airs on the MLB Network beginning at 6 p.m.

I can’t imagine the GMs who used to like banging out 20 rounds on day one and the remaining 30 on day two are thrilled with sitting around until dinnertime and getting all of three rounds in before calling it a night. But placing the draft on MLB Network makes sense: It’s a brand-new station with a desperate need for original programming. And if the house organ for baseball wants to bludgeon us with coverage of the draft, hey, that’s why it’s there.

That said, wanting to bring an NFL-level of hype and instant analysis to the draft is a terrible idea.

Time has proven that the hype and instant analysis that accompanies the NFL Draft is foolish. There was a legitimate debate in 1998 over who got the better quarterback: The Colts with top pick Peyton Manning or the Chargers at no. 2 with Ryan Leaf. Manning is headed for the Hall of Fame and Leaf might be going to jail.

In 1999, the Browns and Bengals figured they’d finally found a franchise quarterback with Tim Couch, the first pick, and Akili Smith, the third pick. Donovan McNabb went second to the Eagles, whose fans immediately booed him as fiercely as they would Santa Claus. Five quarterbacks were taken in a first round that was compared to the 1983 draft, but McNabb and Daunte Culpepper aren’t exactly Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly, nor did Couch, Smith and Cade McNown do much to honor the legacies of Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien.

And in 2000, six quarterbacks went before the Patriots plucked Tom Brady in the sixth round. Among those immortals: Tee Martin and Giovanni Carmazzi, who combined for zero NFL starts, and Chris Redman and Spurgeon Wynn, who combined for 13 starts.

So why would MLB want to mimic the NFL, especially when the objective of its draft is far different and its player pool far larger and more unfamiliar to the average fan?

The Red Sox might need a shortstop in the worst way, but nobody they draft this week will replace Nick Green next month. Nor will the long-term replacement for Jason Varitek be backing him up by September. Teams certainly enter the draft with wish lists, but they are more concerned with the long-term and building and fortifying the system than making an instant impact.

One glance at SoxProspects.com indicates most Sox fans get this, but I’m convinced they are in the minority. Most of the players selected in the next three days are years away from contributing at the big league level, which makes projecting them today a particularly risky endeavor.

The average NFL career is four years. 2005 draftee Michael Bowden has appeared in two big league games and is still among the Sox’ top prospects.

In addition, you can watch a guy play football on Saturdays on ESPN and have a pretty good idea he’s headed for stardom when he plays Sundays on CBS or Fox. It’s a lot tougher to get a glimpse of most of the top draft prospects in baseball, likely no. 1 choice Stephen Strasberg excepted, and there’s no way to recognize if someone is going to succeed until he starts playing with the other BMOCs in pro ball.

The proving ground of pro ball also proves the process by which teams select players is just as imperfect as in the NFL. The Sox picked Dustin Pedroia in the second round of the 2004 draft. He’s worked out pretty well. The next two players the Sox selected in ’04, pitchers Andrew Dobies and Tommy Hottovy, have yet to throw a pitch above Double-A.

The Sox had an amazing haul in 2005, when they selected five future big leaguers among their first seven picks. Yet they missed, and badly, on those two other players—catcher Jonathan Egan and pitcher Scott Blue, each of whom were out of baseball by Opening Day 2008.

Many pixels were spilled on the off-the-charts makeup possessed by the Sox’ first two picks in ’05, Jacoby Ellsbury and Craig Hansen. Oh well, we were half right.

In addition, the unpredictability of the MLB draft makes mock drafting especially fruitless, especially with teams not bound by Bud Selig’s “slotting” suggestions. Cheaper teams draft players for signability reasons and top talents scare off said teams with their bonus demands. So the Pirates select Daniel Moskos instead of Matt Wieters in 2007 and Lars Anderson falls to the Sox in the 18th round in 2005 and signed for more than $1 million.

Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus went 2-for-30 last season. This guy went 1-9 picking the top 10. Even those who are obsessed with the draft mock their mocks.

The decision-makers at MLB aren’t the only ones who want the draft to become bigger than it is. New York columnists Bill Madden and Joel Sherman have both recently called for MLB to liven up the festivities by allowing teams to trade draft picks. Both writers make compelling cases, but the draft as it is means the teams that are otherwise content to mail it in at the major league level and wail about competitive imbalance while getting fat off revenue sharing have to, at some level, try. We’re looking at you, Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Florida.

If teams were allowed to trade picks, the Pirates almost certainly would have pled poverty and would not have been shamed into drafting and eventually signing Pedro Alvarez last year. The Royals have also gone from ignoring the draft to investing in it over the last few years. The draft was the one thing the Devil Rays did right before they dropped the Devil and surged into the World Series last year.

Sherman lauds the NFL for turning its draft into such an event “…that reporters—who don’t know if the left guard on the team they just watched play 16 games had a good season—will do a mock draft to tell you the strengths and weaknesses of a left guard from Texas Tech they never have seen.”

But anyone who talks about the MLB draft knows what he’s talking about. Let’s keep it that way.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.