Sunday, December 03, 2006

My Father, My Hero

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a [father] in [his] children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues -- faith and hope. – Charles Dickens in “Nicholas Nickleby”

For most of my life, from the time I was born until shortly before I graduated from college, my father was a full-time member of the Rye, New Hampshire Fire Department. As a kid, this was often more a cause for frustration than anything else – staying quiet during the day so he could sleep before overnight shifts, dealing with the overbearing smell of smoke when he came home from a fire, the knowledge that he might be pulled away at any moment (even on Christmas morning, which happened more than once) to go out on a call. There were times other kids made jokes about my dad’s job, especially in our small town, where nothing exciting like a FIRE ever seemed to happen, and all I did was smile and laugh along, wishing that he did something, anything else to earn a living.

As I got older and wiser, I began to understand, thankfully, the importance of and inherent danger in the career path that my father had chosen. Along with that understanding came the realization that my father was a good and selfless man, the type of man I wanted to be. In addition to working the long hours required to feed a family of six, he cared for both of his parents after they became ill in the mid-1990s, then did the same for my disabled Uncle Jimmy after my grandparents passed away. He could have complained – I would have complained – but we were more likely to win the Powerball (still one of his great unrealized dreams) than to hear my old man suggest that there was anything he couldn’t handle.

Somewhere, lost in the importance of family obligations and work responsibilities, my father introduced me to the game of baseball, beginning a love affair that has lasted nearly twenty years and figures to continue to the end of my days. A pretty fair player himself as a young man – he once told me that even now, forty plus years later, he wonders how far he could have gone – he was always available to play catch for a few minutes, watch the Red Sox on TV (assuming they weren’t on NESN – this was in the days it wasn’t a part of our basic cable package), or hit some ground balls in the back yard. Most importantly, he did all this without being the type of overbearing parent that appears all too often on the news these days, choosing instead to let me stand or fall on my own. He cared about my success and was pleased that I loved the game, but was not going to ruin that love by forcing it upon me.

The result was, by the spring of my junior year at Portsmouth High School, a reasonably talented player. I had entered ninth grade with high hopes, thinking of all I could accomplish in the next four years, but not much had gone right for me on the field my first two seasons on the team; twelve at-bats as a freshman, followed by a .300 batting average as a platoon outfielder on the junior varsity squad as a sophomore. By the time 1997 rolled around, it was becoming clear that I was a JV lifer: supremely capable of beating up on less talented and slightly younger opponents, but virtually unable to compete against varsity caliber talent, even in a state like New Hampshire, where the overall level of play was generally unexceptionally.

But that junior year; what a year! It’s almost a cliché to talk about athletes who enter “the zone”, that magical place where the ball looks like a grape fruit and the bat feels like a toothpick. Before I knew it, before I even considered that it might be possible for someone at my relatively low level of play, I was there, charting a course that would take me on the greatest hot streak of my baseball life, the magnum opus of my high school career. Nothing was impossible with a baseball bat in my hands – I was invincible, if only for a couple of hours three afternoons a week. If our field had had fences, I might have slugged a handful of homeruns; as it was, I managed my fair share of doubles and triples, all on balls that were hit far enough to allow my squat 5’9”, 220 lb. frame to careen around the bases, usually ending up with an awkward flop and a cloud of dust.

Despite his unbearable schedule – by this time, my grandfather had passed away and my grandmother was growing steadily sicker - my father was there to see every baseball game my team played in high school, with the exception of two, whether I was on the field or not. Until I got a car my junior year – my grandmother’s old Ford Escort wagon, which my dad figured I could use – and could drive myself to and from games, I assumed his presence was a matter of practicality: he needed to pick me up anyway, so why not take a break from the day and attend the game first? My final two seasons, I realized how untrue and naïve that mode of thinking was: he was there to see what the fruits of his instruction had wrought, to witness firsthand the application of the skills he had handed down. He understood that my meager talent and lack of 100% focus on the sport – I was starting to discover money and girls by this point – meant that I would never progress much beyond high school in terms of ability, but I think he hoped that I would one day take what I had learned and use it to do something special.

Every athlete at every level should have at least one game to remember, one game that they can look back on years later and appreciate as a fine moment in their athletic careers. Mine was late in my aforementioned junior year. We were playing a home game against Spaulding High School of Rochester, and things were not going well. Our pitchers couldn’t pitch and our hitters couldn’t hit, two sad realities that resulted in an 8-0 deficit and a no-hitter for the opposing pitcher through four innings. Yeah, it had all the makings of a great afternoon.

Then things changed. In the bottom of the fifth, facing the top of our lineup, the Spaulding pitcher started to wear down, walking the first two batters. I remember thinking, as I headed up to bat, that he really wasn’t anything special – didn’t throw very hard, didn’t come at you with a lot of junk, didn’t have a deceptive delivery. This wasn’t Nolan Ryan shutting us down; it was Bobo Holloman. I knew, even with an 8-0 deficit to overcome and just nine offensive outs at our disposal, that this game was completely winnable. All we had to do was be patient and wait for our opportunity.

It didn’t take long for opportunity to arrive. Early on in the at-bat, the pitcher left one out over the plate and I turned on it, driving the ball to deep right-center; both runners scored, I ended up on third and our bench went nuts with the sudden and shared realization that this was OUR game. From there, we never stopped scoring. The next inning, I found myself on third base again, two outs, now trailing 8-7, and knew – KNEW – that I was going to score. It wasn’t a question of if; it was a question of how (it ended up being a passed ball).

After the game, which we ended up winning 9-8, I walked toward the parking lot with my dad, still absolutely giddy about the way the final three innings had unfolded, the heart our team had shown in erasing that daunting deficit.

“Whaddya think of that?” I asked as we crossed left field, a huge smile creasing my face.

“I’m proud of you,” he answered in his deep, quiet voice. It wasn’t necessarily the response I had been expecting. My father has always been a quiet man, slow to deliver both criticism and praise. One of the only previous memories I had of either was from elementary school, when I had come home with a less than stellar grade on a test. Even then his reaction hadn’t been so much outspoken as a reflection of the years of baseball instruction I had received: he had simply declared with a certain forceful insistence that this was not my best work and such results would not be acceptable in the future, then left it to me to apply the appropriate amount of effort to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. This scenario felt slightly different, however, in that it was the first time in my ten years as a ballplayer that any of my athletic achievements had elicited this type of reply.

He didn’t get many more chances to express that feeling, if in fact he ever felt it again. My senior year was similar to my freshman campaign, right down to the coach; I made the varsity, but played sparingly and had only eight at-bats in eighteen games. My dad actually missed my first varsity hit, a seeing eye single past a diving second baseman during a mid-week makeup game that I forgot to tell him about, but he was there for my second and final one: a two-run homerun in a 10-5 loss on the last day of the season, the final time I ever came to bat in a baseball game that meant anything; my Ted Williams moment, as I have often referred to it since. This time, however, he seemed more bothered than proud, more upset than happy, wondering if perhaps, with a little more playing time and a few more plate appearances, I could have done that a few more times.

I’m twenty-seven years old now, nearly ten years removed from my days as a high school JV baseball player/benchwarmer, and a lot of good things have happened in my life since then. I graduated from college with honors, met and married a woman I love, and eventually settled into a good job. Along the way, I’ve come to appreciate the way my father taught me to play baseball, realizing that it has a lot to do with the way he taught me to approach life: by giving me an outline and allowing me to fill in the blanks to the best of my ability. Free will at its finest. Still, I look in the mirror sometimes and wonder what my father thinks of me, if the way I have lived my life jives with any expectations he had when he conducted these subtle lessons. Is he happy that I have become a somewhat successful, well-adjusted young man? Does he ever think to himself, “What else could I have done to help him along the way?” Does he know that in everything I do, a part of me wonders what he will think or say when I give him the news? When he tells people where I am and what I’m up to these days, does it make him proud to refer to me as his son?

That’s what it all comes down to in the end: that word, “pride”. Like any son, I’ve always wanted my father to be proud of me, of my accomplishments, of my life. Explicit acknowledgement of such a feeling was not always forthcoming as a child, which could be difficult for a young boy looking for acceptance. When those compliments were handed down, however, it was a feeling like no other.

Recently, I have begun to experience a fundamental change in my relationship with my father; it started to take shape six years ago, around my 21st birthday, an otherwise happy occasion that was marred by the passing of my Aunt Evie, my grandmother’s sister. A physically diminutive woman in her early 90s, Aunt Evie for years had helped care for my Uncle Jimmy and my grandparents’ house; it was not unusual to drive past the home on the way to visit my parents and see her working in the yard, raking leaves or cutting the grass. The continued physical activity undoubtedly helped her remarkable mental acuity – it could be said that the only sure things in life were death, taxes and a card from Aunt Evie on birthdays and Christmas. She never missed an event, and her last Christmas was no different. As always, my father suggested I write a “thank you” note; he knew that she appreciated, but never expected, the small gesture of thanks. Teenagers are strange creatures, however; something always comes before doing the right thing, something that seems more important at the time. My father said I should write a note, and I kept telling myself that I would get around to it eventually.

Of course, I never did. After awhile, it seemed crazy to write a thank you note for something that had happened months before. “I’ll just wait,” was the final decision. “She’ll give me a nice card and $20 for my birthday. Then I can write a note telling her how much I appreciate her thoughtfulness.” Sadly, she didn’t live long enough for my plan to come to fruition, passing away three days before my birthday.

From great sadness came enlightenment; Aunt Evie’s funeral was the first and only time I cried in my wife’s presence, the only time I can ever remember being overcome to that degree and literally burying my face in her shoulder and sobbing. Simultaneously, there was the realization that this was one of life’s great lessons, one of those moments you make a point to file away and remember for future reference. In this case, I was learning that the biggest mistake we can make in life is to wait until it’s too late to tell those close to us how we feel about them.

I’ve never told my father, who turns 61 years old today, any of this. I’ve never mentioned how much I appreciated those long hours in the back yard, learning to play the game I love. He has no idea that as much as I want him to be proud of me, I am as proud of him for the stoic and fearless way he has guided his family through nearly four decades, in both good times and bad. He has never heard that I believe I am a better man, and will be a better father, for having been his son. I have never told him, until now, that he is the best man I have ever known.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sports Memories I'll Tell My Grandkids About: Tim Wakefield, Fenway Park and My First Red Sox Game

Following my most recent visit to Fenway Park, I decided to sit down and make a list of all the major league baseball games I have ever attended. It was an exceedingly easy task, I discovered – despite my long-time geographical proximity to Boston, I have never liked visiting the city and don’t often make the effort to do so, two facts that kept me from seeing Fenway Park up close and personal until 1995 and have limited me to just six subsequent visits.

A lot of interesting stuff has happened in those seven games: Alex Rodriguez hit a homerun off Pedro Martinez. Devern Hansack held the Baltimore Orioles without a hit for five full innings. My wife stood on her seat and cheered as the benches emptied against the Yankees. Pedro and Roy Halladay engaged in a tense pitcher’s duel. Rickey Henderson played his final game at Fenway Park and received a car from Red Sox management. I haven’t been to many games, but the ones I’ve seen have always seemed to contain at least one memorable event.

One of my favorite Fenway moments, however, remains the first game I ever saw there, a contest between the Red Sox and California Angels late in the 1995 season. The date was September 3, a Sunday. The Sox were competitive for the first time in years, running away with the American League East division by fourteen games over the second-place New York Yankees. The Angels, meanwhile, had been enjoying a dream season, steaming toward their first division crown since 1986, but like that previous campaign it was quickly becoming a nightmare; the Halos entered the September 3 game in the midst of a terrible and historic free fall, with eleven losses in twelve games allowing the charging Seattle Mariners to chop seven games off the lead. The Red Sox advantage in the East ultimately held, with the Yankees taking the wild card, but three weeks later the Angel’s collapse was complete, the team overtaken for good by the Mariners following a nine-game losing streak.

The game started just after one, so my father and I got an early start so we could pick up a pair of binoculars from Rich’s department store in Portsmouth before meeting up with my soon-to-be brother-in-law Ron and his son, Jaymes, at their house in Melrose. From there, we headed into the city, where I was to get my first glimpse at the place writer John Updike once called “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”

I honestly can’t remember the first time I saw Fenway Park from the outside or even what the concourse below the stands looked like; my first viewing of the playing field, however, more than compensates for those missing pieces in the mental jigsaw puzzle. Our seats were in the centerfield bleachers (I didn’t realize it at the time, but the centerfield bleachers at Fenway Park are actually located several miles away in Cambridge; hence the binoculars) but we somehow ended up entering the seating area on the opposite side of the ballpark, behind the first base grandstand. My first experience with the playing field of Fenway Park was straight out of a movie: the field laid out in front of me, the green expanse of center field stretching out endlessly, the Green Monster looming high above the truncated left field, the net on top making it seem that much higher.

The game itself might have been forgettable if those Red Sox hadn’t been so damn good. They refused to show mercy on the sliding Angels, jumping out to an early 3-0 lead on Tim Naehring’s first inning homerun to left (which I missed because every fan in our section stood as one to see if the drive would carry over the Monster) and chasing starter Chuck Finley with three more by the end of the fourth.

Boston’s early advantage was safely held by Tim Wakefield, the 29-year old pitcher who had traveled a winding road before coming to Boston in late May. A knuckleballer in the tradition of Hoyt Wilhelm, the Niekro brothers and Charlie Hough, Wakefield’s major league career had begun in fine fashion with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992; after being called up from AAA Buffalo in late July, he won eight games against just one loss to help the Bucs reach the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. He became a national sensation in the NLCS, winning both his starts – including a must-win in Game Six to avoid elimination – and indicating that, at the age of 26, his career as a solid major league pitcher was just getting started.

The knuckleball, however, is a fickle pitch – one day it’s working perfectly and seems untouchable, the next it rolls up to the plate screaming, “HIT ME!” Such was the case with Wakefield, who watched fame, fortune and his future disappear along with his knuckleball into thin air. In a complete reversal of fortune from the previous year, he couldn’t get anyone out, starting the season by walking nine Padres and finishing 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA, nearly 3 ½ runs higher than his rookie mark of 2.15. It got so bad that the Pirates shipped him off for a midseason stint in AA Carolina in an attempt to regain control of the pitch. The maneuver didn’t work – Wakefield’s numbers in the minors were even worse than his major league stats – although he showed a spark with back-to-back complete game shutouts over the Cubs and playoff-bound Phillies in his final two starts of the season.

The positive vibe didn’t carry over to the 1994 season, as Wakefield was banished to Buffalo for the duration of the season, presumably with the hope that he would finally work out the kinks in his bread-and-butter pitch and cash in on the potential that he had flashed two years before. He rewarded the team’s faith by demonstrating consistency for the first time in his career, struggling to a 5-15 record and 5.84 ERA in thirty games. The frustrated Pirates had had enough, releasing him on April 20, 1995.

Six days later, Boston called, offering Wakefield the chance to play with their AAA team in Pawtucket and work toward becoming a major league pitcher again. He took the opportunity, worked with both Phil and Joe Niekro to make changes in his mechanics, pitched well in four games for the Paw Sox and was wearing a Red Sox uniform by the end of May. He won his first four starts for the team before losing to the Blue Jays, then won ten more in a row to keep them ahead of the pack well into August. By the time we saw him in September, he had come back down to earth, losing two consecutive starts en route to a 2-7 finish that took him out of the lead in the race for the Cy Young award (he eventually finished third behind Randy Johnson and Jose Mesa), but his role as the anchor of Boston’s pitching staff through the dog days of summer was not to be taken lightly.

On September 3, we saw the Tim Wakefield who had pitched for the Pirates in 1992 and the Red Sox earlier in the summer. His knuckler was working to perfection; the Angels could barely touch him. As the game wore on, I looked at him on the mound a few times through the binoculars and admired the confidence he carried out to that solitary hill, the sense that he was in total control. He ran into trouble only once, in the second inning, when three singles and a hit batsman plated the only run he allowed in eight innings. His poise was most evident under this extreme duress, however: with the bases loaded and one out, nursing a two-run lead, the game in danger of turning into an offensive slugfest, he induced back-to-back pop-ups to end the threat and break the Angels’ spirit.

Knowing that Wakefield had the game safely in hand allowed me to take in some of the other things that were going on around the ballpark at that time. Most notably, a lifelong fear of the right field bleachers was drilled into me that day by the denizens of that area, who at one point began loudly taunting Angel’s right fielder Tim Salmon with a long, sustained “Saaaaaaaaaaaaalmooooooooooooon!” chant. It was the type of thing that has stuck with me, a fairly quiet fifteen year old kid; to this day, I haven’t dared venture into those sections (although I did wind up in the next section over on my last trip – I needed to point out the Ted Williams Seat to my wife and see just how far from home plate it is, but we were separated by a runway).

Beyond all that, the memories are hazy – I know I brought my glove and put it on every time Mo Vaughn came up, even though we were almost five hundred feet from home plate, and I remember Jaymes, barely four years old at the time, curling up in his seat and falling asleep during the late innings – there are certain areas beyond even Retrosheet’s scope of information. But I think I remember enough to know that it was a good day. I saw Fenway Park for the first time, my favorite team won (the first of a 6-1 record with me in attendance; I’m drafting a letter to Theo Epstein to get myself some complimentary tickets) and I watched the pitcher who was and is my wife’s favorite player as he struggled to overcome his personal demons and prove he belonged in the major leagues. Yes, it was a good day indeed.

Tim Wakefield Statistics -
Tim Wakefield Statistics - The Baseball Cube
All aflutter at Fenway - Boston red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield - Column Sporting News, The - Find Articles
Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu by John Updike


Monday, July 24, 2006

Sports Memories I’ll Tell My Grandkids About: Kevin Romine, Morgan Magic and the Day I Came To Love Baseball

The Boston baseball historical landscape is littered with the remains of teams that ascended nearly to the peak of sports achievement before awakening from the dream and crashing back down to earth. The late 1940s were a particularly difficult time for Beantown baseball – the Red Sox lost the World Series on a controversial play in 1946 and were bested in down-to-the-wire pennant races in 1948 and 1949, while the Braves lost the 1948 Fall Classic to Cleveland – although in many ways the late 1980s and early 1990s were even worse, characterized by a heartbreaking World Series loss in 1986 (the fourth consecutive Series in which the team lost Game Seven) and mind-numbing thirteen consecutive postseason losses. There were some memorable moments, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the Boston baseball community finally reached the top of the mountain.

Most Red Sox seasons end in an agony that feels like agony (see 1986 and 2003 for vivid examples); there are two campaigns in recent history, however, that ended with less than the desired result - a World Series win (take a seat, 2004, you’re not a part of this discussion) - yet somehow avoided the feeling that the sky was falling and the sun would decide not come out tomorrow. The first, of course, was the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team led by Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Lonborg – the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, respectively – that overcame the weight of a recent team history clouded by institutional racism and bad ball clubs to finish within one game of a world title. There were few hard feelings when the Dream ended because few had expected the Red Sox to be in contention past April, let alone advance as far as the seventh game of the World Series. The lower level of incoming expectation led to a lower level of regret when the fairy tale ending didn’t come true.

The second season that ended with a positive feeling despite an undesirable conclusion – in this case a sweep by the Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series – was 1988, the year of “Morgan Magic” and my debut season as a baseball fan. This was the year that the Red Sox fielded a quality team, with a lineup composed of solid veterans (Dwight Evans, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice) and good youngsters (Jody Reed, Ellis Burks, Mike Greenwell) and a pitching staff spearheaded by a feared lefty-righty combination (Bruce Hurst and Roger Clemens) and an All-Star closer (Lee Smith), yet limped into the All-Star break as the fourth best team in the American League East division with a 43-42 record that left them nine games behind the Detroit Tigers.

At the break, Boston general manager Lou Gorman made a change, replacing manager John McNamara with “Walpole Joe” Morgan, the manager of the team’s AAA affiliate in Pawtucket and a native of nearby Walpole, Massachusetts. Morgan was hired during the All-Star break and managed his first games on July 15, a doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals. The Red Sox won both games to begin a streak of twelve wins in a row (a record for a manager at the start of his career) and nineteen of twenty overall under their new skipper. The streak (which also occurred within the framework of twenty-four consecutive wins at Fenway Park, a run that extended from June 25 to August 13) earned the nickname “Morgan Magic”, virtually guaranteeing the return of the “interim” manager the following season. Most importantly, Boston closed the gap in the division race: after trailing by 8 ½ games at the close of play on July 14, Boston found itself side-by-side with Detroit atop the AL East on August 3.

This is the time period to which I date my interest in the Boston Red Sox and the game of baseball. For me, the game is rooted in Jody Reed taking the field to pinch-run for Spike Owen and somehow becoming one of my favorite players, Bo Jackson ending a game against the Sox with a leaping catch against the wall in foul territory in Kansas City, and watching a game with my grandfather (who forced me to admire both halves of Boston’s double play tandem with the solemn intonation, “Marty Barrett – he’s a good player.”) These are minor happenings, of course, but much of the joy in baseball, as in life, is in the little things.

The summer of Magic in Boston might never have transpired without the game that took place on Saturday, July 16. With the All-Star break still visible in the rear-view mirror and Joe Morgan still finding his way around his new team, the Red Sox prepared to meet Kansas City in the third game of a four game series. Perhaps upset over its poor showing in the previous day’s doubleheader (swept by the Red Sox, 3-1 and 7-4), the Royals jumped out to a 6-0 lead after five innings, including a mammoth Bo Jackson homerun that ricocheted off the back wall in centerfield; it is considered by some one of the longest drives in Fenway Park history.

Boston’s offense finally figured things out in the bottom of the sixth, scoring four times to trim the deficit to 6-4. The inning included two important lineup changes: Kevin Romine pinch-ran for leftfielder Mike Greenwell and scored the third run, while Dwight Evans drew a walk as a pinch-hitter for Randy Kutcher. Both players stayed in the game – Romine in Greenwell’s leftfield position, Evans at first base. The switches proved beneficial as early as the eighth inning, when Evans greeted Kansas City closer Steve Farr with a game-tying two-run homerun.

The game entered the bottom of the ninth knotted at sixth, with Romine leading off against Farr. It was an unusual spot for Romine, then 27 years old and in his third year with the Red Sox; an All-American at Arizona State in the early 1980s, he had become a utility major league outfielder who under ordinary circumstances would be safely on the bench in such a tense situation. These were no ordinary circumstances, however; thanks to Morgan’s sixth inning shuffling, his only remaining bench player was infielder Spike Owen, who only started twice in the manager’s first twenty games with the club. To bring Owen into the game would not only mean losing the last extra bat, a strategic no-no considering the possibility of extra innings, it would also require moving certain players out of position to accommodate everyone. In any case, Romine wasn’t the most desirable option to start off the ninth against Farr (that honor probably belonged to Greenwell, enjoying a career year on his way to a second place finish in the MVP voting), but he was pretty much all Morgan had to offer.

Romine didn’t disappoint. He lofted a Farr offering high and deep to left (memory says it was the first pitch, but there is no way to verify that information), where it settled into the screen above the Green Monster for a game winning homerun. It was Romine’s first career homerun (in his 127th at-bat), the only homerun he hit in 1988 and one of only five he hit in a career that ended in 1991.

For the next three weeks, the Red Sox rolled. On July 20th, Todd Benzinger hit a walk-off homerun of his own to guarantee win number seven (Benzinger’s round-tripper came in the bottom of the tenth inning, with Boston trailing by a run). Two weeks after Romine hit his game-winner, he factored into another big moment, scoring the winning run on a Marty Barrett single to give the team sixteen wins in seventeen tries. In a nice touch of parallelism, he had once again pinch-run, stayed in the game and led off the ninth, doubling off Teddy Higuera to start the game-winning rally.

Though Boston didn’t play well over the final two months, finishing with a 27-30 mark in the final 57 games, the charge to the front of the pack had been enough. Despite losing six of their last seven games, the Red Sox held off four other teams – Detroit, Toronto, Milwaukee and New York – to claim the AL East title for the second time in three years. Given the relative weakness of the team and the fact that West division winner Oakland boasted a powerful lineup and strong pitching, not much was expected from the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. They didn’t deliver much, being outscored by a 2-to-1 margin in four straight losses to the A’s.

Still, from the perspective of a new, young fan such as myself, the season was a success. The Red Sox had found themselves in a tough spot, played nearly perfect baseball for three weeks to charge into the lead, and then held off all comers despite not having their best stuff. And somewhere in there, maybe on July 16, I found myself a favorite player. Kevin Romine wasn’t the best player on the field at any time during his seven years in a Red Sox uniform, but he might have been something more important – as he proved against Steve Farr and Teddy Higuera, he was the type of guy who could be counted on to come up big just when it was needed the most. Despite this, he never really earned the opportunity to play full-time with Boston (largely due to his lack of power and the All-Star outfield of Greenwell, Evans and Ellis Burks), although injuries to Burks and Evans allowed him to play a career high 92 games in 1989, when he hit .274 in 274 at-bats. And of course, the fact that his birthplace of Exeter, New Hampshire was minutes from my own hometown didn’t hurt his standing in my eight year old eyes (even if he had lived in California since very early childhood), if only to prove that even a kid from the northeast could make it big someday.

1988 might have been the last carefree season I remember experiencing with the Red Sox; in other words, it’s the last time I felt something less than sadness at their failure to win the World Series. Of course it was disappointing, but the entire season had been so much fun to watch that I just couldn’t muster much sadness when it ended. After two more division titles in 1990 and 1995, the wild card provided entry into the postseason in 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2005. By the time I’m writing this in July 2006, playoff appearances are almost expected around Boston – we’ve exchanged the joy that comes from an out-of-the-blue run like 1967, 1988 or 2004 (although I’m not entirely comfortable using the word “joy” to describe 2004; it was dramatic, exciting, intriguing, and tense, but not necessarily joyful – at least not until the Yankees were vanquished) for a sense of entitlement, a feeling that we always deserve to be one of the eight teams that remain at the conclusion of the regular season. That’s not entirely a bad thing – it’s nice to root for a winner - but sometimes it’s nice to be surprised. Someday, maybe in the near future, maybe for several years at a stretch, it is likely that the Red Sox won’t be one of the best teams in baseball. When that happens, when we are forced by the Baseball Gods to experience seasons like 1961-66 or 1987 again, I hope we are rewarded with another “Impossible Dream” or “Morgan’s Magic”, because those are the types of teams that are the most fun to follow and the most fun to remember.

(Thanks to Retrosheet for all statistics used in this article.)


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Finding a Name

When I was a kid, someone left a German Shepherd puppy on my cousins' doorstep. Rather than turn the dog in to a shelter, they agreed that the right thing to do was take him in and do the best they could to provide him with a good home. One thing they couldn't agree on, however, was a name; for years, until they decided to start calling him "Max", that dog was known simply as "Pup".

I never understood how it could be so hard to decide on a simple name. Then I tried to name this blog.

My first blog, which is currently still in action over at Foxsports, was called "All The Good Names Are Taken", a reference to the fact that with so many innovative names out there, it can be difficult to find one that is both unique and interesting without stepping on somebody else's toes. It was also my own personal "Pup" - not bad for starters but also not good for the long-term.

With the move to this new space, I needed to find my own "Max". Toward that end, I searched high and low on the net, looking for something that stood out. I considered lines from my favorite movies and quotes from my favorite athletes; for a time, a fragment of Moonlight Graham's speech from "Field of Dreams", in which he talks about "...a sky so blue..." was the frontrunner, but even that ended up on the scrap heap (a little too poetic for my liking).

Then it hit me. There is a scene in the movie "Bull Durham" where rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh tracks down his catcher, the veteran Crash Davis, at a pool hall to give him the exciting news: he's been called up to the major leagues. Despite the bond that has developed between the two, minor league lifer Crash finds it difficult to be happy with his friend's big break, and proceeds to explain his definition of the fine line that exists between mediocrity and excellence:

"Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It's 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There's 6 months in a season, that's about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week - just one - a gork... you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes... you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week... and you're in Yankee Stadium."

Written by Ron Shelton, a former minor leaguer who never reached the majors, Crash's brief speech holds truth even beyond the obvious baseball implications. It says that for an individual to achieve real success, it requires more than raw talent, above-average intelligence or good old-fashioned determination; it also requires at least a small helping of luck.

And so I had my blog name. "One More Dying Quail" isn't perfect, I suppose - it might not have the same ring to it as "25 Hits A Week" or "One Flare A Week", but that's okay. I like it just fine.

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