Friday, July 31, 2009

Martinez is here but the complicated part is still to come

I pulled a Homer predicting there'd be no blockbuster by the Sox Friday. Will Theo Epstein be the one slapping his head come October, though? Photo from this site.

We’re all about the accountability here at Fighting Words (more on that over the weekend or early next week), so here goes: I took a Tex Cobb-sized beating Friday, when Roy Halladay remained with the Blue Jays and Victor Martinez was traded to the Red Sox.

In my defense, who could have known J.P. Ricciardi would hammer the final nail into his coffin by not selling high on Roy Halladay and that the Indians would just flat-out quit?

Seriously, how would you like to be an Indians fan today? Twenty-two months ago, the Indians had CC Sabathia on the mound at Jacobs Field and were one win away from eliminating the Sox and advancing to the World Series and a very favorable matchup with the Rockies. Now they’ve traded the reigning Cy Young Award winner in consecutives seasons and just gave their best player to the Sox. 2007 has to feel so far away for Indians fans, but not as far away as their favorite team’s next World Series run.

This is not intended to denigrate the players the Sox sent to Cleveland—Justin Masterson and Single-A pitching prospects Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price. Maybe Hagadone—whom the Sox absolutely love—turns into an ace and Masterson and/or Price develops into a mid-rotation guy or reliable closer.

But who will be the Indians’ ace now? How can the Indians trade Cliff Lee earlier this week and not get for Martinez either Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden, either one of whom would immediately become the Indians’ best starter? The Sox reportedly turned down a Martinez-for-Buchholz deal earlier this week, at which point, if I were Indians GM Mark Shapiro, I would have said thanks for calling, see you at the winter meetings.

That he ended up handing Martinez over for a struggling middle reliever and two prospects means it almost surely wasn’t his call. I wonder if the Indians’ fire sale is either the first step in the Dolan family selling the team and/or the Tribe doing Bud Selig’s dirty work and laying the groundwork for the bloody negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement following the 2011 season.

Get enough teams complaining they can’t compete—isn’t it interesting the Pirates keep dumping players and the Royals have, according to Peter Gammons, been told they will lose the 2012 All-Star Game if they go above slot to sign their June draft picks?—and Selig has all the ammunition he needs to engage in a high-stakes game of chicken with the union (no longer led by the unbeatable Donald Fehr) and go for the salary cap he’s been salivating over for nearly 20 years.

Hey, by 2011, it will have been 17 years since he killed a World Series! And maybe home runs will once again lure fans back after the Great Strike of 2012!

Or maybe it’s just a crappy trade. What do I know?

Anyway, from a pure talent standpoint, I can’t blame Theo Epstein for making the Martinez trade. To get a perennial All-Star catcher—and someone who buys the Sox time to find and develop that young franchise catcher—in exchange for three pitchers, only one of whom has reached the majors, is a no-brainer, and he still has his Buchholzes and Bowdens and Casey Kellys and Daniel Bards and Lars Andersons in reserve.

But the challenges are just beginning now that Martinez is in the fold, and I wonder if Epstein has committed a rare misstep here—both in trying to overhaul a team in midseason, when history suggests blockbuster summer deals rarely lead to fall glory, and in reading the pulse of the Sox.

One of Epstein’s greatest traits is his ability to remove emotion from the decision-making equation while also recognizing the intangible value of certain players. Epstein deviated from the norm in re-signing Jason Varitek after 2004, when he came up with a way for a team that didn’t hand out no-trade clauses to give Varitek a no-trade clause. The Sox typically don’t like to negotiate with players during the season, but David Ortiz signed extensions in May 2004 and April 2006. And the negotiations with Mike Lowell following the 2007 season seemed unusually testy, but the Sox eventually gave him the three-year deal that convinced him to pass on the four-year deals reportedly offered by the Yankees and Phillies.

But acquiring Martinez means a reduction in playing time for three of the Sox’ most pivotal personalities. I’d go so far as to say that while Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are on the cover of the 2009 yearbook, the foundation of that locker room is still Varitek, Lowell and Ortiz.

All three are well-regarded for their professionalism, so don’t expect Varitek, Lowell or Ortiz to channel Mike Lansing and flip off the lineup card on the days he/they are not starting. But that doesn’t mean fitting four players into three spots won’t be a delicate and perhaps messy endeavor for Terry Francona, who will earn every cent of his salary and will need every last shred of his people skills over the next two or three months. Phasing out one leader in midseason, never mind three, isn’t an easy endeavor, and I wonder how the process will filter into the rest of the clubhouse.

Epstein has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt, and one thing we all should have learned the last few years is there’s always more going on behind the scenes at Fenway Park than he lets on. Maybe the Sox recognize Ortiz will not be the same after the news of his failed drug test, or maybe they know Lowell’s hip ailments will limit him to one or two starts a week for the rest of the season, or maybe they know Varitek is more banged up than usual.

Maybe this all makes sense in October. Or maybe it doesn’t, and Epstein realizes December is a better time to begin a transition than July.

Email Jerry at

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Repeat after me: Roy Halladay will get traded, but not to the Red Sox

Acquiring a spare part like Brian Anderson might not leave Sox fans jumping for joy, but if history is any indication, they'll have to be satisfied with it anyway once the trading deadline arrives today. Photo from this site.

The Yankees are getting hotter and the Red Sox are getting colder (sorry, but needing a late comeback today to split a series with the Athletics, who stopped trying around March 31, does not reverse the post-All-Star Break slide) as the trade deadline approaches, so the first instinct is to say the Sox have to do something, anything, to keep up with the Yankees, especially with the Phillies no longer in the running for Roy Halladay.

And don’t let J.P. Ricciardi fool you: The Blue Jays will trade Halladay within the next 24 hours. I have no sources telling me that, or anything cool and juicy like that. But Ricciardi is like that owner in your fantasy league who tells everyone you better hurry up and make him an offer for his star player because he’s got big deals on the front burner, except he’s just bluffing like crazy in hopes someone actually believes him and overpays. When the rest of the league doesn’t panic and overpay and instead makes a more reasonable offer with someone else, Ricciardi—err, the owner in your fantasy league—is forced to dump his star for less than he would have liked.

Further complicating things for Ricciardi and the Jays is the fact Halladay’s trade value will never be higher than it is right at this moment. Just look at what the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira at the 2007 deadline, a year-and-a-half before he reached free agency, and what the Braves got for him last year

But when Halladay is traded, it won’t be to the Sox, even if they’ve gone from having way too much starting pitching to not enough over the last couple weeks. And it’s precisely because the Sox have stumbled badly this month and because they need Halladay that they won’t get him.

Oh sure, there have been plenty of rumors proclaiming the Sox the frontrunners for Halladay, and chairman Tom Werner told reporters in Cooperstown Sunday that Theo Epstein was “…burning the midnight oil” as the deadline approached. Of course, Werner also said the Sox didn’t want to part with any of their top prospects, which correlates with what John Henry Twittered following the Adam LaRoche trade.

Now is it possible the Sox are just bluffing when they declare off-limits the best of their young players? Of course. But to execute a midseason blockbuster—without an unhappy superstar forcing his way out of Boston in the process—would deviate drastically from Epstein’s m.o.

Again: The Sox are the only two-time champion in baseball this decade, run by a bulletproof general manager who stood pat three years ago, when the Sox were in first place and he had nowhere near the political capital he enjoys now. He maintained the status quo even though the Yankees were pursuing a difference-making bat, Bobby Abreu, whom they acquired for almost nothing.

The Yankees are probably the team most likely to land the prize of this trade deadline, as well, especially now with Chien-Ming Wang out for the season, NL castoff Sergio Mitre serving as their fifth starter and the suddenly surging Joba Chamberlain approaching his laughably secretive innings limit. Imagine how sturdy the Yankees would look in October with a top three of Halladay, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

But Epstein was willing to absorb the short-term hit to better position the Sox for long-term success in 2006. In addition, to trade for someone like Halladay would bolster the Sox in the short-term but also leave them with precious little young pitching depth. Beyond Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden and Justin Masterson, the Sox don’t have any impact arms ready to move into the rotation. Junichi Tazawa was just promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, but the rest of the Sox’ most promising pitchers are at Double-A or below. So what do the Sox do if injuries strike over the next 15 months?

That said, dealing prospects for an impact hitter would make more sense, since the Sox have bucked conventional wisdom by having more luck developing pitchers than hitters. But a deal for the Padres’ Adrian Gonzalez and/or the Indians’ Victor Martinez is a lot less risky in the winter than in July.

This already seems like a team headed for some kind of overhaul after the season. Lowell and Jason Varitek are playing less frequently. Jason Bay is playing himself right out of a long-term deal. J.D. Drew is, well, J.D. Drew. Daisuke Matsuzaka is complaining about how the Sox have treated him, which seems to be a fine way to assure that the Sox have to give the Edgar Renteria/Julio Lugo treatment to someone who doesn’t actually play shortstop. Tim Wakefield’s not going to make a start on his 43rd birthday. The Sox’ starting shortstop, whomever he is on a given day, still would not start for the majority of big league teams.

And that’s just the guys who don’t fit into the long-term plan. David Ortiz learned this week that hitting .220 may be the least of his problems. Kevin Youkilis is hitting .251 since returning from the disabled list May 20.

Most notably, Jonathan Papelbon is allergic to the 1-2-3 inning, and Jon Couture made a pretty good case Wednesday why Papelbon may not even be among the top tier of closers anymore. For all his talk about wanting to inherit the title of best closer in baseball from Mariano Rivera, Papelbon has never seemed the type to remain durable or dominant well into his 30s. What if we’ve already seen the best of Papelbon and this recent ineffectiveness is the beginning of the end? Why would the Sox deal potential heir apparent Daniel Bard for Halladay?

A lot of difficult decisions will have to be made after the season. Why begin the process in midseason and try to make all the new pieces fit on the fly—and, perhaps in the process, further reduce the playing time of the captain and his unofficial first lieutenant—instead of during six or seven weeks in Ft. Myers? Especially when the diluted nature of the AL means even the flawed Sox, who still lead the wild card race, can still make quite a run at the AL pennant or beyond?

Assuming the current division leaders all hang on, the Sox would face the Angels in the AL Division Series, which, even in the Sox’ weakened state, is like earning a bye into the AL Championship Series. Figure the Yankees beat the Tigers, even if the decidedly underdog Tigers crushed the Yankees in the 2006 ALDS and the Yankees haven’t moved beyond the first round since 2004.

In the ALCS, would you want to bet against the playoff-hardened Sox—led by the 1-2 punch of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester atop the rotation—figuring out a way to beat the Yankees, even if they did field a rotation of Halladay-Sabathia-Burnett? That’s two ex-Blue Jays who have never made a postseason start and Sabathia, who has recorded an ERA of 9.47 the last two Octobers and is 0-2 with a 5.66 ERA against the Sox and Rays this season.

For all the internal reasons why it behooves the Sox to stand pat, none is as convincing as an external one: History indicates the teams that make the biggest moves at the trade deadline are not the ones that win the World Series. (More on that tomorrow)

More than two-thirds of the way into the season, a team—to borrow the most tired phrase of the decade—is what it is. Whomever is going to win the World Series is going to do it with a core it has been establishing since April, not players it’s adding this month. So as fun as it is to wonder how good the Sox would be with Halladay, Gonzalez or Martinez, the most exciting thing to happen today will probably involve adding another former big leaguer to Pawtucket’s outfield.

Email Jerry at

Nobody topped Rickey Being Rickey

Rickey was still Rickey even playing independent ball well into his 40s.

Pardon the tardiness of this post, but a family trip to Cooperstown complete with mammoth daily commutes to and fro The Place Where Baseball May Or May Not Have Been Invented left us wiped and with little time to blog. But really, since we’ve all been waiting a decade or more for Rickey Henderson’s induction speech, what’s a few extra days to reflect upon it?

Technically, I don’t know if we’ve ALL been waiting a long time for Rickey’s speech (AP style dictates a person be referred to by his last name following the first reference, but Rickey doesn’t follow AP style). All I know is my future wife and I made our first trip to Induction Sunday in 1999, and as we left town, she said something along the lines of “We have GOT to come here when Rickey gets in.”

If you’re in your mid-30s (for crying out loud, that makes me feel so old), you understand why. You remember how Rickey’s 1980 Topps card was much more than the final link to the days when Topps enjoyed a monopoly on trading cards. It was also the safest investment a teenager could make—a nice counterbalance, if you will, to the crazed pursuit of the white-hot, piggy bank-busting rookie cards of the will-get-into-the-Hall-only-with-a-ticket likes of Don Mattingly, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis.

Nobody ever combined power and speed like Rickey. He hit 297 career homers, including a record 81 leading off a game—more than 27 percent of his overall total.

He changed a game just by dancing off first base. For the average superstar, the finest compliment he can ever receive is to hear that fans never leave their seats when he comes to the plate. But fans put off bathroom breaks and phone calls as soon as Rickey reached base, because Rickey was going to do something magnificent during the next 270 feet.

And nobody knew how good Rickey was better than Rickey, who led the AL in stolen bases 11 times in the 12 seasons between 1980 and 1991. He had just 41 steals in 1987, when he was limited to 95 games by various injuries. Harold Reynolds led the league with 60 steals and received a “congratulatory” call from Rickey shortly after the season ended.

“He called me and said ’60 stolen bases? I would have had 60 at the break,’” Reynolds said in Cooperstown Sunday. “That was his congratulations.”

How could you watch Rickey play and not smile? My favorite image of the week was one displayed at the beginning of an MLB Network clips package aired before Henderson’s speech. With a camera positioned behind second base, Henderson took off from first base, raced toward second and briefly disappeared from view as he slid into the base. When he reappeared, he did so with a giant grin on his face.

Liking Rickey was also harmless rebellion. Fathers hated Rickey, which made it fun for their sons and daughters to like the guy and eventually get married and travel to Cooperstown to see his induction.

“I should get my Dad this shirt,” my wife said, pointing to a “I was there for Rickey’s induction” type of shirt.

Following our initial trip to Induction Sunday 10 years ago, we’d wonder if Rickey would even show up for his speech, and if he did, if he’d step to the podium, express displeasure that it took so long for Rickey to get elected and walk off the stage. Once Rickey finally stopped playing—hey, if he won’t call himself retired, neither will I—we wondered ever year if he would come back for a game with someone and reset the Hall of Fame clock.

But Rickey managed to go five years without playing in the bigs following the 2003 season, which meant he was eligible for induction this year, when he garnered nearly 95 percent of the vote to become the 44th player enshrined in his first year on the ballot. And Rickey—sporting a killer white suit—made the wait worth it Sunday with a memorable speech that was alternately hilarious and touching.

Afterward, my wife mentioned he was the original Manny Being Manny, and as usual, she’s on to something. Rickey, like Manny Ramirez, talked about himself in the third person, no matter what he tried to get everyone to believe last weekend.

He didn’t hustle—upon Henderson’s election in January, Phil Mushnick of the New York Post pointed out Henderson finished his career with just 66 triples, a remarkably low figure for someone with more steals than anyone in the history of the game—and he dogged it on home run trots. He even preened upon drawing a walk, for crying out loud, and since he had more of those than anyone in the history of the game upon his exit following 2003, you can understand how the schtick grew old.

Rickey had an attention span of a gnat, his whims changing by the second. He drove managers and general managers crazy. He could be unhappy with the terms of a contract almost immediately after he put pen to paper, even as a 43-year-old in camp on a minor league deal. In 2002, Henderson told Sox interim general manager Mike Port he felt underpaid at $350,000 and that he’d “canceled” the contract he’d signed.

He made the simple act of reporting to spring training an annual drama. He was unable and/or unwilling to remember the names of those around him, indicating he was either incredibly insular or incredibly selfish. He played cards as the Mets’ season ended in Game Six of the 1999 NLCS, which is actually a whole lot more egregious than emerging from the Green Monster as a pitch is thrown.

Rickey specialized in awkward exits and, like Ramirez, felt more comfortable outside of the big baseball markets, where his quirks went mostly unnoticed. He played for nine teams (and had four stints with his hometown Athletics), giving a singular talent a journeyman’s resume and making himself the subject of an awesome trivia question and/or quite a drinking game.

I was covering the Mets when Rickey got himself released in May 2000. He’d been unhappy with his playing time and his pay and made himself into a daily distraction for the Mets, who were 19-19 prior to his dismissal and 75-49 (.605) afterward. Last year’s Sox were 61-48 (.560) with Ramirez on the team and 34-19 (.642) without him.

Yet for a guy who loved getting paid, Rickey could be awfully scatterbrained. He once hung a million dollar check from the A’s on his wall and kept it there until a year later, when the A’s were trying to balance their books and were frantically trying to find the missing million bucks. Sounds a bit like Ramirez driving around with a paycheck in his car.

Such inexplicability made Rickey an endearing figure to those observing him from anywhere other than the front office. Most of the time, Rickey just didn’t know any better. He was the class clown who wasn’t focused enough to inflict any real damage nor to have a grasp on why people were mad at him. After the Mets released him, Rickey kept coming back to the clubhouse in subsequent days and even hung out in the office of manager Bobby Valentine, which would have seemed really strange behavior from anyone except Rickey.

Like Ramirez, teammates lauded Rickey, calling him an invaluable resource whose goofy demeanor belied a strong work ethic and an unusual ability to break down the game, see things nobody else could see and do things nobody else could do. Base-stealing is a risky, dangerous endeavor that eventually wears—physically and mentally—even on the most successful players, but Rickey finished with a record 1,406 steals, led the AL in swipes at age 39 in 1998 and looked last week like he could step off the podium and right into a lineup.

And in his own weird, twisted yet somehow sensible way, Rickey possessed a pure love of the game. When nobody expressed interest in signing him following his season with the Red Sox in 2002, Rickey played in the independent Atlantic League, where he had as part of his contract his own chauffeur, personal assistant and cozy hotel room. The Dodgers signed him in midsummer 2003, but Rickey played the next two seasons in independent leagues before finally stepping away from the game.

Rickey could talk in the days and weeks leading up to his induction about how today’s players don’t appreciate the game and don’t always play hard, and nobody pointed out the irony or hypocrisy in such a statement. It was OK…just Rickey being Rickey.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of reception Ramirez gets—from the BBWAA as well as fans—five years after he plays his final big league game. Like Rickey, Ramirez possesses a resume not only worthy of induction on the first ballot but also of consideration as the first unanimous selection. But unlike Rickey, writers now have a reason not to vote for Ramirez other than his behavior. And Rickey never forced a team to trade him in the middle of a pennant race.

My guess is that even if the fury directed at steroid users subsides, Ramirez’ waiting period will be closer to Jim Rice’s than Rickey’s, and that nobody left Cooperstown this weekend determined to make their way back to upstate New York if and when Ramirez gets in. Which is fine, because if you grew up watching Rickey—hoarding his rookie card, ignoring Dad’s grumblings and disregarding the rules of grammar the whole time—you understand why.

Email Jerry at

Sunday, July 26, 2009

In which I state one more time that I don't think Jim Rice is a HOFer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—What I’m about to write destroy whatever street cred I may have with Red Sox fans (as should the fact I just wrote the words “street cred” at the age of 35), but here goes: I don’t think Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer.

Of course, what I think on most topics matters little, and even less when it comes to who does and does not make the Hall of Fame, since despite my willingness to offer up various useless appendages in exchange for membership, I’m not even a one-year veteran of the Baseball Writers Association of America, never mind a veteran of 10 years or more who has earned the right to cast a ballot every December.

And it REALLY doesn’t matter what I think today, when Rice is inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Rickey Henderson. He’s in, he’s in forever, and after today, nobody’s going to remember he came closer to not getting in than anyone else in the Hall (in his final year on the ballot, Rice received 412 votes in January’s election, seven more votes than required for election).

Still, I’ve never gotten the debate over Rice’s candidacy. Maybe it’s because as a child growing up in Connecticut, the TV in my house was usually tuned to WPIX for the Yankees or WWOR for the Mets, not WSBK for the Red Sox. Maybe it’s because by the time I really came of age as a baseball fan, Rice was already beginning to decline. Maybe it’s a matter of Rice lacking the big round numbers one correlates with a Hall of Famer because he played one year too many, in which his career average fell from .300 to .298, or because he retired one year too soon and finished at 382 homers instead of 400.

My evaluation skills eventually moved past the “I know it when I see it” level, but my overlooked candidates were/are Goose Gossage, Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines (seriously, it’s a crime this guy is going to end up waiting close to 15 years, if he ever gets in), not Rice. I slowly came around on the likes of Bruce Sutter and Gary Carter, though I blame the latter on growing up a Mets fan and covering the Mets when Carter would annually squawk about not getting in.

It’s not even that Rice needed all 15 years on the ballot to gain enshrinement. Those candidacies are more compelling to me anyway: Players who are better than 99 percent of the people who played the game, but maybe not 99.5 percent. I like that those players have 20 years (counting the five-year waiting period following retirement) for their cases to develop and for the electorate to chew countless pen caps in carefully analyzing how the player measures up against not only his peers but also those who came before and after him.

There seems little doubt Rice benefited from the hand-wringing over the Steroid Era and the belief that his statistics were more pure and impressive than the video game numbers racked up over the last 15 years. But Rice, as uncomplicated as ever, shrugged off the idea that the scandals involving many of the game’s top recent power hitters forced voters to take a closer look at him.

“My numbers did not change at all,” Rice said during a press conference Saturday. “I think it basically depends on who voted at the time. I don’t know if the Steroid Era had anything to do with it. I don’t think it should have anything to do with it. I can’t change anything. All I can say is I’m happy where I am right now. I could be in South Carolina right now paying golf, but I’m here talking to you.”

But every time I look at Rice’s page on and crunch the numbers, I come to the same conclusion: First-ballot for the oft-cited but yet-to-be-constructed Hall of Very Good. I see a player who had an incredible three-season run from 1977 through 1979, recorded one of the greatest seasons ever in 1978 and was remarkably durable—he played in 1,776 out of a possible 1,883 games from 1975 through 1986—but not, to me anyway, the dominant-for-a-decade Cooperstown type.

I see a player who put up impressive numbers in the Triple Crown categories, but as Kirk Minihane of pointed out in this excellent piece earlier this week, did not get on base nearly as often as his teammate Dwight Evans, who fell off the ballot after just three years in the ‘90s.

I see a player whose top 10 most similar players on include six non-Hall of Famers, including Joe Carter and Dave Parker. Carter finished with six 30-homer seasons and 10 100-RBI seasons, two more apiece than Rice, yet he fell off the Hall ballot after one year. Parker finished with three 30-homer seasons, six .300 seasons and played in seven All-Star Games, one fewer apiece than Rice, and finished in the top three in the MVP balloting four times, one more than Rice, yet he has failed to even record 25 percent of the vote in 13 years on the ballot.

I don’t get it, but I will say this: The passion with which Sox fans and Rice’s big league opponents touted his Cooperstown worthiness was—and is—impressive, and makes me wonder what I was missing over the years. I got into a hilariously heated debate on Facebook in January with a friend who was elated over Rice’s election, one that ended with the friend writing “I’m just ecstatic for him. Now stop bashing him!”

Every year in Cooperstown, the incoming inductees are asked to identify a player whom they believe is overlooked by the voters, and every year prior to this year, Jim Rice was by far the most popular pick. Henderson recalled Saturday how Rice used to terrorize the Athletics and their early ‘80s ace, Mike Norris, in particular.

“We used to go over the scouting report about players, and when Jim’s name popped up, [the pitchers] were scared,” Henderson said. “We had a pitcher Mike Norris…he’d come into Boston and he used to hate facing Jim. ‘What can I do to get Jim out?’And then he said ‘I’m going to just drill Jim every time he comes up to the plate because it seems like he hits the speaker [in the outfield[. Every time he pitches, just hit him in the kneecap, hit him anywhere you want. But it seemed like Mike always [liked] that challenge, he felt he could get Jim out. So after he challenged Jim, Jim hit that speaker again and everybody on the bench said ‘Why did you pitch to Jim?’

“I bet he hit him one time. [Norris said] ‘Did you see me hit him?’ That was the greatest feeling of all. He didn’t hit a home run, he got to first base.”

Today, after 15 tries, he gets to Cooperstown, leaving skeptics like me searching for another first ballot inductee into the Hall of the Very Good and another city in which to lose my street cred. I’m looking in your general direction, Jeff Bagwell and Houston!

Email Jerry at

Friday, July 24, 2009

On Buehrle, no-hitters, the HOF and the shared collective experience

You'd grip your head too if it happened to you. Photo from this site.

The great thing about baseball is that it has more “stop what you’re doing and get to a TV/radio/computer” moments than the rest of the major sports combined.

A quarterback is approaching the record for yardage or touchdowns in a single game? I care only if he’s on my fantasy team, or playing against it. I’d say I’d drop everything to watch someone threaten Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 100 points in an NBA game, but only Kobe Bryant has come within 20 points of the mark and most teams these days have a hard enough time scoring 100 on their own, so I’m not too worried about that mark getting threatened. I don’t know much about hockey, but your good friend and mine Joe Haggerty says a hat trick is hockey’s version of the collective experience.

Pretty cool, I imagine, but I can’t imagine learning that a player has already collected two goals and doing what I did yesterday afternoon upon hearing that White Sox ace Mark Buehrle had thrown eight perfect innings against the Rays. I couldn’t find it on TV fast enough, couldn’t text my wife fast enough, couldn’t log on to the Internet fast enough so that I could track the last three outs with friends met and unmet via all sorts of social networking tools.

As you no doubt know by now, Buehrle—aided by a truly awesome, home run-saving catch by defensive replacement DeWayne Wise—set the Rays down in order in the ninth to complete the 18th perfect game in history and become just the 28th pitcher with at least two no-hitters to his credit.

I’ll halt whatever it is I’m doing if I hear someone has three-quarters of the cycle or has hit three or four homers in a game, but no-hitters have always been my favorite singular baseball accomplishment. The sheer randomness of the feat—Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Tom Glavine, the three active 300-game winners in baseball at the end of 2007, have fewer career no-hitters than Clay Buchholz—neatly summarizes the beauty of baseball and how every trip to the ballpark brings with it the possibility of history.

In addition, the no-hitter or perfect game is the one individual feat in sports in which the accomplisher seems as touched and moved by the moment as those watching it. Think Buchholz letting himself go limp in Jason Varitek’s arms after his no-hitter nearly two years ago, or David Wells leaping in the air repeatedly as the 27th out of his perfect game fell harmlessly into Paul O’Neill’s glove in 1998.

Or think of my all-time favorite sports shot: David Cone, his perfect game officially in the books 10 years and six days ago, putting his hands on his head, falling to his knees and into the arms of catcher Joe Girardi, as if the enormity of the accomplishment has left him unable to stand.

Buehrle did a pretty good approximation of Cone immediately after the final out yesterday, albeit without the quivering knees, and his pursuit of perfection was particularly interesting to me because he was one of the players whom I spoke to for perhaps my favorite story I penned while at Ye Olde Employer, a feature from late in the 2007 season about the unpredictability of no-hitters and the poignancy of one-hitters such as the one Curt Schilling authored two months before Buchholz threw his no-no.

Buehrle was a few months removed from his first career no-no when we spoke and was self-effacing about his place in history, noting that pitchers with better pedigree and better arsenals have never thrown no-hitters while a guy like himself who regularly ranks among the league leaders in hits allowed (three times in the last four years) makes history.

But a second no-hitter will significantly improve the perception of Buehrle, a textbook crafty southpaw who is annually the White Sox’ Opening Day starter yet rarely ranks first on the staff in terms of pure stuff. Two no-hitters and a decade of impressive consistency means it’s no longer laughable to mention Buehrle and Hall of Fame in the same sentence, as a friend of mine did yesterday when he sent over Buerhle’s numbers through his age-29 season (Buehrle turned 30 in March):

122-87, 3.80 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 1083 K/1847.2 IP, 2.55 K/BB, 23 CG, 7 SHO, 268 starts

Those don’t scream no-doubt Hall of Fame track, but as someone who has pitched in the heart of the Steroid Era, Buehrle should be judged differently than his predecessors. And his numbers are quite impressive in the context of the times: Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan noted earlier this month that Buehrle’s career ERA is nearly 25 percent better than the AL average.

As noted in June, when I identified Buehrle as one of a handful of pitchers with a shot at approaching 300 wins, it’s borderline foolish to try and project another decade of good health and fortune for any pitcher. But Buehrle has never been on the disabled list, has been perhaps the most durable pitcher in the American League the last eight seasons and is still only 30, so it seems as if he’s got as good a shot at the milestone—and sure-fire entrance into Cooperstown—as anybody.

If, of course, he wants it. Buehrle told Passan that he expects to retire after his contract runs out following the 2011 season in order to watch his kids grow up. Buehrle left himself plenty of room to change his mind, but he and those around him also painted a pretty compelling picture of an uncomplicated guy who just might walk away at the top of his game and leave millions and millions on the table.

Here’s hoping he doesn’t. Now that Jim Rice is headed for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame—more on that this weekend, as we’ll be in Cooperstown, how’s that for a segue—we need guys like Buehrle who can serve as the subjects for juicy is-he-or-isn’t-he debates.

At the very least, Buehrle should stick around as long as possible because baseball can use a player like him, one who is the poster boy for the unpredictability of the game, someone who can inspire a nation of fans to stop what they’re doing and head to the nearest TV, radio or computer and share in a moment that inspires goose bumps even in the middle of the summer.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wednesday's deals are probably the main dish, not the appetizer

Theo from Brookline will spend plenty of time on the phone this month, but don't expect a blockbuster. Photo from this site.

Given that I was the guy who predicted Tuesday the Red Sox would not be tied for first place for long (positive spin: I was half right!), I probably shouldn’t be making any grandiose predictions for the rest of the week. But I will once again ignore common sense and type the following sentence anyway:

The trades the Sox made Wednesday are not the appetizer for a blockbuster involving Roy Halladay or anybody else.

That’s not to say the Sox are done dealing after acquiring Andy LaRoche and Chris Duncan, or that they won’t be linked to the big names between now and next Friday. Theo Epstein told reporters Wednesday he hopes to make at least another move and that the Sox are interested in players who can provide a “…significant impact on the roster.”

But Epstein’s history—and in particular his activity at the 2005 and 2006 trading deadline—suggests the Sox will tinker with instead of overhauling the big league club, even if the Sox (who lost their fifth straight game Wednesday to fall two games behind the scorching Yankees) look as if they’re in dire need of some help, especially on offense.

Like they were in 2005 and 2006, the Sox are stuck in some kind of baseball purgatory. They are neither the clear favorite to win the World Series nor one player away from earning that moniker. Yet even if the Sox were a “one player away” team, they probably wouldn’t part with a top prospect to get him, anyway.

Epstein has never made a mid-season trade that forced him to part with one or more of the Sox’ better prospects. He traded Freddy Sanchez to the Pirates in July 2003, but Sanchez was already 25 and did not emerge as a regular for the Pirates until two years later. He won the NL batting crown in 2006, but the Sox did pretty well in finding their own future second baseman: Dustin Pedroia won the Rookie of the Year in 2007 and the MVP in 2008.

Come to think of it, Epstein hasn’t made a winter trade in which he gave up the best of the farm, either: He was on sabbatical when the Sox dealt Hanley Ramirez to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell deal.

And if Epstein had the guts to stand pat in 2006—when he was a few months removed from his dramatic return to the general manager’s office, the Sox still led a very winnable division despite a July swoon and the Phillies willing to give Bobby Abreu to anyone willing to take on the rest of his contract—then he surely won’t be swayed by popular opinion this year, not with another World Series ring on his finger and a fruitful farm system as ready to begin harvesting position players now as it was ready to begin graduating impact pitchers then.

Lars Anderson, Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish aren’t likely to arrive as fast or as resoundingly as Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson and Daniel Bard have over the last two seasons, but the trio of position players—all of whom are currently at Double-A Portland—are still on pace to get to the majors by sometime in 2011. Come 2012, the Sox could have at least six homegrown regulars (Anderson at first base, Dustin Pedroia at second base, Kevin Youkilis at third base, Jacoby Ellsbury in left field, Reddick in center and Kalish in right), which would allow Epstein to spend the big money on a designated hitter to replace David Ortiz as well as at catcher and shortstop, two familiar problem areas for the Sox.

Yet, just like in 2005 and 2006, the Sox’ recent subpar play and the loaded nature of the American League demands Epstein do something to keep up with the Yankees as well as wild card contenders such as the Rangers and the Rays. And that “something” will almost surely once again involve mining the cutout bins in hopes of finding someone who can provide a boost at a bargain price.

The mid-season scrap heap doesn’t usually yield a difference-maker, though. The Sox were fortunate in 2005, when Tony Graffanino—acquired from the Royals for a pair of minor leaguers July 19—immediately became the starting second baseman and provided an appreciable upgrade over Mark Bellhorn. And Eric Hinske ended up being a valuable role player for more than a season after the Sox acquired him from the Blue Jays Aug. 17, 2006.

Far more common are the tales of Adam Hyzdu, Jose Cruz Jr., Mike Remlinger, Bryan Corey and Javy Lopez. Hyzdu, Cruz and Remlinger were all acquired in a three-week span in 2005 and were all designated for assignment by the Sox within a month of their arrivals. Corey was obtained from the Rangers July 30, 2006 and designated for assignment six days later. Lopez was obtained from the Orioles Aug. 4, 2006 and released Sept. 8.

Duncan, who has already been shipped to Pawtucket, appears likely to follow in the footsteps of Hyzdu and Co. LaRoche has a better chance of making a Graffanino-esque splash, especially if Mike Lowell remains hobbled, but the more likely scenario is he’ll make no real impact one way or the other and quietly sign somewhere else after the season.

Of course Epstein is going to allude to having bigger things in mind than acquiring the sons of two former big leaguers. That, like keeping quiet the plans to disable Tim Wakefield, is only good baseball sense. It behooves the Red Sox to be “in” on everyone, if only to jack the price skyward (see: Teixeira, Mark) for whomever lands the big prizes.

But Epstein’s not bluffing when he refers to the importance of “the outlook of the organization” and “subsequent years” in any trades he makes. And he proved in 2006 he’s willing to absorb a short-term hit if it means improving the Sox’ chances for long-term success. Keep that in mind if you’re disappointed when the Sox don’t land a Halladay-type over the next eight days.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Are Sox prepared enough to deal with Wakefield what ifs?

What do the Sox do if Buchholz shines in Wakefield's absence?

Tim Wakefield went on the disabled list Tuesday afternoon in what was either the last in a series of remarkable coincidences or the final step in a meticulously plotted chain of events designed to provide the nearly 43-year-old some rest while allowing the Sox to maximize the depth of their starting pitching.

I’m going to assume it’s the latter, because even Quentin Tarantino would have trouble penning a script with this many random twists of fate. Think about all that transpired leading up to yesterday’s news:

—Wakefield made his final start prior to the All-Star Game July 8.

—Terry Francona announced on July 12, two days before the All-Star Game, that Wakefield would not pitch again until July 22, providing him 13 days of rest between starts.

—Francona also announced July 12 that the Sox—who were off on July 16, the first day of the second half, before playing six straight games—would employ a six-man rotation for that cycle of games and that Clay Buchholz would make the Sox’ first start of the second half against the Blue Jays on his regular four days rest.

—Joe Maddon said the day of the All-Star Game that he would utilize Wakefield as an emergency pitcher, one he would not call upon unless the game went deep into extra innings and he needed someone to throw multiple frames.

—Wakefield did not pitch in the All-Star Game and hurt his back in a side session in Toronto Saturday, leading the Sox to place him on the shelf and replace him with Buchholz, who starts tonight in Texas on, amazingly enough, his regular four days rest.

—Wakefield is placed on the disabled list retroactive to July 18, meaning the earliest he can return is Aug. 2—two days after the trade deadline.

If this really was all part of a grand plan, it’s further confirmation of how careful and thorough the Sox are in all matters, baseball and otherwise. If the Sox have been planning for Buchholz to take Wakefield’s spot in the rotation for the rest of July, then they’ve exhibited even more foresight than we gave them credit for last week.

It doesn’t help the Sox, from a competitive standpoint, to officially announce they plan to give Wakefield—who has been injured in each of the last four seasons—a few weeks off, even if they have in the past alluded to such plans for their pitchers. The longer a guy like Buchholz toils away at Pawtucket, the better the Sox’ depth looks to potential trading partners as the July 31 deadline approaches. And yet by bringing him up now, the Sox can see their 4-5-6 starters—John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Buchholz—pitch twice more apiece as they try to figure out what to do with the glut of starters come August.

That said, it’s also quite fair to be skeptical about the severity and location of Wakefield’s injury. During the AL Division Series two years ago, Francona admitted the Sox fudged the details of Wakefield’s “back” injury, which was first revealed to be a shoulder injury and then later a small tear of the right rotator cuff.

It’s also worth wondering if Wakefield, who authored the feel-good story of the first half, is headed for a far less satisfying second half even if he does return within a couple weeks. The last time Buchholz made a start for an ailing Wakefield, he threw a no-hitter. That probably won’t happen again tonight, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens if Buchholz strings together a couple good starts in Wakefield’s absence and the club still has five other starters when Wakefield returns.

The Sox can only reward Buchholz with trips back to Pawtucket so many times before they run the risk of damaging relations with their potential future ace. Smoltz is a future Hall of Famer whom the Sox signed with his October brilliance in mind, so he’s not likely to be dumped. If it comes down to Wakefield vs. Penny, Wakefield probably wins based on recent performance as well as organizational stature.

But still: As nice a tale as Wakefield spun the first three-plus months of the season, the fact is he was a league average pitcher outside of his inflamed win total. What if he’s clearly the Sox’ sixth-best starter when he returns? As studious as the Sox are about everything, I can’t imagine there’s any preparing for a scenario that awkward.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Fighting Words correction

Wanted to open today by extending a sincere apology to Bruce Allen, who emailed me Friday to let me know that the web address for his invaluable Boston Sports Media Watch website was misidentified in Fighting Words. It is The address I listed in Fighting Words ( is owned by a squatter.

My hope is that the audience for Fighting Words is already well-acquainted with Bruce’s site, but if you’re discovering it for the first time, the correct address, once again, is You can also access it from the links on the right-hand side of this page.

My humble apologies again for the error. If you’ve read Fighting Words and have found a factual error, please email me at so that I may post a correction here. Thanks.

The Yankees are coming and all I can do is stifle a yawn

Moments like this against the Red Sox and Angels have been exceedingly rare for the Yankees in 2009. Photo from this site.

If it’s July, it must be time for the Yankees to make their annual run at the Red Sox. In 2005, the Yankees went 11-2 from July 2 through July 18, during which they went from six games back of the Sox to a half-game up. The Yankees promptly fell out of first place July 19 but returned there Sept. 21 and ended up winning the division by a tiebreaker over the Sox.

In 2006, the Yankees went 19-9 from July 1 through Aug. 3 to turn a four-game deficit into a one-game lead. They never relinquished first place on their way to winning the East by 10 games over the Blue Jays and 11 games over the third-place Sox.

In 2007, the Yankees went 15-4 from July 5 through July 25 to gain 5 ½ games on the Sox, but their most serious run at the Sox would occur in late September, when the Yankees twice moved within 1 ½ games before finishing second, two games back.

Last year, the Yankees won their first eight games after the All-Star Break to shave the Rays’ lead from six games to three and close within one game of the wild card-leading Sox, though the Yankees didn’t get any closer the rest of the way and finished eight games behind the Rays and six behind the Sox.

The Yankees appear to be in the midst of another red-hot post-All-Star Break run: They improved to 4-0 since THE AMERICAN LEAGUE WON THE GAME THAT COUNTS MORE THAN ALL THE REST!!!!! and tied the suddenly skidding Sox atop the AL East with a 2-1 win over the Orioles last night.

As noted in the final chapter of Fighting Words (shameless plug!), Sox players didn’t appreciate the perceived hysteria among the media masses during the Yankees’ mid-summer runs from 2005 through 2007. But you won’t find any hand-wringing here over the approaching Yankees, not with their very recent inability to sustain momentum upon earning at least a share of first place.

This is the second time this month the Yankees have, in a matter of days, made up a three-game deficit and tied the Sox for first place. On July 9, the Yankees completed a three-game sweep of the Twins while the Sox fell to the Royals. The Yankees then went west and gave up 29 runs in enduring a three-game sweep at the hands of the Angels while the Sox won three in a row against the Royals.

In addition, the Yankees began a three-game series against the Sox June 9 with a one-game lead. They were swept by the Sox by a combined score of 17-8 and went on to fall as many as five games out on June 23-24.

The Yankees’ current run is, admittedly, an impressive one fueled by pitching instead of their vaunted video game offense: They’ve won the four games despite scoring just 11 runs and have won the last three by 2-1 scores, the first time an American League team has done that since the 1987 Twins.

That Twins team went on to win the World Series, but it’s kind of difficult to take these Yankees seriously as a championship contender considering they’re 2-12 against the Sox and Angels, the top two teams in the AL. Of course, with six games left this week against the last-place Orioles and Athletics, the Yankees will have plenty of opportunity to fatten up before facing the wild card-contending Rays and the AL Central-contending White Sox next week.

Don’t be in a rush to reserve first place for the Yankees tonight, though. The Yankees’ scheduled starter tonight is Sergio Mitre, who hasn’t pitched in the bigs since 2007 and posted a 5.36 ERA in five years with the Cubs and Marlins. The Sox, meanwhile, start Josh Beckett for the first time in nine days as he opposes Rangers rookie Tommy Hunter. I’d expect the tie to be broken—in favor of the Sox—by this time tomorrow morning.

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Bits and Bytes: Sports Hub, the Globe and Pedro

It's not costing the Phillies much to find out if Pedro still has some magic in that right arm. Photo from this site.

Interesting post last week on Boston Radio Watch (found via Bruce Allen’s site) about why “The Sports Hub,” the all-sports station CBS Radio will soon launch at 98.5 on the FM dial, has a pretty good shot at putting a dent into WEEI’s dominance. But even with the synergistic opportunities and healthy signal that ESPN and Sporting News Radio never had, CBS still has quite a long road ahead of it, if the news out of New York last week is any indication.
Despite a critically panned morning show and upheaval within the afternoon show, WFAN remained the unquestioned king of New York sports radio during the spring ratings period. The Boomer Esiason/Craig Carton morning show lifted WFAN to its first-ever win in that time period among men ages 25-54. WFAN finished with a 6.5 share, trouncing the 1.8 recorded by ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” show.

Mike and the Mad Dog had an ugly divorce last summer, but Mike Francesa—the less tolerable half of the duo—lifted WFAN to another easy win from 3-7 p.m., when it drew 7.2 percent of the 25-54 demo, compared to just 2.1 for ESPN, whose afternoon show is anchored by Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay.

It should be noted that ESPN has signal issues in New York, where it is hoping a new antennae in northern New Jersey will provide a boost to the station. But still: If WFAN can improve its morning drive numbers after losing Don Imus and maintain its afternoon dominance with Francesa flying solo, well, it stands to reason CBS has quite a challenge in dethroning a relatively stable WEEI, where the morning duo of Dennis and Callahan used to beat Howard Stern in the ratings.

Some other bits and bytes on which to chew:

The Boston Globe is not closing its doors after the Newspaper Guild agreed to a new contract with the New York Times Company. Among the concessions: A pay cut of nearly six percent (down from the 23 percent cut that was unilaterally implemented when negotiations stalled last month), along with furloughs, a freezing of pensions and the elimination of lifetime job guarantees.

It sure will be interesting, and probably not in a good way, to see how many of the sports staffers who once had those guarantees will no longer be with the paper 12 months from now. Or six months from now.

It is believed that the new contract will make it easier for the Times to unload the Globe, and the Herald reports that three Bostonians—Stephen Pagliuca, Jack Connors and Stephen Taylor, the latter of whose family once owned the Globe—have expressed interest in buying the broadsheet, but my guess is that it comes down to Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman, with John Henry still lurking as the best possible solution.

—As you no doubt know by now, Pedro Martinez signed with the Phillies last week and could begin a minor league tour as early as this weekend. Martinez is no longer the once-in-a-generation talent he was during his peak in Boston, but I’m willing to bet he comes up with a few gems down the stretch for the Phillies. Remaining unsigned into mid-July should provide plenty of motivational fuel for the famously prideful Martinez, as should the fact the Mets—who have employed roughly 76 starting pitchers this year—never expressed interest in bringing him back.

If Martinez starts every five or six days beginning Sunday, he lines up to pitch in both of the Phillies’ remaining series against the fast-fading Mets (Aug. 21-24 and Sept. 11-13). That’s juicy, but not nearly as delicious as the subplot that could be on the menu come October. Imagine if the defending world champion Phillies return to the World Series and face the Red Sox. Mmmm mmmm.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Wakefield and Beckett! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty!

Tim Wakefield and/or Josh Beckett will have plenty of reason to bellow if they take down enough big league batters to approach or reach 300 wins. Photo from this site.

When he signed Tim Wakefield in the spring of 1995, Dan Duquette had no idea he was plucking off the scrap heap the man who would likely someday become the Red Sox’ all-time winningest pitcher. But Wakefield should surpass both Cy Young and Roger Clemens as the top winner in franchise history at some point next season, and his success over the last 15 seasons—but particularly this year, when Wakefield earned his first trip to the All-Star Game—had Duquette in an understandably gushy mood when Joe Haggerty caught up with him this week.

Duquette recalled how Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame knuckleballer, told Wakefield shortly after he signed with the Sox that if he could harness and master the pitch, he could pitch until he turned 50. At that point, Haggerty points out, Wakefield would have Hall of Fame-caliber numbers.

Of course, possessing the potential to pitch until 50 and actually doing so are two different things, to which Haggerty also alludes. Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm retired weeks before his 50th birthday in 1972. Niekro retired at 48 and fellow knuckleballer Charlie Hough retired at 46 due to physical issues (Niekro felt he could no longer cover first and Hough needed a hip replacement). Wakefield, of course, has endured his own increasingly frequent ailments since he turned 40.

For the sake of this blog entry, let’s say Wakefield wins one of his two or three starts before his 43rd birthday Aug. 2. That would give him 91 wins since his 36th birthday. To maintain that pace for another seven years would mean he ages in more graceful fashion than either Niekro (78 wins after turning 43) and Hough (30 wins after turning 43), yet still leave him at “only” 283 as he turns 50.

And to win another 17 games to reach the magical, Cooperstown-worthy 300-win mark would rank as one of the most remarkable feats in baseball history, since no pitcher has ever won a single game after his 50th birthday. Jack Quinn came closest, recording his final big league victory at 49.

All of which is to say that Wakefield’s probably not going to reach 300 wins. It’s hard to say any active player has a good shot at 300 wins (though Jamie Moyer is at 255 after he one-hit the Marlins over seven innings last night), but the more I think about it, the more I think Josh Beckett has a pretty interesting shot at it.

Beckett won his 100th career game Sunday at the age of 29, which puts him three years ahead of Johnson and in the same ballpark as recent 300-game winners Greg Maddux (won his 100th game at age 27), Roger Clemens (won his 100th game at age 27) and Tom Glavine (won his 100th game at age 28).

It also means he compares quite favorably to the likes of Moyer (won his 100th game at age 35), Wakefield (won his 100th game at age 36), David Wells (won his 100th game at age 34) and Curt Schilling (won his 100th game at age 33), all of whom were far better in their 30s and 40s than in their 20s.

Beckett is in good physical condition, has avoided the surgeon’s knife—though he’s had his share of injury scares—and seems like the type of player who should remain competitive and inspired well into his 30s. It’ll be pretty fascinating if Beckett is being discussed as the next legitimate candidate to join the 300-win club seven or eight years from now—but, admittedly, not nearly as fascinating as if Wakefield is still in the discussion, too.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: J.P. Ricciardi

Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi knows the grilling in Toronto is a lot different than it would be in Boston. Photo from this site.

There was a pretty lengthy period of time—like, say, almost two years—where I thought I wasn’t going to be able to land a follow-up interview with Theo Epstein for Fighting Words. I spoke to Epstein in September 2004, back when this project was in the infant stages, but as you know, a lot happened over the subsequent 13 months that made this book much more interesting (I hope) and made talking again to Epstein pivotal to painting the complete picture of his evolution into a reserved and reclusive figure.

Fortunately, I did get Epstein in July 2007 (as you know by now if you’ve read Fighting Words, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for, buy it now!!), and I’ll post that interview as well as the story behind it in the next couple weeks. But before I got Epstein, I tried to get as many people who knew Epstein and could provide a pretty good idea of what it was like to be a general manager in Boston, especially in the age of instant media.

Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi has never been the Sox general manager, but as a native of Worcester, I figured he’d have an interesting take on the coverage of the Red Sox and what it might be like to be Epstein. And he did, as I learned during this interview conducted during the 2006 season.

His comments on the well-informed nature of the Boston media are sure to annoy those in Toronto who believe Ricciardi would rather speak to the press outside of Toronto than the reporters covering the Jays, and his thoughts on baseball’s more open policies when it comes to injuries were particularly interesting a year later, when Ricciardi told reporters B.J. Ryan was suffering from a back injury, only to have to cop to the truth when Ryan underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery.

As you might have gathered from the above graph, Ricciardi is not the most popular person in Toronto, and the Blue Jays’ recent tailspin has made his job security a regular topic of debate up north. So with the Sox heading to Toronto for a weekend series, this seems like a doubly appropriate time to unveil this Q&A.

What were your thoughts on the Boston media growing up?

I think there’s probably two different stories here. One, when you’re not in the game and you’re reading as much as you can, it’s a great place. There’s a lot of information, they cover the team so well. I think we all grew up on Peter Gammons and everybody like that. But I think once you get in the game and you start dealing with the media, it’s a tough place. It’s not an easy place. I can imagine it’s not an easy place to play. I can imagine it’s not an easy place to work. It’s a double-edged sword, because it’s a passionate place and they want their baseball covered, but on the other hand, there’s no privacy and everything is scrutinized. I think the advent of talk radio hasn’t helped that.

Do you think people have a hard time separating talk radio from the rest of the media?

No, I don’t think so. I can only speak for myself. I think you can separate it, because I think ultimately the media comes down to individuals and who writes how they write, what their agenda is, if they have an agenda, are they fair. [Those] who report on the radio talk shows, are they fair? I personally don’t spend a lot of time reading the paper and listening to the radio, but I know that it’s a necessary evil and [that] we all have a lot of responsibilities for the media. It’s just a tough thing to deal with.

Sometimes you’ll hear something that’s critical and [he’s like] ‘Hey they don’t have all the facts.’ And you can’t give them all the facts, you almost have to bite your tongue and keep things a little close to the vest. Plus I think the culture of baseball is you play everyday, it’s not like football—football is very guarded. Hockey is very guarded even though they play a lot. You know, a guy has a broken leg I hockey and they say it’s an upper torso injury. You could never get away with that in baseball.

Every Sunday, Tom Brady is a probable, you know? So I think baseball, the tradition is there’s been so much written about it and so much information that you can’t be as guarded. And you try to be as honest as you can and give as much information as you can, but I think the press has to respect the times you can’t say a lot of things.

What did you think about the coverage of Theo’s resignation and his return?

I thought it was overboard, but I understand why it was. You have to understand: One thing I know, living here and coming from here, is you could write about the Red Sox everyday and people are going to read about it. People are infatuated with the Red Sox, and I think it’s that infatuation that spurs those articles. So you can’t blame the papers for writing it. For me, personally, you just get to a point where, OK, we know he’s not coming back. But I don’t think the general public thinks like that. They crave Red Sox coverage.

I remember seeing you at the Hot Stove/Cool Music concert in January and fielding some pretty interesting questions. Do you think that symbolizes the passion of Boston fans?

Someone spends a hundred bucks [to ask questions]—the fans in New England are probably the most knowledgeable fans in the game, even though there’s some very good fans across the country. But it’s just the passion here and I think the passion that we’ve all grown up with as kids here—you learn about the game, you understand the game, and the questions that are asked are a little bit more intelligent. I know in Toronto that it’s not always like that. So it doesn’t surprise me that they get intelligent questions asked.

Going back to what you were saying about having to be more open in baseball than in other sports: Do you think it’s impossible to be as open as you’d like in this market?

Yeah, and I think the other thing is—and I can’t speak for Theo because I’m not in this arena every day—but it’s hard to be ‘on,’ everyday, you now? It’s hard to be ‘on’ and it’s hard to be ‘on’ where you have to answer this question 20 different times. Like if we have a player who is hurt—part of me would like to say ‘Look, the guy’s hurt, when you see him on the field, he’s ready to play. What can I tell you, more than that?’ But you can’t, and it’s just a very, very tough spot for [Epstein]. I don’t envy him or Brian Cashman for the horde that they have to deal with, because I know, even in my situation, you get tired about talking about the same thing.

And it’s not that you don’t want to give the press anything, but sometimes I think the press thinks there’s more than that’s really there when you’re telling the truth. It’s like guys, this is it. Like our thing with [A.J.] Burnett—we told them he’s not hurt more than he really is, but what can I tell you? So I think they have the two toughest jobs.

I think the Boston writers and the New York writers are very informed writers and I think they ask excellent questions. And because there’s so much competition here, they pay attention a lot more and there’s not a lot of things that get by in the game that aren’t asked by those guys. In Toronto—just using us for example—sometimes there’s things that happen in the game that I’m sitting there saying ‘Well, I would expect this question after the game’ [and] we don’t get it. It’s not knocking anyone. I just think here, it’s stiffer competition to ask those questions and pay attention a little bit more.

Have you thought about what it would be like to work in Boston, at least from the perspective of dealing with the media?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it’s probably the hardest thing for me and everyone in the role I’m in now. My kids, they’re young, they’re nine and seven, and for them to have to go to school and hear someone on the radio ripping their father or for them to go to school and have some kid saying ‘I saw on the TV where this guy was saying your dad didn’t do this,’ that’s probably the hardest thing. Because personally, I’m pretty thick-skinned and I think I can handle that. But it’s just the kids and your family, how they would handle that. Which would be hard for anybody. It’s just funny, because you never hear somebody say to a doctor the next day ‘Geez, you should have used that double loop on this, why didn’t you, how come you didn’t use that?’ Or a policeman: ‘[Why did] you pull that guy over?’ No one’s job is scrutinized like our jobs are, and a lot of it’s a byproduct of the press.

Listen: We’re not curing cancer. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. I was watching a press conference on TV—I think it was a guy from Harvard, I don’t have the exact facts—but he had just found some developments getting closer to a cure for a certain kind of cancer. They said ‘We’re going to have a press conference.’ This guy comes out, there’s like 10 people in the audience asking questions. I’m sitting there saying ‘If this is the Red Sox making a trade, there would be 800 guys in the audience.’ I don’t think it paints us too well, you know?

Paul Epstein said basically the same thing in referring to the coverage of Theo’s resignation and how it was played above the fold, even above news about Osama bin Laden.

I went to the Duke-Boston College basketball game and I was giving my ticket to go in there and a kid runs up to me, giving me his resume. And I’m not even the GM here. I can’t even imagine how Theo has a life. That’s the one thing, and it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword, because it seems like to me, personally, a lot of the things that come with the job, I didn’t want. Like I don’t really want to be on ESPN and I don’t strive everyday to be on a radio show or be on a TV show. I’m doing the job because I like building a baseball team, but those are part of the things you’ve got to deal with, that come with it. And you have to be smart enough to know that goes with it. It doesn’t mean it has to be your favorite thing.

Like I said, to me, this is one of the best baseball areas in the world, and it’s because people are smart, the writers are smart and the writers watch the game and pay attention. And not a lot gets by, so you better have an answer for it.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For WBZ-FM, the work begins after the splash

Will Boston families be fighting over the radio dial now that WBZ-FM is taking on WEEI? Photo from this site.

Bruce Allen either has a thing for uncanny timing, or he’s psychic. On Monday, Allen asked readers at Boston Sports Media Watch to come up with a lineup for a new all-sports talk radio station in Boston. On Tuesday, Boston’s new all-sports talk radio station arrived.

CBS-owned WBCN, known as Boston’s most established rock station, will go off the air in mid-August and will be replaced by round-the-clock sports talk on WBZ-FM, which will be nicknamed “The Sports Hub” and reside at 98.5 on the FM dial.

Fascinating stuff, especially the seemingly well-founded rumors that Michael Felger will be part of the new network’s showcase afternoon drive-time show. If true, that would surely spell the end for Felger at WEEI, where he has become a pivotal on-air and online presence since joining the network from ESPN Radio almost exactly a year ago, and make for one hell of an immediate and presumably bitter rivalry between the stations.

The interest generated by Tuesday’s news is the latest sign that radio wars have officially replaced newspaper wars as the most fascinating thing to observe on the media landscape. That’s not to say radio is in good shape—terrestrial radio is running neck-and-neck with newspapers in the race to see which medium can kill itself first—but localized sports talk is still gold.

Just ask Chris Russo, who made a fortune (and probably saved his sanity) by leaving WFAN and his longtime frenemy Mike Francesa, but Francesa still rules New York and Russo has to belittle his entire staff on air in order to get some publicity.

ESPN has learned in both Boston (where it remains little more than a rumor on the dial) and New York how difficult it is to take down the established 800-pound gorilla. Like the new CBS station, ESPN’s New York affiliate carries an NFL team (the Jets) and an NHL team (the Rangers), as well as the NBA Knicks. ESPN 1050 also has a well-known, polarizing afternoon drive-time anchor who made his name in print before leaping to radio in Michael Kay.

And so far, ESPN hasn’t made much of an impact in New York: In the months following Russo’s departure, WEPN-1050 made some impressive gains while WFAN slipped, but WFAN is confident it will maintain a healthy lead in the key demos when the spring ratings are released this month.

Of course, the Patriots and Bruins are a more impressive anchor than the Jets, Rangers and Knicks, and an FM signal is a hugely valuable weapon. I’d also wager that Felger, a long-time multi-media figure in Boston, is a bigger threat to bring listeners to a new station than Kay, who is far better known in New York for being the Yankees’ head cheerleader on the YES Network than for his long-ago newspaper work.

Judging from message board comments, it also seems as if listeners in Boston are eager for an authentic rival to emerge and threaten WEEI’s superiority. But the same dynamic exists in New York, and people are still griping about WFAN—and listening. Making a splash Tuesday was the easy part for CBS and the soon-to-debut WBZ-FM. The coming weeks, months and maybe even years will be the real challenge.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Everything has changed, absolutely nothing’s changed

Jason Varitek didn't take kindly to Alex Rodriguez criticizing Three Doors Down. Photo from this site.

There were very few negatives about coming of age in the 1980s. We grew up in a time of unprecedented peace, during which our biggest enemies were a bunch of cartoonish Communists who, in the same calendar year, refused to show up to Los Angeles for the Olympics and had their invasion of America foiled by a bunch of kids from Colorado who looked suspiciously like the warring Greasers and Socs from The Outsiders.

We’ve been reminded over the last year or so that the early ‘80s economy was lousy, but people sure seemed happy in re-electing Ronald Reagan in 1984. Our parents sent us on bike rides without helmets and to school without cell phones. Music television actually showed, you know, music television. The Legend of Billie Jean received a well-deserved theatrical release.

The biggest downside, as far as I can tell, was that movies made me believe that every big moment in life had to have an appropriately bombastic soundtrack, or at least a song with fitting lyrics. Like “Invincible,” the theme from the afore-mentioned The Legend of Billie Jean, or any of the 72 hits off the Footloose soundtrack, or the simply perfect theme to St. Elmo’s Fire. Another reason the ‘80s ruled: We had no idea the song was written with a wheelchair-bound athlete in mind, not a bunch of yuppies in training.

Anyway, here I am, twentymumblemumble years later, and if I’m preparing for a Big Day of some sort, I still find myself parsing the songs I hear on the radio looking for signs or symbols that said Big Day is going to be a good one. And so it was Saturday, as my wife and I neared Fenway Park for my first baseball-themed visit to Boston since the 2007 World Series.

Heard “Glory Days.” Not encouraging. I didn’t want this weekend to turn me into That Guy waxing poetic about his one shot at the big leagues. “Back in my day you could stay in the locker room until 45 minutes before first pitch!”

Heard “Welcome Back” by John Sebastian. Better.

“I’m going to take this as a good sign,” I said.

“That what? The writers in the press box are the Sweathogs?” my wife asked.

We drove on to Beacon Street as Cinderella’s “Coming Home” began. I’ll take that, I thought, and pulled into one of the multiple open parking spots in front of Myles Standish Hall. Ha! Take that, The System! (Not The System behind this awesome ‘80s hit)

So it ended up ironic, in that it’s not ironic at all, that Pearl Jam—the band that symbolized the super-serious, self-conscious ‘90s—authored the soundtrack to the weekend. Obviously, things are a lot different for me than the last time I was at Fenway, and outside of having two books to my credit instead of one, not at all in a good way.

But the familiarity inside and outside of Fenway was strangely comforting. To weave through the crowd in the hour before the game, the sights, sounds and smells of Yawkey Way filling the eyes, ears and nostrils, is to be reminded that a home game at Fenway is like a college football Saturday, except it occurs at least 81 times a year.

Fenway Park is still home to crazy, marathon games in which you have a pretty good shot at seeing something you’ve never seen before…like Miguel Olivo getting forced at home by J.D. Drew during a 15-9 win by the Red Sox Saturday that was played in a tidy three hours and 44 minutes. That’s right fielder J.D. Drew. That’s 9-2 in your scorebook.

The Royals are still bloody awful. I don’t usually like to resort to using toxic adjectives to describe professional sports teams, because those are cheap shots and the folks on those teams are at the very top of their profession and I am not, but holy smokes, the Royals are a horribly run franchise.

There is no reason, none at all, that a major league team should be employing Tony Pena Jr. at shortstop, but there he was, airmailing a throw to second base on a potential inning-ending double play to extend the first for Gil Meche Saturday. Fortunately, Pena’s bat carries his glove, as he proved when he kept his average above .100—for the moment, anyway, as of now he resides at an unspeakable .098—and collected his second RBI of the season later in the game.

Manny Ramirez is long gone and David Ortiz may be in the decline phase, but the Sox are still a cruelly efficient offensive team that batted around three times in a six-inning stretch that spanned the two games. Meanwhile, the Royals did their best to make sure Josh Beckett was well-rested for the All-Star Game by hacking their way into five first-pitch outs and 10 other outs of three pitches or less during Beckett’s masterful three-hit shutout.

Two days of watching the Royals confirms that all they have going for them is Trey Hillman’s mustache, which Chad Finn so accurately and hilariously described on Twitter as something that Hillman probably found “…in the back of Bill Buckner’s old locker.”

Sox fans are still wildly interested in the people providing the Sox coverage, which is a giant relief, since that phenomenon is a pivotal part of Fighting Words (read Chapters Four and Five for more!). My friend and former roommate Joe Haggerty, the multi-media and multi-sport maven, was stopped by a trio of fans as we walked back to the park after hitting UBurger before the game Saturday.

And Sunday morning, Yahoo! Sports’ Gordon Edes posed outside the Sox dugout with a bunch of fans, a few of whom were asking him the identities of the other media folks milling about in the pre-game hours. Sunday night at 11:30, meanwhile, is still the domain of multiple late-night sports shows, which, trust me, you do not get anywhere else.

Jason Varitek still comes to the plate, every single time, to the Three Doors Down song “Kryptonite.” As someone whose iPod features about 12 songs recorded after 1991, I shouldn’t be calling anyone’s musical tastes dated, and that Varitek hasn’t changed his song in at least five years is appropriate for a guy so consumed by his work.

But still…geez, man, would it kill Varitek to switch it up once in a while? Maybe throw in some Harvey Danger or something? Or perhaps even a tune that any child of the ‘80s identifies with determination, like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger?” That’s a pretty good song to hear on a Big Day, by the way, even though we didn’t hear it all weekend. Maybe next time.

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It’s back! It’s back! The six-man rotation is…oh crud

The gals at Coyote Ugly didn't believe in the six-man rotation, either. Photo from this site.

We all have our weaknesses—a penchant for chasing something that’ll never work no matter how good it might sound, or liking something we know is no good for us. In lieu of pondering how the first analogy might symbolize my career pursuits, I’ll just say that any time Coyote Ugly is on, I’m watching. What? I like it for the crackling dialogue and non-wooden acting! Until my wife pointed it out, I didn’t even know that the women in the movie spend it in various stages of undress.

Anyway, if you’re among the handful of loyal readers here, you know I have a major crush on the idea of a six-man rotation. So I have to admit my heart skipped several beats Sunday when I heard Terry Francona line up the Red Sox’ rotation following the All-Star Break, one that features Clay Buchholz as well as five other starters.

Here it comes, I thought. My big break! Francona’s going to say he and Theo got the idea from reading some rambling blogger and that they thought it was a great idea and they’re saying the hell with baseball convention, we’re turning it on its head!

Alas, there will be no reinventing the rotational wheel, at least not now. And as fond as I am of breaking down how a six-man rotation would work, I do understand that the vast majority of teams in baseball have a hard enough time finding five passable starters, never mind six, and that a true six-man rotation would limit starters to 27 turns apiece. Do you want Josh Beckett taking the ball only 27 times a year? Or Jon Lester?

And for all the pixels I wasted writing about the six-man rotation last month, the benefit of hindsight suggests the Sox were never all that worried about it actually occurring, not with Daisuke Matsuzaka’s inability to resemble a competent big league starter.

But while the Sox aren’t going with a permanent six-man rotation, their decision to implement it for the first two series following the All-Star Break is more proof they’re better prepared and more forward-thinking than anybody else in baseball.

Using the All-Star Break to give everyone in the rotation a mini-vacation is a great idea. But I wonder how many teams would take a look at their 25-man roster and scratch the idea, declaring that they don’t have six starters.

Along those lines, I doubt it’s coincidence that Buchholz has been pitching every fifth day since June 17. Bringing Buchholz up for one start doubly benefits the Sox, who get to reward a top pitching prospect (well, technically he’s not a prospect since he’s no longer a rookie, but you know what I mean) while also helping out the five pitchers who should construct the rotation the remainder of the season.

An eight-day break—which Brad Penny, Lester, John Smoltz and Beckett each get—is a lengthy respite, but not so long that they’ll begin to collect cobwebs on the shelf. Tim Wakefield gets 13 days, which seems like a good move given the injuries he’s battled in the second half of each of the last three seasons

“We wanted to line everybody up and not have anybody have to tell Smoltz ‘Watch the All-Star Game, and if Wake pitches, you throw a side’ after the game,” Francona said. “It just didn’t make a lot of sense. We are trying to incorporate rest, trying to keep everybody on a consistent [pattern], not just one guy [gets] 10 days and one guy 15 days. We are real comfortable with the way this is setting up.”

They should be. A phenom gets another taste of the big leagues and the rest of the rotation doesn’t miss a start yet gets the type of extra rest that should come in quite handy down the stretch. Savvy, at levels even Coyote Ugly cannot hope to match, no matter how often I watch it.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

When life gives you lemons, stop giving free agent closers big contracts

The Hornet: The bane of the Beach family in the late '70s...and the Blue Jays today. Photo from this site.

Ex-Red Sox reliever Alan Embree made a bit of baseball history Tuesday, when he earned the victory for the Rockies despite not throwing a pitch. Embree picked off Austin Kearns to end the top of the eighth and the Rockies broke a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the inning and won 5-4.

Embree is only the second pitcher since 1990 to win a game in which he did not throw a pitch and the first since B.J. Ryan, who pulled off the feat in 2003. Ironically, in that it’s not ironic at all, Ryan was in the news himself less than 24 hours later, when the Blue Jays released their Opening Day closer even though he’s got a year-and-a-half and $15 million left on his contract.

Ryan’s release is a fascinating case study in baseball perceptions and realities. The perception is that the Jays wasted $15 million with Wednesday’s transaction. Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin goes so far as to write that Ryan’s release reflects so badly on Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi that it may hasten his own dismissal.

But the Jays had nothing to gain, financially or otherwise, by holding on to Ryan. Sure, it would make the organization look a little better if Ryan was able to regain some semblance of effectiveness for the remainder of the deal. Yet even if Ryan somehow recaptured his job as Jays closer next year, he still would have spent nearly half of his five-year deal—all of 2007, which he missed due to Tommy John surgery, and most of this year—not closing. If Ricciardi is to be judged on this deal, the verdict was already in: Flop.

In addition, whether he was awesome or awful in a Toronto uniform, that money—and every cent of the $47 million the Jays agreed to pay him over five years following the 2005 season—was gone the second Ryan put pen to paper. He won’t pitch for the Jays next season, but the $10 million he’ll receive will still count against the Jays’ budget.

Baseball contracts are like new cars: Once you make the purchase, there are no refunds, even though the vehicle begins to depreciate the moment its new owner puts the key into the ignition.

The player-as-a-car analogy is particularly appropriate for relief pitchers, who, as noted in last week’s appreciation of Mariano Rivera’s 500th career save, are more prone than most to overnight transformations into lemons. (Much like my parents’ old Hornet, which terrorized our family for a couple years in the late ‘70s and still makes my father mutter curse words under his breath, but I digress)

To invest long-term in a closer if he’s perceived as the last piece to a championship puzzle would appear to be a risk worth taking, except history suggests an imported closer almost never makes the difference between euphoria and disappointment. Only one World Series champion in the last 25 years has featured a closer it signed the winter before: The 2004 Red Sox. And you may recall that Keith Foulke—whom the Sox signed to a reasonable three-year deal worth just shy of $21 million prior to 2004—did a bang-up impersonation of a lemon for the subsequent two seasons.

On the same day that the Jays made Ryan the richest closer ever, the Mets made Billy Wagner the second-richest closer. The Mets got a little better return on their investment than the Jays, who recorded winning seasons in each of the last three years but never sniffed the playoffs, yet the end result was the same: More Tommy John surgeries than championships.

The Mets made it to Game Seven of the NLCS in 2006 and Wagner provided two-and-a-half pretty good years before his elbow began throbbing last summer. He underwent Tommy John surgery last September and will likely miss the entire 2009 season.

The Ryan and Wagner deals did more to drag down the market for free agent closers than the toxic economy. Francisco Rodriguez ended last season with 208 saves at just 26 years old and reportedly harbored hopes of a five-year, $75 million deal, but his lone offer was from the Mets at three years and $37 million. So the Mets are paying nearly $20 million this season to two pitchers whose entire job description is to get three outs. Wonder no more why they’re destined for fourth place.

And Brad Lidge, who converted all 48 save opportunities—41 in the regular season and seven in the playoffs—last season for the world champion Phillies, signed a three-year extension worth $37.5 million last season instead of testing the free agent waters.

All of which means Francisco Cordero’s status as the richest free agent closer ever (at least in terms of average annual salary) is pretty safe, and that the Reds should be getting nervous right about now. Cordero signed a four-year deal worth $46 million after the 2007 season and has 55 saves and a 2.79 ERA in 108 appearances for a team that is 16 games under .500 since his arrival.

Not all long-term deals for closers end badly. Rivera is in the midst of his third extension with the Yankees—this one a three-year deal worth $45 million that takes him through the end of 2010—and as someone who has penned more than one “Rivera is not what he used to be” pieces, let me say, I’m an idiot and he looks like he’ll be just as brilliant for the duration of this contract as he was the previous two.

It’s too early to declare Joe Nathan’s deal with the Twins—he was re-signed last year to a four-year, $47 million contract that takes him through 2011—a successful one, but his dominance with Minnesota (221 saves, a 1.78 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP since 2004) indicates he could follow the Rivera path as someone who becomes a closer in his late 20s and thrives throughout his 30s.

The moral of the story? If you’re going to go long-term with a closer, better to re-sign your own—better to keep investing in the family’s well-worn yet reliable used car, because you know what’s gone on under the hood. The car on someone else’s lot might look shinier and flashier, but who knows what havoc is bubbling beneath the surface?

It’ll be interesting to see if the Sox prefer to reinvest in Jonathan Papelbon, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, and if the market by then is conducive to Papelbon becoming the highest-paid closer ever. If that’s Papelbon’s goal, as he has alluded to previously, you can be pretty sure the Blue Jays won’t be the team to make his dreams come true.

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