Thursday, February 14, 2008

Nine innings: 02.18.08

Playing nine innings while waiting for Derek Jeter to have his Gold Gloves revoked . . .

1. I believed this before reading Gordon Edes's outstanding front-page feature the other day, but now I'm convinced more than ever: Jon Lester is going to make a significant breakthrough this season. I'm thinking 15 wins and an ERA right around 4.00, and I'm trying to be cautious. It's not easy, though. John Farrell adores him, which counts for a lot in my eyes, and the most recent picture I have of Lester in my mind was his spot-on imitation of a vintage Bruce Hurst in the World Series clincher. I honestly don't think I'm going overboard here when I say he day will come - and soon - when we're glad the Sox refused to part with him for Johan Santana.

2. Jorge Posada's defense of Roger Clemens, at the expense of a current teammate's testimony and in the face of all common sense, automatically makes me suspicious of just what methods the Yankees catcher used to post a career-best OPS+ of 154 last season in contract year at age 36. It's probably not fair and even a little irresponsible, I know, but I just can't comprehend why he'd take Clemens's worthless word over Pettitte's unless perhaps his misplaced sympathy was born from having something to hide himself.

3. Trivia question I plucked out of an AP story at work last night: In the last six seasons, Roy Oswalt leads the majors with 98 wins, and Roy Halladay is second with 93. Who's third, with 92? Hint: You've booed him, cheered him, and maybe even had a beer with him. Also, his name is not Roy. Click the link for his ID.

4. I applaud the Red Sox' caution with Clay Buchholz, especially considering that the No-Hit Kid's 2007 season was abbreviated in part due to a tired shoulder. But they're taking it too far if they send him down to Pawtucket while a proven mediocrity such as Julian Tavarez or Kyle Snyder occupies the fifth spot in the rotation. Buchholz has a chance to be an impact pitcher immediately - with his uncommon command of his excellent secondary pitches, I would not be completely shocked if he was the Sox' No. 2 starter by the end of the summer. I don't fault them for babying their prized prospect, and limiting the skinny righty to 180 innings or so this season makes perfect sense. What doesn't make sense: having him pitch anywhere but where he belongs.

5. I wasn't sure whether to pity Debbie Clemens for being another victim of her lying oaf of a husband's runaway ego, or to dismiss her as a vapid, delusional enabler, a Stepford baseball wife. I'm leaning toward the latter, however, after hearing the story about her and Mrs. Canseco comparing, um, assets at the now-infamous barbecue. Turns out Roger wasn't the only boob to make an appearance that day.

6. The Sox really have no choice but to sign Jason Varitek to a contract extension, and I don't mean to suggest that's a bad thing. Compared to other catchers, the 36-year-old captain was very productive last season, batting .255 with 17 homers and 103 OPS+, and we're all aware of his value when it comes to leadership, preparation, and all the small but significant things. (Yes, I refused to use the word "intangibles" there. Jeter owns the copyright, I believe.) It's just that, at his age, durability has to become an increasing concern, and the safest bet for the Sox would be to sign him to something like a two-year, $24 million extension. But with Posada, a superior hitter but inferior to Varitek at just about everything else, signing a four-year, $56.2 million deal in the offseason that will keep him in pinstripes through his 40th birthday, you have to figure Varitek and his agent, Scott Boras, will be looking for something in that pricey neighborhood. And the Sox, with no legitimate catching prospects on the immediate horizon (sorry, Dusty Brown), might just have to pay it.

7. Three quick Pats thoughts, because dammit, I just can't quit them: 1) I'm glad Belichick and Pioli are finally counter-punching regarding Spygate. It ought to prevent other Patriot haters from jumping on the pile after the likes of William Gary, Arlen Spector, and Matt Walsh. But I have to admit, my first impression as I read Mike Reiss's story Sunday night was that the Patriots' portrayal of Walsh as some sort of serial taper sure would be a very convenient way to distance themselves from him if he does happen to possess any damning video. And my hunch - and that's all it is - is that they are fairly certain he does, which would mean, unfortunately, that this ridiculously overblown story is not going away any day soon. 2) I like Zach Thomas as a player, at least until those little birdies started circling his head, but I'm just not sure where he'd fit with the Pats. Hasn't he spent his whole career in a 4-3, hiding behind fat defensive tackles and running to the ball? Doesn't seem like his style and the Pats' defense are compatible. Of course, I said the same thing about Junior Seau two years ago, and now I'm crossing my fingers that he puts off graduation for another year. 3) Ty Law, coming back home? Yes, please, though you have to figure the 33-year-old corner (doesn't it seem like he should be older?) will again choose cold, hard cash over sentiment.

8. I guarantee you the following is the best ending to a column you'll ever see on this blog:

I can't believe he won't come walking out of a clearing, bent over and holding his back and complaining that the swim was bad for his sciatica. If you see someone answering that description, throw him a bad pitch down around the ankles outside and, if he hits it screaming down the right-field line, it can only be Clemente, and you'll know reports of his condition have been grossly exaggerated once again.

I suppose I'm doing the writer a disservice here by repeating his column's masterful ending without fully explaining the circumstances, but I'm going to assume you quickly solved the topic and the circumstances. It's the conclusion to a column written by the legendary Jim Murray that appeared in the L.A. Times on January 3, 1973, three days after a plane carrying Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico while attempting to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The body of Clemente, who Murray lovingly eulogizes in the piece as an endearing grump and somewhat of a hypochondriac, was never found, of course, which makes the piece all the more poignant.

I've long been fascinated by Clemente - he and Jackie Robinson are the two players before my time who I wish I'd seen in person - but I'd never read Murray's column about his disappearance until I recently picked up an old anthology of his best work, appropriately titled "The Great Ones." Let's just say I now consider it the best $1.99 I've ever spent.

If you're familiar with Murray's work - and perhaps you are, since he was syndicated for decades (I read him in the Portland Press Herald as a kid) and is widely considered the finest sports columnist ever - it won't be a revelation when I say his columns are elegantly simple, expertly crafted, and unfailingly hilarious. Among current sportswriters, only Joe Posnanski owns the same attributes, and reading both of them often leaves me both inspired and disheartened. It sucks to know that my best column will never be in the same ballpark as Murray's or Posnanski's worst, yet reading them enhances my desire to write, because they remind me just how fulfilling and great something as silly as sportswriting can be. I think that's the best compliment I can pay.

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

Josh Booty was once the highest-rated prep quarterback in Louisiana, ahead of a certain future ubiquitous pitchman. And I'll tell anyone who will listen that, having seen him often during his two seasons with the Portland Sea Dogs, he unequivocally has the best throwing arm I have ever seen in person, and that's no exaggeration. For all of his athletic potential, however, he's now apparently just a severely tasered version of Drew Henson, a ballyhooed prep star who wasn't quite good enough at two sports.

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