Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Lou Merloni

Lou Merloni, right, remains close friends with ex-Sox superstar Nomar Garciaparra. Photo from this site.

I was fortunate enough to land most of the interviews I wanted in the writing of Fighting Words, but there were a few who got away—most notably Nomar Garciaparra, the shy and withdrawn franchise icon who had a strained relationship with the press before he was shockingly traded by the Red Sox five years ago this month.

I was hoping to catch Garciaparra in Washington or Pittsburgh when the Cubs made trips there in May 2005, but those plans were snuffed out when Garciaparra suffered a gruesome groin injury in April that sidelined him until August. Subsequent attempts to speak to him via various intermediaries were unsuccessful.

I relied on various conversations with reporters as well as Garciaparra’s friends and ex-teammates in (hopefully) painting a balanced picture of Garciaparra’s complicated relationship with the press. You be the judge in Fighting Words, out now! (shameless plug over)

One of the most helpful people to talk to about Garciaparra was Lou Merloni, the utility infielder and Framingham native who was considered Garciaparra’s closest confidant on the Sox. This interview was conducted during the 2005-06 winter, during which Merloni—who worked for NESN last year and is now with Comcast New England—was with the Indians. With Garciaparra and the Athletics completing their series against the Sox tonight, I thought it was an appropriate time to unveil this Q&A.

What was your viewpoint of the media during your time with the Red Sox and specifically the attention surrounding the Sox’ pursuit of a championship?

The six years I was there, from ’98 to ’03, you could just see it progressively growing. We lost in the ALCS a couple times while I was there—obviously, 2003 was very intense, being in a Game Seven and all—but you could see it every year that we were just getting close enough. We had a good team, but it wasn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if you win 100 games, you need to win the World Series. And that was just coming to a head. That team, going through that in ’04, put that behind them.

You could just see it. The pressure was kind of coming down in the clubhouse. Here we are, in the playoffs reading reasons why we can’t win compared to other teams. It was tough to see, and I think it started to filter into the clubhouse.

Did you sense any tensions between the team and the press?

No, I really don’t think that. It seemed to me that it was just starting to come to a head [with] Jimy Williams. I think everybody in that clubhouse really liked him. He really got hit pretty hard by the media and the fans. Grady Little, too. I think from the time I was there in ’98, ’99, it was calm. The core of the young team was coming together, everyone was excited about the future. What happened is that core finally came together two or three years later and it was time to win. Pedro’s contract was running out. Nomar, Varitek, Derek Lowe—the core of this ballclub’s contracts were running out and it was time to win. And that sense of urgency had taken over, intensity-wise in the media and the clubhouse, and everybody started to feel the heat.

Dan Duquette had a strained relationship with the press. Did you ever sense that filtering into the clubhouse and did you have any observations on Duquette’s interactions with the press?

If you’re a shy guy and a quiet guy—now you’re in the big leagues expected to be a spokesperson and outgoing. Dan wasn’t a very good communicator. He was very to himself and didn’t give you a lot, and I think the media, out of a GM, they want more than that, to know the reasons why you made this deal. And once again, that just wasn’t Dan Duquette. He wasn’t a very outgoing [person]. Having that type of job in that type of city, I think you need to give people a little bit more than that.

Manny Delcarmen, who grew up just outside of Boston, said he felt the media was supportive of him [as a rookie in 2005]. Did you sense the media was more supportive of you because you were a local native?

Absolutely. When I first came up it was great—supportive of Framingham, the local guy, got a local guy on our team. And it was outstanding. As a player, though, you need to realize one of the tough parts about playing at home is everything is just kind of blown up. Everything is doubled for us as local guys. When you’re doing bad and when you’re struggling, it’s doubly worse because the fact that everybody is reading about it, reading this columnist’s opinionated article about how bad you are. ‘I don’t care what town he’s from, get him out of here’—that hits home very hard, because family and friends are reading about it. It’s not easy.

Were you comfortable serving as a team spokesman type?

I think in time, I learned my lesson. My first couple years, getting sent up and down, they might have caught me at the wrong times. That’s the tough part, when I got sent down. I wasn’t too happy about it, the cameras [are] at your locker, sometimes you need a minute to calm down there a little bit. But unfortunately I didn’t do that, I said some things that made people [say] ‘Stop your crying.’ And I took that in stride. I can deal with that. I learned my lesson from it. I think, over the years, I got a lot more comfortable with what to say and what not to say. Unfortunately, I think sometimes you just really can’t speak your mind. You have to tae a second, take a moment to say the right thing. And I think that’s something that you learn in time. I feel comfortable with that.

Is it essential for a team like the Red Sox to have a handful of players who are comfortable with the press and can shield others from it?

When I came up my first year, that’s what made Mo Vaughn so valuable. He took it all. If the media was cornering a player—a younger player—he would step in and answer the questions. He took that heat off guys. Took all that media attention, put it on to himself. He felt like he could handle it. There’s a lot of value in guys like that, like Millar and Damon, that took the heat off, that did the talking.

At the same point, the responsibility comes with that. Talking to Kevin now that he’s out of there, there’s a sense of relief, [of] ‘maybe I shouldn’t have put myself out so much.’ You open the door now for the criticism. When you’re going good, everything is great. The minute you start to struggle, it’s what you’ve created: ‘I talked so much, now comes this spotlight’ and people come to you for answers. It can be difficult, handling the media in Boston. The best way [was] Bill Mueller—he kind of came in, did his job and left. People don’t even realize what he accomplished there. That would probably be the best way to approach it.

You're good friends with Nomar Garciaparra. What were his thoughts on the press and was he uncomfortable with life as a public figure?

His first year in the league, he didn’t do much talking at all, didn’t like talking to the media. He was a quiet guy [with] Mo taking all the heat off him. [When Vaughn left, it was his turn now to be that guy and his personality isn’t one that wants to speak and put [himself] out there. His personality wasn’t like a Kevin Millar or Johnny Damon—very outgoing. And he paid the price for it. Kevin Millar, basically everybody loved him and loved every word out of his mouth. Everyone telling him to shut up. So you’ve got to find that happy medium, I guess.

I think you go back to the type of person you are before you get there. [Nomar was a] very family-oriented guy, very private, tried to keep the private in his life, and he turned into the type of player in Boston, because of his accomplishments, where everybody wanted to know everything they could about him because he was a superstar. People are trying to get into his life—‘What’s it like being you? What is this like?’—and he just wasn’t willing to give any of that up. It got to the point where if you wanted to ask him about the game tonight, [he’d] do that.

Then he started this whole thing with [future wife] Mia Hamm, and that really got a lot of attention into his personal life, [reporters] coming up to his locker and asking about his relationship with her. And he really closed himself off and became very negative. And he brought some of it upon himself, he’ll admit it, but at the same point, he just didn’t want to talk about things. And that’s his personality.

He had a tough time dealing with everything. Now that you’re a superstar, everyone expected you to let them into your world. And not everybody is like that.

How did you think Nomar was treated after his trade in 2004?

What went on afterward—whoever went on a tangent about him those two months afterward should just be embarrassed. Obviously, we’re good friends, and reading stuff like that, I think he was definitely treated unfairly. Rather than take a step back and say thank you for the years [and] you probably will be the best shortstop to ever come thru and wear a Boston Red Sox uniform, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and bashed him. I do think there were some people out there who appreciated his professionalism and how he wanted to handle it, even those people who wanted him to give more.

But at the same time, a lot of people stabbed him in the back. His job is to go out and play as hard as he can. A lot of people did appreciate him. Some o the people that really bashed him and jumped on the bandwagon have got to take a look at themselves and see what they wrote.

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