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Friday, September 30, 2011

Farewell to Terry

The Red Sox just announced that they mutually agreed with Terry Francona that he will not return as the team’s manager in 2012. This news is something I am having a difficult time trying to wrap my mind around, but I do believe that the team will come to regret this decision.

Like most Boston fans, I was angry with the team following the culmination of their historic collapse in the last game of the season. Over the past few days I racked my brain for someone I could attribute the lion’s share of the blame. I ultimately came to believe that the fault lies primarily with the players, but the fiscal reality of baseball today makes it increasingly difficult to hold players accountable for poor play. That left me thinking that maybe the team could benefit from changing managers and having a new perspective from the field boss position.

Now that the break-up between the Red Sox and Francona has been confirmed, I find myself regretting my initial stance that thought this would be a good idea. After eight years with the team, Francona is clearly the best manager in the history of the team. Not only did he lead two championship teams, including one that broke the infamous 86 year drought, but his reputation as a player’s manager allowed the team to flourish with big names and bigger egos. It is thus with bitter irony that his undoing is apparently due to a clique of unidentified players who created division within the team and were unable to be controlled by his usual steady hand.

I don’t know for sure who the disruptive players are, but I can make a reasonably educated guess that they included the likes of John Lackey, whose negativity was a focal point of this past season. He not only chastised his teammates on the field for perceived poor play, but was also openly disrespectful to Francona on a number of occasions, when he did not want to be taken out of a game. His behavior was magnified by his hideous performance on the mound that led to a 6.41 ERA by the end of the year.

It is a sad reality in baseball that a team can more easily placate an angry fan base by changing managers than by unloading players who have a negative impact on their team. It all comes down to dollars and cents, which is not what true baseball is supposed to be, but is what drives the sport. Canning a manager like Francona, who makes about four million dollars a season, and was up for an option renewal, is a lot easier than trying to unload a player with over 60 million dollars in guaranteed money left on their contract. 

With rare exception teams must spend on players in order to contend from year to year. Although splashing out the cash may bring in higher caliber players, it also creates potentially unsolvable problems. Big contract guys are going to get paid what is owed them whether or not they put up great numbers, stink up the joint, or ruin team chemistry. Team’s won’t release them, they can’t be benched, and unless another team has their own dud with a similar salary; they can’t be traded. This effective tying of hands for the front office means that the manager is the easiest person to be made a public scapegoat. Regardless of how Francona’s departure is being spun in the media, he has been made the scapegoat for the 2011 team.

If you’re not yet with me in agreeing that allowing Francona to leave is a serious mistake, then consider this. The names of possible replacements being floated around include the likes of Bobby Valentine and Eric Wedge. Do you really think that they or anyone else whose name may pop up can do a better job of leading the Red Sox than Francona? I thought not. He has been there and done that with Boston, which can be a difficult city to play in, and has a demanding group of fans. It will take a truly inspired hire to deodorize the stink surrounding Francona’s departure, and unfortunately it is not something I am expecting.

Terry Francona may not be the best manager in baseball, but he is the best person to manage the Red Sox. Letting him go will not address the clubhouse problems or make players change their behavior. Now that the team finally got past the “Curse of the Bambino,” here’s hoping that we have not just entered the “Curse of Tito.”


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Monday, September 26, 2011

MLB's Hypocritical Stance on Bullying

Bullying prevention has been a cause célèbre across the country during the past year. A number of bullying incidents caught on tape, and in some cases children committing suicide, brought a high level of attention to the subject. Like many other high profile entities, MLB became involved in the efforts to stop the bullying epidemic that has resonated so much with the public. Unfortunately these efforts right now are little more than lip service until MLB takes a stand and does something about the hazing that goes on every year with their teams.

Bullying takes many forms. It is not necessarily about violence, but often centers on exclusion or making one feel inferior or vulnerable. The hazing that occurs in MLB falls into the latter category. Towards the end of each season, a tradition has emerged that has the rookies on each team dressed in ridiculous, and often gender-mocking costumes by the veterans, who paraded them around publicly for amusement.

Many people will point to the tired cliché of this practice simply a case of "boys being boys," but with professional players being such visible role models, lines must be drawn. What message does it send when baseball players that are looked up to by numerous children, probably many of whom experience bullying, see their heroes participate in this hazing as either the aggressor or the victim?

A popular type of costume that is forced upon the rookies is to dress them in various dresses or other feminine costumes. Just last week, the website reported on San Diego Padre rookies being dressed up as Hooters’ waitresses. Although the initial reaction may be to laugh at seeing a burly athlete in such unfamiliar clothing, it also enforces the notion that to be female or be feminine is to be weak or something to be made fun of. It is a representation of bringing the rookie's sexuality or gender into question, and making that something to be laughed at. With MLB's healthy female and gay fan bases, why would they want to persist with such stereotypes?

This past year at least 9 MLB teams became involved with the "It Gets Better" campaign, an effort to end anti-gay bullying and homophobia. Teams also became involved in other anti-bullying projects, including the Boston Red Sox, who were convinced by 12 year old Sam Maden to help him make an anti-bullying video. Gordon Edes wrote an excellent article earlier this year on that project

( Despite this good work, the Red Sox persisted in continuing to haze their rookies this season.

The hazing occurring in MLB is not just something that occurs over one day and then is forgotten. With the explosion of social media, pictures of hazing appear regularly on sites like Facebook and Twitter, posted not only by the players, but also by media. The message that this sends to the millions of followers and friends on these sites is that it is okay to demean others if you are in a position of dominance, and that baseball doesn't truly care about the effects of bullying.

The general ideas behind the hazing rituals is that the rookies have not yet earned their dues, and that the hazing helps build team unity. Excuse me, but if 12 hour bus rides and eating at Subway 15 times a week are not paying dues, then I don't know what is. Also, nothing builds a team like winning or doing group activities together like volunteering with a charity that specializes in bullying prevention.
With the average salary in MLB being over three million dollars, one would think that hazing would be a little beyond the players. To my knowledge you don't see doctors or Wall Street bankers being paraded around wearing outlandish or demeaning costumes. What this is really about is that the veterans had it happen to them, and they are going to make sure they get to play the dominant role.

The rookies talk about participating in the hazing because they know it is expected of them and they want to be accepted. Nobody questions what would happen if they refused. In all likelihood, refusal to participate would not go well.
Just look what happened in the NFL to the Dallas Cowboy’s Dez Bryant, who declined to carry his teammate's equipment off the field. In additional to likely verbal harassment, he was stuck paying a dinner bill in excess of $54,000.

If MLB is serious about being a voice in the efforts to prevent bullying, they need to take a long, hard look at what is currently going on within their organizations. Baseball players may not want to be role models, but the simple fact is that they are. It is one of the sacrifices they make for playing professional sports and having all of the opportunities that they earned from years of working hard to perfect their skills. If MLB wanted to really help end bullying, the best thing they could do is by ending their current hypocrisy. 


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Sunday, September 25, 2011

How to Survive When Your Baseball Team Collapses

Until just a few weeks ago, I was traipsing down the path of the content and just, confident in my knowledge that my Boston Red Sox were well on their way to a deep run in the playoffs. They had the most dominant offense in baseball, a pitching staff that was at least adequate, and a legitimate chance to finish the regular season with 100 wins. However, since then, Boston has reeled off a putrid 5-17 run that has left their playoff spot in doubt, and their fans in disgust at how the fortunes of their team could change so quickly. 

Not used to experiencing such a collapse, I have been forced to find comfort and solace in unusual places. In the event that you ever experience something similar with your own team, I wanted to note some strategies I have utilized and seen other Boston fans endure through these trying times. 

1. Hindsight is not 20/20. Feel free to criticize mistakes made by your team’s front office: The season looked so bright for the Red Sox before a pitch was ever thrown in spring training. It seemed like a major coup for the Sox in getting arguably the top two free agents on the market in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Even with these two new toys, things did not go as planned.

Gonzalez has been as advertised. No problems there. But Crawford has been an absolute stinker. He can seemingly no longer hit, strikes out a ton, and has stopped running for some inexplicable reason. Excuses like he is still getting used to playing in a large market are still floating around, but that is a total cop-out, and Boston should be scared to death about the final six years of his 142 million dollar deal.

John Lackey turned out to be another major whiff for the Red Sox front office. Signed for 82.5 million last year, he was expected to be a solid number three starter, but has been anything but. Lackey 6.49 ERA in 27 starts this year has been punctuated by the way he has stared down teammates in the field after an error or perceived misplay. Despite his disgust at the play behind him, ironically he leads the majors in earned runs allowed. Hopefully he looks in the mirror sometime soon and realizes what a large role he has taken in the disappointment in Boston this year. 

2. Question the injuries: This may be a little harsh, but most diehard fans want explanations of extended absences from injuries, unless something is torn, broken, or perhaps detached. I am not advocating questioning the players, but how their absence and how that has been handled by the team. That being said, a lot of us want to know where the heck guys like J.D. Drew and Clay Buchholz have been, and without their return, why the Red Sox didn’t do more to fill their shoes. 

Drew has not played since mid-July because of a shoulder impingement, and Buchholz has been out since mid-June with a bad back. Neither has been seen since, and the Boston response was to bring up decidedly average Josh Reddick from the minors to play right field, and trade for Eric Bedard, who has been on the disabled list so much during his career that he might as well own a time share there. This also goes back to point #1; why wouldn’t the Sox, with seemingly endless resources, have done more to improve their depth? 

Depth, particularly in the pitching staff has absolutely killed the Red Sox this year. I love him and everything he has done for Boston, but a playoff team can’t trot out a pitcher like Tim Wakefield every fifth day. He is hit hard a lot more often than he is not these days, and the time has probably come to thank him for his 17 years of service and find another option for next year.

3. Root for your enemies: Sometimes it’s okay to cheer for your enemies. Many of us Red Sox fans found ourselves in that position this past week when we lustily cheered for the Yankees to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who were rapidly closing in on Boston in the Wild Card race. Fortunately New York came through and beat them in three out of four and helped keep Tampa at bay even as the Red Sox continued to lose. 

The rivalries only mean something if they directly affect your team. If you have to root for your primary rival to better the chances that your team will then be able them in the playoffs, then so be it. The Yankees are going to still be the Yankees regardless if Boston fans want them to beat up on another team. If anything, it adds another element to the rivalry.

4. Accentuate the positives: Prior to this decade I became very accustomed to the “wait until next year” credo. The sting of losing was sometimes softened by thinking of the good parts of the team and season that could be built on for the next year. 

Although Carl Crawford regressed into a shell of his former self, Jacoby Ellsbury surprised many by coming out and producing a close facsimile. His production was even more welcome, coming off his lost 2010 season, where his toughness and dedication were questioned as he battled a rib injury.

It is clear that the offense is the one area of the Red Sox that is locked down for the foreseeable future. With Gonzalez, Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia forming the core of the lineup, the team can focus on more important areas like pitching and defense going forward. The lineup should get even better as well since dead wood like Drew, Marco Scutaro, and (regrettably) Jason Varitek should be coming off the books at the end of the year.

5. Give no mercy: At the end of the day, don’t make excuses for why your team has collapsed. Winners win, and losers try to skirt around the fact that they were not strong enough to make to the end. 

The Red Sox were good enough to be one of the best teams in baseball for the first four months of the season. No matter the challenges, they should be good enough to finish out the final month of the season and head into the playoffs without the extreme angst they have created throughout the New England region. 

If the Red Sox fail to make the playoffs this year it will be nobody’s fault but their own. They had a commanding lead in the race, but have essentially lost their minds since entering September. The bats are still hitting for the most part, but the pitching has been atrocious and the defense lackadaisical. Sure, they encountered some bad breaks, but between their pedigree, collection of players, and initial lead in the standings, what has unfolded is totally unacceptable.
If your team ever collapses like my Red Sox have, you are not going to find much comfort in anything. But it is important to identify coping mechanisms to make the experience as bearable as possible. I have made it through so far by adhering to my strategies outlined above. There are just a few games left in the regular season, and somehow I am still sane, though it remains to be seen what the ultimate fate of the Red Sox is this year. All I know is I never want to go through this again.


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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jim Gosger: Living the Dream

Playing major league baseball is the dream of many, ranging from young boys to old men. The lucky few who get the opportunity to fulfill that goal carry the memories with them for the rest of their lives, no matter if they got to play in one game or thousands. Jim Gosger was one of the lucky ones, who by playing professional baseball, not only realized his own dream, but also one held by his father. 

Gosger was a left-handed throwing and hitting outfielder from Port Huron, Michigan, who signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1962. His father had dreamt of playing professional ball himself, but his service in the war prevented that from happening. Instead he concentrated on helping his son do what he had not been able to accomplish.

Boston was in flux in 1962, having recently seen their franchise stalwart Ted Williams depart following the 1960 season. This left the Red Sox outfield wide open for prospects like Gosger, who was seen as a line drive hitter with an excellent arm. The team was searching for new stars to help take them into the next generation, and wanted to evaluate as many candidates as possible.

In 1962 Gosger showed a lot of promise by hitting .283 in his first professional season, in the Carolina League, with 19 home runs and 83 RBI. Although he was raw, he ended up spending the entire 1963 season in Boston because of the bonus rules of the time. He barely got off the bench, and went 1-16 at the plate, with his first major league hit coming off Frank Lary and Detroit. Most importantly, spending the entire year in Boston gave him the experience of what it was like to be a major league player.

Gosger never panned out as a long term starter with the Red Sox or any other team, but he was a solid player who was capable of steady production off the bench or in spot starting duty. He ended up playing 10 seasons in the majors, with the Red Sox, Athletics, Mets, and Expos. He hit .226 in 705 career games, with 30 home runs and 177 RBI. He always did his best against his hometown Tigers, producing 5 home runs and 21 RBI, his best against any one team. He also had his only major league two home run game, against the Tigers, in 1966 off Denny McClain. More information about Gosger’s career statistics is available at

Not only was Gosger able to realize a dream, but he was able to savor it. He may not have been a star, but was good enough to play baseball at the highest level in the world for a decade. He still has many wonderful memories from his experience, and recently shared some of them with me.

Jim Gosger Interview:

How did you first become interested in baseball?: Well, to be honest with you, it was my father’s dream. Since I was a little guy we used to go to the ball park. My Dad had a chance to sign to be a professional ballplayer, but because of the war he wasn’t able to go. So, I guess I was next in line. He told me after I had signed a contract that he had kicked my butt for one reason to play baseball. That was his dream and it was my dream. We both fulfilled our dreams I guess.

Did you have a favorite team or player when you were growing up?: I always admired Ted Williams. Most of the time we went down to the Tigers’ games it was usually against Boston. I think Dad kind of liked Boston too. He told me when we went down there, he said, ‘someday you will be on that field.’ It came true.

I worked hard, and ironically my hitting instructor my first year was Ted Williams. It was pretty neat.

What was Ted Williams like as a coach?: Especially when you were in the batting cage, he was very quiet and would sit there and watch you. He’s come in and he’d say, ‘Okay, let’s try it like this.’ In other words he never told you that you were doing anything wrong, he’s always say, ‘Let’s try this.’ It was the right way. It was the way that he learned how to hit, and he was just instructing us, and I was very fortunate.

I was projected when I went to spring training to go to Pocatello, Idaho, which was Class C ball. But he had told the manager in Class B that he should take me in Class B. So I ended up starting my minor league career in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 

That was nice that he liked the way I played and the way I swung the bat. He said, ‘You’ll make it. Not a problem.’ Something like that, when somebody like that says that, it gives you a lot of confidence.

What was the whole process like when you got signed by Boston in 1962?: I was playing with a semi-pro team here. I had gone to college. I was attending a junior college here and I was playing semi-pro ball with a team.

My Grandfather had known a scout out of Detroit whose name was Maurice DeLoof. He was a Boston scout, but I had a couple of other teams. The Cubs came by and Cleveland came by. My Dad just was not happy with the situation with a couple of the clubs, especially Cleveland. The guy had come in here and said he didn’t think I could make the big leagues, but he would give me a chance. Then my Dad told him to leave the house.

But the guy that really signed me was Maurice DeLoof. He signed me to a progressive bonus at that time, which meant that for each league that I moved up into, I would get a bonus. I signed for a minimum bonus. Unfortunately in the second year they had to protect me under the Bonus Rule and I went right to the big leagues and I sat on the bench in ’63 and got to bat, I don’t know, I think 17 or 18 times. Got my first hit in Detroit against Frank Lary, and that was pretty much the way it started. It was one of the Dad’s dreams to have me play, and I tried to fulfill it for him. 

What is your favorite moment from your playing career?: I would think that my most memorable or favorite moment was hitting a home run off Whitey Ford the first time I ever faced him. That was in ’65 in Boston.

I remember I had come up at the All-Star break and Gary Geiger had broken his wrist and Lenny Green had broke his ankle. I was playing in Toronto and they called me up the last half of the year. When I went up to bat against Ford, I had asked Eddie Bressoud and Frank Malzone, I said, ‘What do I look for?’ They said, ‘Look for the ball.’ He threw me a high slider and I hit it in the nets in left field. That was a big thrill.

At the minor league level my first year, I drove in 10 runs in one game in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Tony Perez was at third base. We were good friends. I just had a good day, that’s all. 

What was your favorite thing to do to pass time while on road trips?: Go to movies.

Who was your favorite coach or manager?: Alvin Dark, Kansas City- 1966-67.

Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?: Left-handed would probably be Sam McDowell and right-handed would be Nolan Ryan. And Nolan was my teammate. 

I had went to Montreal from the Mets. I remember we had opened up against the Mets in Montreal, and I think they had taken 5,000 cartloads of snow off the field so we could play. Ryan was pitching and Mauch told me to go up there and pinch hit, and I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ He said, ‘No, go ahead.’ First two pitches I swung and missed. The first one he had thrown me a breaking ball and the second was a high heater, and that was it. Mauch said ‘Why didn’t you wing at that last one?’ I said, ‘Cause I didn’t see it.’

What was the strangest play you ever saw?: A fly ball hit Roman Mejias in the head.

Can you talk a little more about that?: Oh my God, it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. We were playing in Yankee Stadium and he was playing left field. There was a fly ball out there and I was in center field, and he said, ‘I have it! I have it!’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ He put his glove up and it hit him right, square on the top of the head. I just turned around and started laughing. He was a great hitter, but fielding-wise it was an adventure.

After you retired, was it difficult to adapt being out of baseball?: Well you know, when I was with the Mets, I got released by the Mets. Joe McDonald told me that wanted me to be a batting instructor for Triple-A in Tidewater, Virginia. I said, ‘Great, I’d love to do that.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you a call.’ That was in 1974 and this is now 2011, and he hasn’t called yet.

I always wanted to go back and coach. I didn’t care about coaching at the major league level unless it happened, but I always wanted to work with the younger players. I had a lot of good experiences and I had a lot of good managers, and I wanted to instill some of this into the young players, but just never got the chance. I was coaching one of the JV last year up here in this area, and I had a ball with it; an absolute ball.

If you could do anything about your playing career differently, what would that be?: Andrew, it was the best 13 years of my life. I saw the whole world for nothing. I got to play in the best ballparks. I was more or less a marginal player, but I was lucky. I was in the right spot at the right time.

What have you done since you left baseball?: I did a lot of officiating. I officiated college basketball, high school football, basketball, and baseball. I have been in it for about 35 years. 


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Monday, September 19, 2011

Celebrating Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera just broke the all time regular season saves record when he recorded number 602 against the Minnesota Twins. Since then I have seen a number of comments and tweets stating that Rivera is now the “undisputed” best reliever of all time. It is important for me to point out that he already held that title prior to getting the record breaking save, and anyone who felt otherwise clearly hasn’t been paying attention.

Albert Pujols is commonly referred to as a once-in-a-generation type player; the type that comes along every few decades and establishes new standards of baseball awesomeness. These labels are generally reserved for players who not only produce monster numbers on the field, but also represent what is good about the game off it. The fact is that is that Rivera is also a once-in-a-generation and most people have never realized it.

Rivera is a no-brainer first ballot Hall of Fame player after he retires. It remains to be seen where his final numbers will end up, but he is already far and away the most dominant relief pitcher of all time. He has pitched in an era where the closer rarely records more than three outs in a game, but that does not diminish his accomplishments and legacy. It is incredible to say, but if anything, Rivera is underrated for what he has done in baseball.

The numbers only tell part of Rivera’s story. At the age of 41 (soon to be 42) he has pitched in 1039 regular season games, posting 75 wins, 602 saves, and a 2.22 ERA. In 17 seasons he has given up a total of 65 home runs; 11 of which came in his first 67 professional innings. He has made 12 All-Star teams, been part of 5 World Championship teams, and 9 additional post season teams. 

Rivera has been even more impressive in the playoffs, going 8-1 with 42 saves and a 0.71 ERA in 94 games. Most remarkable about all of these accomplishments is that he has done them all with primarily one pitch, a smile on his face, and reputation as the kindest and most gracious man in baseball.

The most indelible memory I have of Rivera is from Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2005. The previous postseason he uncharacteristically blew three save opportunities against Boston in the ALCS, where the Red Sox made their historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit. During the Opening Day ceremonies the entire Yankee roster was individually introduced, and when the announcer came to Rivera, the crowd cheered and gave him a standing ovation for the role he played in helping the Red Sox capture their first World Series title in 86 years. In one of the greatest displays of sportsmanship I have ever seen, Rivera laughed, took of his cap, and acknowledged the ebullient crowd, proving that he is every inch the classiest man in baseball. 

Sadly, Rivera is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Although he is on the wrong side of 40, there is no indication that he and his magnificent cutter are anywhere close to being finished. Even though he is “only” a relief pitcher, he belongs in baseball’s pantheon with the likes of the Mays, Mantles, and Ruths as some of the greatest of all time. Although he has always gotten a lot of attention by playing for the New York Yankees during his entire career, if you think about all he has done and the legacy he will eventually leave behind, you should realize that he is not only one of the best players to ever play the game, but also one of its best people. 

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