Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Nine innings: Spring fevah

Uh, yeah, so here's that column I promised yesterday. What can I say? Guess I had a case of the Mondays.

(Obligatory "Office Space" reference leads to an obligatory "Office Space" Jennifer Aniston photo . . .

. . . don't you just love her flair?)

With that out of the way - I consider myself forgiven now - let me welcome you to the Dead Zone of the sports calendar. There's not much happening at the moment, especially if you consider the Beanpot as insignificant and overhyped as I do. (Throw Maine and UNH in the mix, and then you have a hockey tournament.)

In these uneventful post-Patriot days, it's always reassuring to know that equipment truck has made its way to Ft. Myers without getting hijacked somewhere around Newark. Yes, baseball is closer than it appears - pitchers and catchers for the World Champion Boston Red Sox report for duty tomorrow. And not a day too soon.

With spring training looming, it seems like the appropriate time to introduce the Red Sox "Nine Innings" column, which I suppose is the baseball version of my Patriots "First And 10" column, right down to the silly-ass play on words for a title. It seemed the "First And 10" format went over well with you, my 11 readers, but mostly it's an easy way for me to opine/rant/snivel about a number of Red Sox-related topics in a short time.

So let the opining, ranting and sniveling begin. Or better yet: Play Ball! . . .

1) If you have any doubts about whether Derek Lowe truly wanted to remain with the Red Sox - and you shouldn't, considering the new Dodger has bizarrely chosen to work out with his old teammates at the complex in Ft. Myers - check out this quote, courtesy of the Associated Press:

"I'm going to be sitting in San Francisco (on opening day) watching them play on TV. Now I'm a fan watching these guys play. Now you've got to watch Schilling and Johnson, opening night, Yankees-Red Sox, and not be part of it ..."

Awww. The big goof is going to miss us. Don't know about you, but to be honest, I'm going to miss him too. While Lowe was an enigma who had more than his share of peaks and valleys here (his career progression goes something like this: lousy fifth-starter, outstanding setup reliever, dependable closer, flammable closer, 20-game winner, mediocre starter, demoted starter, postseason hero), he may have been the most versatile Sox pitcher of any recent era, and unfortunately, his value was often taken for granted.

Sure, he sometimes moped around the mound like he'd lost his dog, and he occasionally vented about the unyielding pressure of performing in Boston. But Lowe got it. He understood us, or at least tried to. On his worst days, he rarely dodged accountability, and he was as genuine and grounded as anyone in the Sox clubhouse.

Lowe lacked the casual arrogance that is characteristic of virtually every world-class athlete. The man is just . . . normal. A columnist friend of mine once marveled that Lowe not only answered his questions honestly and without cliches, but looked him in the eye when doing so. It may seem silly, but in a sport increasingly populated with vacant, egomaniacal millionaires, trust me, it's rare enough that you notice when a ballplayer treats you like a real human being.

Yeah, I'll miss him, and even as Gidget goes to Hollywood, he'll miss us. But as long as those "Faith Rewarded" DVDs are kicking around, Lowe will remain the pitcher who one-upped Lonborg and Tiant and Hurst, a Red Sox in spirit for all time. That will have to do, for him and for us.

2) As far as that other departed Sox starter goes . . .

Why do I get the feeling that Pedro Martinez, Mets ace, will spend more time this spring talking about his former employer than his current one? We've moved on, Petey. Time for you to do the same.

3) While the burden ostensibly will fall to David Wells and Matt Clement to replace Lowe and Martinez, the key to the starting staff in my opinion is Bronson Arroyo. His 4.07 ERA last season was better than that of any Yankees starter, and tellingly, he won the complete trust of his manager in the postseason, pitching in several crucial moments. He even survived getting slapped by a purple-lipped man with a purse. If Arroyo progresses as much this year as he did last season, I can envision him winning as many games as Lowe or Martinez did last season - somewhere from 14 to 16. In fact, I'm planning on it.

4) Bill Mueller has played more than 127 games in just four of his eight full seasons, recently had surgery on a knee that hobbled him for much of last season, and turns 34 years old next month. It's reasonable to assume that Kevin Youkilis will not lack for opportunities to establish himself as an everyday big-leaguer this season.

5) Trot Nixon looks 20 pounds lighter and five years younger this spring. Such a development should be cause for optimism, but in this day and age of steroid testing and relentless innuendo, it's also cause for suspicion, sadly enough.

6) If you've even been to Hadlock Field, the quirky and quaint home of the Sox's Double-A club, the Portland Sea Dogs, you might have spent some time lingering in the concourse and checking out the giant team photos of past ballclubs, including some from when they were affiliated with the Florida Marlins. If you have, you probably spotted a comical sight in the 1995 team photo: one ballplayer, clearly freezing his Sea Biscuits off during a typically frigid "spring" day in Maine, has his black turtleneck pulled all the way up over the top of his head. (Trust me, it's funnier to see than my semi-comic desciption makes it sound.) It seemed like New England in April was the last place on earth he'd want to be. The player? A promising 20-year old shortstop from Venezuela named Edgar Renteria.

His past history considered, I hope someone has told Renteria to wear his performance-fleece longjohns on opening day.

7) The difference between a good bullpen and a great bullpen could depend on Matt Mantei - or more accurately, on whether the Sox can depend on him. If Mantei (pictured below during his Sea Dog days) is the equivalent of Scott Williamson, circa '03 Playoffs, the Sox could have the deepest relief corps in the game. But if he is Williamson '04 - and the latter is at least as likely as the former - that role of flame-throwing set-up guy for Keith Foulke will remain unfilled.

8) One of the underrated aspects of the Red Sox last season was their depth, particularly during the postseason. Pokey Reese, Doug Mientkiewicz, Dave Roberts, Doug Mirabelli and Gabe Kapler formed the strongest bench in recent franchise history. Three of the five will be everyday players elsewhere this season, and Kapler and Mirabelli probably could have been. And there's the rub: only Mirabelli returns, and this year's bench can't possibly be so capable. Jay Payton (below) could be equal to, if not an an upgrade on, Kapler, and Ramon Vazquez is a versatile utilityman, though far from Pokey's class defensively. Roberto Petagine is intriguing - I really do think he could be a steal - and Youkilis and David McCarty will be in the mix. The bench could be decent, just not what it was last fall. I'm curious to see how it all comes together this spring. This much I do know: I miss Pokey already.

9) Just finished Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan's book/diary of the 2004 Sox season, titled "Faithful." Here's my quickie review, which probably won't be used on the dust jacket anytime soon: It swung halfheartedly and missed. There were too many careless errors (referring to Brian Daubach, an inexplicable favorite of the authors, as an ex-Devil Ray, for one), their general knowledge was strikingly lacking at times (perhaps because neither author made much of a committment to watch late games) and one got the sense that King wasn't fully devoted to the project until the Sox tore through August (he contributed about half as much text as O'Nan up until that point). And while King's writing is engaging - his style gives you the feeling you're corresponding with an old friend, albeit one who doesn't know as much about the Sox as you - O'Nan, a born Pirates fan who brings his baseball glove and net to catch foul balls, seems like just the kind of moderately informed know-it-all you'd dread sitting next to at Fenway. I suppose the book is worth reading, if only to jog your memory of some forgotten moments from the greatest season in, oh, 86 years. But when you close the cover, it's hard to not think that, unlike the team they wrote about, it could have been so much better.