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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Traveling to a Boston Red Sox Game: A Running Diary

Last weekend I traveled with some friends down to a Boston Red Sox game (playing the Baltimore Orioles) for the first time in years. It remains such a unique experience for an out-of-towner like me that I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this particular trip.
-          Coming from northern Vermont like us, it can be hard to get jazzed up for a game simply because of the bleak three-and-a-half hour trip down the interstate, which offers next to nothing in the way of a view.

-          Now that parking lots in proximity to Fenway Park charge upwards of $40 for a spot, taking the subway in, which we did, is a much easier solution. Not only is it much more affordable, it may even be quicker, as you don’t need to navigate snarls of traffic coming in or going out.

-          Life in Boston is certainly at a different pace than Vermont. Not 30 seconds after emerging from the subway station, we encountered someone yelling and threatening a ticket scalper, culminating in a mostly-full bottle of Arnold Palmer being angrily thrown down the street (nearly soaking an innocent bystander).

-          No matter how many times you’ve been there, the feeling you get as Fenway Park comes into view never gets old. The old architecture, statues, fluttering banners and animated fans walking up and down the sidewalks immediately infuses you with the kind of excitement one typically experiences as a small child on Christmas morning.

-          The Red Sox team store is an impressive thing to behold. Approximately the size of a typical Wal-Mart, it has just about every article of clothing and trinket associated with the team that one could want. On the day we were there, popular 1980s-era player Sam Horn showed up to do a meet and greet and sign autographs. Having met him before, it came as no surprise at how gracious and friendly he was, even accommodating requests for photographs.

-          After hustling out of the store to make sure we didn’t miss all of the pre-game activities, we were rewarded by hitting the stands just as fans were being permitted to enter the field (in a roped-off section that was essentially the warning track encircling the diamond). A number of players were on the infield side of the ropes to interact with and take pictures with fans as a thank you. Having never seen this before at Fenway, it came as a pleasant surprise.

-          Despite thousands of fans taking advantage of the on-field opportunity, a friend and I were able to capture our own “experiences.” We were both able to touch the Green Monster and take pictures of each other in front of the looming home run stopper. I also got pictures with Wade Miley, Noe Ramirez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Koji Uehara was next to me at one point and had his arm on my shoulder but was so mobbed by fans that he moved on. I swear, I’ve never seen that guy when there wasn’t a huge smile on his face!

-          Our seats ended up being $37 tickets on the left field side family section, under the overhang. The view and the experience was surprisingly good bang for the buck. The only complaint from this over six-footer is Fenway’s famous lack of leg room, as my knees touched the back of the seat directly in front of me for the entire game.

-          A lady sitting behind us complained loudly after we and the rest of the park leapt to our feet to applaud a home run by Boston catcher Blake Swihart. “People aren’t supposed to stand up at baseball games,” she matter-of-factly said to no one in particular. Fortunately, she didn’t have to worry about suffering through another such occurrence, as she and her companions were escorted out of the section moments later for drinking beer in their seats—which are an alcohol-free zone.

-          The Red Sox may not have had a very good season but they sure have some impressive looking young players. Swihart hit his home run. Henry Owens, the team’s starter that day, didn’t allow a run. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts looks like a younger, better-fielding Hanley Ramirez. Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. appears to be performing ballet when he playing defense. There is definitely reason to think that going to another late-season game in the next year or two will have much more meaning.

-          The performance of Neil Diamond’s classic Sweet Caroline during the eighth inning never gets old. It’s hard to believe the team thought about doing away with it last year. Swaying along to the crowd and singing is an integral part of being a Sox fan.

-          The Red Sox played a video board tribute to NESN television announcer Don Orsillo, whose contract is not being renewed at the end of the season. It was a nice way to remember the 15 years of solid work he has put in as the voice of the team. The crowd contributed with a standing ovation that lasted around a minute, and there were numerous fans waving sticks with cutouts of Orsillo’s head attached. “Don Or-silloooo,” the crowd chanted, as play got back underway…

-          Overall, it wasn’t a particularly exciting game, as Boston beat the Orioles 2-0. However, the real treat came after the last out was made, as the Red Sox once again opened up the field to allow fans to run the bases. After waiting in an indeterminably long line for about half an hour, we were able to stroll around the bases. Although many of the staff who were tasked with herding us sheep were not the friendliest (on more than one occasion they could be heard telling us to “move it!”) it was a pretty amazing experience for this life-long fan. As I was waiting in the queue to go out on the bases, I noticed Tom Werner, the team’s chairman, standing 10 feet away. I beckoned him over and asked him to take a picture with me, which he graciously did.

-          After the on-field experience, it was a relatively quick escape from the Hub. Other than briefly stopping for me to snag a significantly discounted “Free Brady” t-shirt from a street vendor, we made it back to the commuter lot from the subway without incident. Yes, going to Boston for a game isn’t necessarily cheap, and for someone as far away as me is a full day commitment. However, it’s an experience that never gets old, and is something I hope to continue on a regular basis.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Monday, September 28, 2015

Reaction to the Ridiculous Harper-Papelbon Fight That Defined the Washing Nationals' Season

Although the Major League Baseball is in its last full week it couldn’t avoid absurdity as most teams play out the string to either a playoff berth or earlier tee times on their local golf course. On Sunday, the disappointing Washington Nationals had their futility summed up by reliever Jonathan Papelbon after he physically attacked star outfielder Bryce Harper late in the team’s loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, allegedly because of displeasure with his lack of hustle on a lazy fly ball he had just hit to left field. Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh wrote a terrific piece today on the happenings, which left me with the desire to write down some of my thoughts (that I will do here in lieu of the comments section of his article).

Once widely regarded as a near lock for a serious run at the World Series, the Nationals season has instead been defined by injuries and dysfunction. Only this final week will determine if they have enough fortitude to finish above .500. I state freely that I have no inside stories or connections, and that the opinions I am about to spout come from what I, like the public at large, have seen. I freely acknowledge that like most things in life, there is likely more to the story. Even so, I feel more than justified in my reaction to this incident.

Numerous reporters have written that Papelbon’s lunging at Harper was due to his perception that the young star wasn’t giving enough effort- essentially, not playing “the right way.” There are few things I hate more in baseball than that premise. It’s most frequently used by those who are explaining away their own bad behavior. There’s no official book of baseball etiquette, yet there seems to be no shortage of those who feel it is their duty to enforce unwritten rules that happen to ruffle their feathers on any given day.  

As Lindbergh pointed out, the players that take it upon themselves to mete out baseball justice under the guise of playing baseball the “right way” are often laughable in their hypocrisy. Look no further than Papelbon, who was suspended for seven games just over a year ago while with the Phillies for being ejected from a game and then making an obscene gesture towards the crowd once they started booing him.

Much has been made of the Sunday’s encounter because of Harper’s star status. Posting triple crown-worthy numbers, he is a good bet to be named the 2015 National League MVP when the awards are announced later this autumn. However, there should be outrage over Papelbon’s actions regardless of if Harper was the team’s best player, or the bat boy. Simply put, one does not put one’s hands on a co-worker (or anyone for that matter). Only in sports can this happen and there is no possibility of legal consequences. Can you imagine if Greg from your office put his hands around your neck and slammed you into a wall because you weren’t “filing the right way?” It would be a pretty safe bet that if that occurred, Greg would be preparing for his arraignment right about now.

That all being said, going after Harper is especially egregious from a franchise standpoint. At 22, if he isn’t already the best player in baseball, he is absolutely part of that conversation. With his free agency looming in a few years, and his agent being the bull dog Scott Boras, being publicly confronted and embarrassed is not the best way to get in the good graces of someone who will likely be able to name his own price when the bidding opens following the 2018 season.

Incredibly, there are those who agree with what Papelbon did. Fox Sports’ CJ Nitkowki, a former major leaguer himself, reported that he spoke with a number of a current and former players—none of whom fully backed Harper, while most came out in staunch defense of the pitcher. The consensus reasoning by Pap’s supporters is that Harper had recently spoken out to the press (although not very strongly) about the pitcher having been recently ejected for hitting Baltimore Orioles’ star Manny Machado with a pitch following a home run—in essence, playing the game “the right way.” I have no problem with a veteran like Papelbon giving a younger player, or any player for that matter, a dressing down if needed but they should only do that in a private and non-physical manner while simultaneously contemplating if their own track record  taints that message in any way.

Finally, Nats’ manger Matt Williams deserves recognition for the horrible way he has apparently treated the situation. He not only removed Harper from the game following the altercation, but then allowed Papelbon to go in and pitch. This effectively took sides as it pertains to the public eye, even if that was not his intent. Following the game, Williams indicated it was only afterwards that he knew the severity of what had happened. However, given that it all took place in a space the size of a school bus, and coaches jumped in and helped break up the melee, that seems unlikely. Although Papelbon has now been officially suspended for what will effectively be the remainder of the season, the bell signaling that dearth of good leadership cannot be unrung.

Harper may have his faults and may have even played a role in the dugout encounter but that doesn’t account for the actions of Papelbon. It was a disappointing conclusion to a disappointing season. It’s hard to say how this all may impact the players and the team in the future but for right now it’s impossible to see beyond the ridiculousness of it all.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Boston Red Sox Pitching Prospect Jake Drehoff Talks About His Baseball Career

Although the Boston Red Sox have played better of late they are still likely to finish the year with a losing record—a far cry from the expectations many had for them when the 2015 season started. Among the many things that didn’t go as planned were relatively lackluster results from the pitching staff. However, there figures to be a number of changes to that group in 2016, which is always good for prospects, including the likes of Jake Drehoff.

The lanky lefty (6’4” and 195 pounds), who is a native of Georgia, was a standout at Southern Mississippi. An 11-7 record with a 3.52 ERA over two seasons as a Golden Eagle was enough to earn him the opportunity to be Boston’s 12th-round draft choice in 2013.

Pitching in the lower levels of the minors, Drehoff went just 3-6 in 19 starts over his first two professional seasons but did post an impressive 3.32 ERA. In 2015 he pitched mostly out of the bullpen for Single-A Greenville and continued to have positive results. In 24 games (seven starts), he went 3-2 with a 2.89 ERA, while striking out 65 batters in 71.2 innings.

According to scouting reports the 23-year-old doesn’t have overpowering stuff but simply knows how to pitch. Because he lacks a turbo-charged fastball his more varied arsenal may be better-suited for the bullpen. However, nothing is written in stone and one thing that has been consistent throughout his career has been his ability to get batters out no matter when he has entered a game. As he waits for the 2016 season, Drehoff is poised to make the jump to the high minors where he will see if he can sustain his success and make himself enough of a name to earn a big league call-up.

More information on his career statistics is available at BaseballReference and you can also follow the prospect at his Twitter account. Last offseason he took a few minutes to answer some of my questions, and you can see what he had to say by reading on.

Jake Drehoff Interview:

Who was your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: Growing up in Atlanta I was a big Braves fan and like every other Atlanta kid my favorite player was Chipper.

How did you end up playing college ball at the University of Southern Mississippi?: I was a late bloomer in high school and didn't attract college attention until my senior year. One of my teammates in high school (Chase Fowler), who was a year older than me, went to Southern Miss and his dad contacted their recruiting coordinator saying that he thought I would be a good fit.

If you did not start a career as a professional ballplayer, what field do you think you would have entered?: I'm really not sure what I would be doing if I didn't play baseball, maybe in sales or something with sports medicine/physical therapy.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you, and what was your draft experience like?: The scout who drafted me (Danny Watkins) had a meeting with me in the fall before the draft and kept some dialogue with me throughout the year, but I didn't really know how much interest he/they had. The draft experience was a little stressful but one of the greatest moments in my life.

What has been your favorite moment thus far from your professional career?: My favorite moment thus far is probably my overall experience playing for the Lowell Spinners.

What pitches do you throw and which do you believe needs the most work?: I throw a four and two- seam fastball, change-up, cutter, and curve ball. I think my curve ball needs the most work as a strikeout pitch.

Who is one hitter from any time in baseball history that you would like to face, and how would you approach the at-bat?: My dad didn't play past high school but it would be cool to go back in time and strike him out.

How challenging was it going to your first spring training and interacting, practicing and playing with players and coaches you may have only seen in the media before?: I was a little anxious going into spring training not knowing what to expect but it was really cool being around those guys and meeting people that I've grown up watching on TV.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lucky Me: A Review

Baseball has a unique power that can suck people into a longtime-obsession—both for fans and those involved directly with the professional game. It’s a bug that when caught often becomes chronic. This is exemplified by Eddie Robinson’s Lucky Me: My Sixty-Five Years in Baseball (With C. Paul Rogers III; 2011; University of Nebraska Press), which chronicles his nearly seven decades as a player, scout and front office man.

Robinson was a good but not great first baseman who carved out a 13-year major league career with seven teams between 1942 and 1957. The four-time All-Star came from humble origins in Texas and became a big league regular in 1947 following a three-year stint in the military. Having access to details of his earlier years is fascinating; as a boy who always wanted to play professionally was able to live out that dream after toiling in the sandlots, the minors and for Uncle Sam.

Unlike some memoirs, Robinson is very candid throughout. He doesn’t mince words talking about why Lou Boudreau wasn’t his favorite manager. His description of how he and teammates once held down Phil Rizzuto and dyed his nether parts blue just before his wedding is cringe-worthy but also an honest look inside look at clubhouse shenanigans.

Following his playing career, Robinson went on to act as general manager, scout, minor league director and president for a number of teams. Here, his anecdotes are just as entertaining as those from when he was a player. Working for famous (or infamous) owners like Charles Finley and George Steinbrenner gave him enough material that another entire book probably could have been written.

The business of baseball is laid open in this book. This isn’t a “tell-all’ per se but Robinson wore so many hates, both literally and figuratively, during his career that he was privy to a much bigger picture than most others who publish similar work. He also doesn’t hold back from talking about situations that weren’t the most pleasant. From describing how he fired Hall-of-Famer Eddie Matthews as manager of the Atlanta Braves because of excessive drinking; to his disdain for former player and manager Davey Johnson, who he believes worked the system to get a bonus he didn’t deserve, there is a veritable treasure trove of his experiences over the years.

Robinson was also present during many major baseball moments through the years. This includes: playing with Lary Doby, the American League’s first African-American player, during his inaugural season in 1948 with the Cleveland Indians; acting as the GM of the Braves when slugger Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run in 1974; negotiating with union head Marvin Miller just as the players started to get more of a voice.

Given his extensive experience in the front office, a little more detail of the art of the deal and the process of scouting and signing players would have been a welcome addition. Granted, these are Robinson’s memoires but over the years there were likely innumerable great stories on that side of the ball that didn’t make it to these pages.

On the other hand, Robinson does take on other issues like race and player/manager relations that are often glossed over or simply ignore in similar works. Their inclusion doesn’t have value because of sensationalism but because of its very real and pervasive impact in the game.

Anyone who likes baseball will enjoy Lucky Me. The amount of time Robinson devoted to baseball is staggering, and it is therefore not surprising how many stories he has to share. Other “lifers” (like Tommy Lasorda and Don Zimmer) may get more attention but there others out there who put just as much into the game and have had experiences that deserve the spotlight.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew