Friday, June 19, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Derek Lowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you been able to do that?

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

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

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

Were you asked about 2001 a lot in 2002?

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

Are the two minutes up yet? [Lowe grins]

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

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

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

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