Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Nine innings: 08.30.05

Playing nine innings while wishing Manny would make it easier for his defenders . . .

1) Looks weird, doesn't it? Mark Bellhorn, New York Yankee. Almost as disconcerting as seeing El Tiante in pinstripes all those years ago. Not that Bellhorn was a great Red Sox, or a longtime Red Sox - hell, by the time he was designated for assignment last week, he wasn't even a particularly well-liked Red Sox after striking out 109 times in 283 at-bats and hitting .216. But make no mistake, he's an incredibly important Red Sox in the grand scheme of things. When you've long since forgotten about all the strikeouts, his three-run homer in Game 6 of the ALCS and game-winning homer in Game 1 of the World Series will live on in DVD players and scrapbooks and the stories you'll someday tell your children. Which makes this development somewhat . . . oh, disappointing, I guess . . . that less than a year after he helped conquer the Empire, he's joined the dark side. (I couldn't bring myself to post the AP photo of him cavorting with A-Rod before the game. I just imagine him telling Prince Purple Lips, "Dude, you were absolutely right to slap Arroyo. Hell, man, we've all wanted to do it, especially since he bought that freakin' guitar.") Anyway, if you're keeping score at home, the Sox players who drove in the second-to-last run in Game 7 of the ALCS in the Bronx (Bellhorn, with a reassuring solo homer to make it 9-3 after Pedro did his damndest to wake up the ghosts and convince us that a five-run lead was anything but safe) and recorded the final out (Alan Embree, whom I began to long for during the Mike Remlinger Experience) now call Yankee Stadium home. I suppose that's the transient nature of baseball these days, not to mention one more indication that the rivalry means more to the fans than the players. When all is said and done, I'll remember Bellhorn well. But wish him well? Until he changes the laundry again, I think we'll all be rooting for the strikeouts for once.

2) It's becoming increasingly annoying - and all too frequent - to look up at the television and see the likes of this crawling across the ESPN ticker: Payton 2-3, HR (17), 2 RBIs. Say what you will about his insubordinate tactics, but Jay Payton has justified his play-me-or-trade-me-or-I'll-make-life-miserable behavior that led to his exit from Boston. He's been nothing short of sensational for the A's, smacking 12 homers and driving in 35 runs in 39 games; heck he's been more productive this month than Albert Pujols, which means Gammons may be declaring Payton the best righthanded hitter in baseball any day now. Hindsight being as sharp as it is, maybe Francona should have found a way to get him some of Kevin Millar's at-bats. Alas, Payton weaseled his way to an ideal situation in Oakland - so much for Theo's stern proclamation that said, in effect, "Wait til you see where we trade him before you say we met his demands." Shoulda shipped him to Kansas City, Theo. The only way it could possibly work out better for him is if the A's make the playoffs and the Sox fall short.

3) I feel obligated to peck out something regarding Curt Schilling's performance last night in the Sox's 7-6 victory over the Devil Rays, but there's really nothing new to say. He pitched six innings, allowing five runs, all in the first two innings. His command was spotty (but better as the game progressed), his splitter too often stayed flat, and even during the four innings where he didn't allow a run, the Devil Rays were having no trouble making solid contact. (Cripes, does Julio Lugo get three hits every time he faces the Sox or what?) In other words, it was more of the same, the Schilling we have seen too often this season, an inconsistent, extremely hittable pitcher who has done nothing to assuage our fear that he sacrificed the end of his career in order to become a hero for the ages last fall. Not that we're suggesting it's a tradeoff we wouldn't all accept a 1,918 times over, but last year's magic has little relevance at the moment. Right now, we're just looking forward to the day when we can watch Schilling pitch without crossing my fingers.

4) As far as this Maestro of the Remote Control is concerned, Dennis Eckersley should be NESN's in-studio analyst every night of the week and twice on Sunday. I assume he doesn't have the gig every night only because he doesn't want to do it every night- he's so much better than his peers it's ridiculous. His candor and insight is unmatched among the ex-ballplayer-turned-talking-head crowd - five minutes of watching John Kruk and Harold Reynolds, and you'll understand. There are few more qualified to comment on what Schilling's going through right now, for instance, and there are none, with the possible exception of the RemDawg, whose opinion is valued more by this viewer. Hopefully, ESPN doesn't realize it made a mistake by hiring the ill-prepared Kruk over him a few years back - no, we're not kidding - and the Eck will continue to deliver his unique wisdom to a New England audience for years to come.

5) Where not into playing the Guilt By Association game here - oh, all right, maybe we are a teensy bit, and in a related note, here's hoping Jason Giambi doesn't introduce any of his new teammates to his "personal trainer." Either way, it's worth pointing out what reader Kevin K. noted in a recent email regarding the verbal backrub we gave Julio Franco on his 47th birthday:

"I agree Franco deserves praise for lasting as long as he has, and still being productive 10 years past the time most players are playing golf or whatever. But whenever Gammons or Jason [Jayson] Stark or anyone else mentions how he has the best body in baseball (one of them really said that on SportsCenter the other night), I can't help but remember that he was on those Rangers teams with Canseco, Pudge Rod, and Mr. I Didn't Do Steroids Period. I hate to be such a cynic, and I'm not saying he did stuff, because maybe he is the product of hard work and good genes. But no one is above suspicion these days. Sad, isn't it?"

Yeah, it is sad. And while there may be some logic to the theory, ultimately our guess is that it's probably not an accurate one. Franco played only half the '94 season with Canseco in Texas, so it's not like they were teammates for any length of time. But the real reason we're skeptical of any curious connection: Canseco didn't mention Franco in his book. If they were needle buddies, Canseco surely would have ratted him out.

6) Sometimes cruel fate intervenes to disrupt and even derail a young athlete's career; think Lyman Bostock, or Normand Leveille. Other times, a player's failure to live up to his vast ability is self-inflicted and preventable; nonetheless, it's still a terrible waste in its own way. In 1985, Dwight Gooden went 24-4 with 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts for the New York Mets. He was 20 years old and gripping the baseball world by the seams, a charismatic young star whose popularity at the time was on par with a certain tongue-wagging dunking machine for the Chicago Bulls. His career record, after two seasons, was 41-13; Roger Clemens, three years Gooden's senior, was merely 16-9 at the end of '85. If we knew then what we know now . . . Clemens, of course, is still firing on all cylinders at age 43, the premier pitcher of at least one generation, and perhaps all of them. Sadly, '85 turned out to be Gooden's last great season; two years later, surprised only those who didn't know him by checking into drug rehab for cocaine addiction. He finished his career in 2000 with an 194-112 record and a 3.51 ERA, respectable numbers, but satisfying only to those who don't remember what he was and what he should have been. All these years later, and he still hasn't defeated his demons; Gooden, 40 years old now, sits in a Florida jail after being arrested for fleeing the scene after a police officer had pulled him over on suspicion of drunk driving. Hopefully, this is rock bottom, his wake-up call, but then, they said the same things back in '87. Gooden threw away his talent. The way he's going, it will be the least of his tragedies.

7) In 1994, 24-year-old John Olerud batted .363 with 24 homers, 107 RBI, 200 hits, 54 doubles, 114 walks, 65 strikeouts, and a 1.072 OPS. It was a sensational season by any hitter's standards, and while watching Olerud, now 37, show more than occasional flashes of his old brilliance lately, it made me wonder if he might have hit .400 that season if he'd played in Fenway. Yes, I'm serious - you might recall that the Splendid Helmet was hovering around the .400 mark for much of the summer before tailing off late in the season. Watching how he so effortlessly flicks the ball off the Green Monster nowadays when he's going well - the guy is born Fenway hitter - I can't imagine the numbers he might have put up for the Sox in his heyday.

8) Envelope please . . . And the winner of the 2005 Jerry Hairston Jr. Award, given annually to the Red Sox opponent whose cockiness is not even close to being justified by his actual ability . . . and the winner is . . . Jonny Gomes, Tampa Bay Devil Rays! Seriously, who does this mustard-covered wiener think he is? He's having a decent season - 18 homers, 38 RBIs, .290-something average - but, man, from his never-ending, hey-look-at-me mannerisms on the field, you'd think he was the love child of Derek Jeter and Sammy Sosa. Twice in this series he's tossed the bat aside as if he'd just cranked a Bondsesque homer; once it was a warning-track fly ball, the other time a foul ball immediately obvious to everyone but Jerry Trupiano. I doubt, say, Schilling or The Artist Formerly Known As Big Unit would stand for this guy's act very long without giving him a four-seamer in the ear hole.

9) As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Remember when Billy Hatcher was the closest thing to an exciting player on those excruciatingly boring Hobson-era Sox teams? Seems longer ago than it actually was. These days, as you may have noticed, a slightly rounder Hatcher is coaching first base for the Devil Rays, where his main duty seems to be keeping Lou Piniella from fulfilling his quest to bite the nose off an umpire. I suspect Hatcher would tell you it's a lot more exciting than playing for the '93 Sox.