Friday, July 01, 2005

Working for the weekend

Since I'm feeling all guilty for giving you, my 28 loyal readers, the short shrift post-wise this week, be sure to check in Saturday/Sunday for a very special and extremely rare weekend edition of TATB, when we'll take stock of the Defending World Champion Boston Red Sox as the season approaches its midway point.

(That Defending World Champs thing looks sweet in bold, no? I think I'm going to stick with it.)

While I amuse myself with typography, here's today's Completely Random Baseball Card, featuring a truly likeable ex-ballplayer who also happens to be our latest induction into the TATB Hall of Fame:

Jeff Stone: A one-time Phillies phenom who never quite panned out (more on that in a moment), Stone is remembered fondly by Red Sox fans for his single, crucial contribution to their 1990 AL East division title.

The back story: On Sept. 28, the Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays were tied atop the standings - and tied 6-6 in the ninth inning of the excruciatingly tense second game of a three-game set, a series that would almost certainly determine the division winner.

Things were not looking good for the Sox. They had blown a late 4-0 lead, then coughed up a 5-4 lead in the ninth. And in the bottom of the inning, Stone - a September callup who had earlier been used as a pinch-runner - was forced to bat when manager Joe Morgan ran out of position players.

The score was tied, the bases were loaded, there was one out. Stone, batting for just the second time that season, found himself thrust into a situation that looked only slightly better than hopeless. He had whiffed in his only previous at-bat, he was facing Jays fireballer Tom Henke, and Henke was throwing the ball in anger that day.

Every Sox fan of a certain age remembers with a knowing, satisfied smile what happened next: Stone, with a 1-1 count, somehow connected with a Henke heater and lined a game-winning single over the drawn-in outfield.

Five days later they officially clinched the East. In reality, they clinched the moment Stone's single hit the Fenway sod.

Stone was the unlikliest of Red Sox heroes, but a hero he was, particularly after he told the Sox radio announcers during his postgame interview that he was on "Cloud 10."

I've rarely been happier for an athlete than I was for Stone that day. While many Sox fans did not know him until that moment, I came to know him a few years before. Not personally, but in a more abstract way.

I knew him as the guy who really liked fireworks.

I suppose I should explain, huh? Here goes: Stone was supposed to be a Superstar, capital S, when he came up with the Phillies in 1984. Just check out this take from Bill Mazeroski's 1985 Baseball Players Guide:

"In left field, get ready for one of the best running, best hitting and all-around hysteria-creating shows in baseball when 24-year old Jeff Stone eases into the blocks. He's still raw as a green apple and innocent as Barney Fife. But, man, this guy can play. He was only around last year for 51 games (45 as a starter). But he got four hits in five of them, three hits in one, and two hits in 13. He stole 27 bases, including 19 in a row . . . If Jeff Stone doesn't win a batting title someday, then Astro Turf isn't green."

Astro Turf hasn't changed colors as far as I know, but Stone never came close to living up to such hype. He hit .265 with 5 steals in '85, and his adventures in the outfield and repeated mental errors on the bases convinced the frustrated Phillies honchos he was never going to become the Rickey Henderson clone he was touted to be. He was farmed out to my beloved Maine Guides midway through the '87 season.

The Guides, a Triple A ballclub, were located in Old Orchard Beach, a pleasantly tacky coastal town featuring an amusement park and a pier in its day-glo downtown. Every Thursday night at 10 p.m. sharp, the park shot off fireworks above the pier. Still do, I believe.

Well, Stone and a few of his teammates (I recall one being Marvin Freeman) lived a short walk down the beach from my family, and we came to notice that every Thursday, when the first round of fireworks would light up the sky, Stone would come bolting out of the ballplayers' hotel, looking toward the heavens, as giddy and awestruck as an eight-year old.

At first we thought little of his wonderment - dude just likes fireworks a lot - but it wasn't long before we came to look forward to watching Stone more than the fireworks. I always thought it sweetly odd, even naive - and funny as hell.

The few times I met Stone in person, I came away with the impression that he was just a simple, small-town kid from rural Missouri, the nicest guy you'd ever meet. It was but a few years ago, when I was stumbling around the Internet and found this outstanding story, that I gained confirmation: My impression couldn't have been more accurate.

They don't come much nicer, or more sincere, or more naive, than Jeff Stone, particularly nowadays, in the increasingly cynical world of professional sports. Maybe he didn't become the superstar he was supposed to be. Then again, maybe that's good. Who knows if success would have spoiled him?

He'll always have the memories of his day in the sun with the Red Sox, and so we will we. And in this far-off corner of cyberspace, we're proud to call him a TATB Hall of Famer. We hope the honor again puts him on Cloud 10.

Should it not, we're confident the fireworks at the induction ceremony will.