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Ballpark Frank (Part One)

9.26.04: Last night I had the rare opportunity to make the pilgrimage to a boyhood shrine, Fenway Park, sanctimoniously billed ‘America’s most beloved ballpark’. The opponent, our archrival if not archenemy, the New York Yankees. My daughter had forked over 88 dollars of her hard-earned money to give dad an extremely thoughtful Fathers’ Day present, an evening with his daughter, amidst a fading pennant race.

Maybe Wolfe was right, “you can’t go home again.” The return to Fenway embodied the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sox ownership seems to have tried to make the ballpark experience friendlier, while maintaining the tradition that purists adore. Entry occurs after ticket scanning and courteous security guaranteed to stop anyone from bringing a grenade launcher into the park. Having the entire ticket allows for a better memento, should historic action follow.

The trek to the grandstand brings one an atmosphere just north of a trip through a slaughterhouse, shoulder-to-shoulder passage with other beefy patrons, through still narrow concourses. A faint odor of beer, hot dogs and pizza entices fans to their seats. Of course, the prices of concessions, above even what Disney would consider outrageous, stopped nobody from loading up on their favorite beverage and nobody mentioned the words ‘South Beach Diet’ last night.

You emerge from the concourses with the familiar glow from the lights, the brilliant green of the field, organ music, and a literal barrage of signage. In the era of competitive free agency, I’m not nostalgic for uncluttered space, just overwhelmed by the combinations, auto companies and Bud, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, BankAmerica, John Hancock, Blue Cross and Blue Shield. You’ll need the insurance, banking, and medical treatment if you consume the calories, cholesterol, and the booze. Signage certainly helps pay the freight, but how long can it be before the uniforms sport ‘Vito’s Bail Bonds’ or ‘Fidelity Investments’ on the back?

My seat had two limitations, first, obstructed view by one of Fenway’s numerous stanchions and second, an aisle location that assured me of the opportunity of competing as a jack-in-the-box look-a-like as I sprang up 717 times during the game (I counted). Only one time was it worth it.

The Sox have catered to fans need for information, with a variety of statistical and Sabermetric enhancements. They display pitch counts, speed, and type as well as OPS components (on base average, slugging percentage) as well pitcher-versus-hitter data that could have triggered managerial strategy. For many baseball stat junkies, this upgrade carries added value.

Seatside vendors hawk their wares at stunning prices. Was that water selling for $4.25 cents? Who can complain about gas a two bucks a gallon when they’re shelling out almost half a sawbuck for water? I wolfed down a dog for four bucks, and passed on Cracker Jack at $4.50. Dentists gotta eat, but what’s the limit? The peanut vendor obliged fans by tossing the delights with greater distance and accuracy than Michael Vick could. That’s entertainment.

Sox fans remain as passionate as ever. The fans applauded long and loud for Sox production and at times even tolerated the visitors. I fear the long season has dulled their imagination. One leatherlung nearby shouted ‘hit ‘em in the head’ as most Yankees approached the plate. It appeared that somebody must have done him that favor. Periodically chants of ‘Yankees suck’ broke out, hardly discrediting the Bombers and mostly shaming those who consider themselves intellectually superior to the New Yorkers.

Even worse, Fenway and other Boston sports venues attract loud, rude, obnoxious, arrogant, and drunken folks willing to spend money, embarrass themselves, and annoy their fellow citizens of Red Sox Nation. I’ve always found that one is never more than six seats away from disorderly conduct (six degrees of separation as it were) and last night halved the distance. A group of Sox apparel-attired fans cursed, drank excessively, and stood obstructing views of nearby fans for most of the game. Fans pleaded for them to sit down (they declined) and stop abusing their neighbors (they refused) and in the eighth inning, security finally came, and after police arrived, the violators left the building. That’s when it was worthwhile for me to stand and allow the miscreants exit.

Should management care? With the trio of John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino ushering about 2,800,000 through the turnstiles and total revenues likely exceeding 175 million dollars, ownership doesn’t have to seek improvement. However, successful businesses always try to improve the quality of their business and the quality of their customers. The Patriots have begun to offer and their weekly video highlights in Chinese. They want to be the World’s Team not just America’s Team.

The Sox have solicited ideas from their fans before and here are a couple more ‘suggestion balks’. Post an announcement on the message board about what behavior is unacceptable, not just interference with play on the field. Post a number to allow fans to call or text message security about problems before trouble breaks out. You can’t legislate etiquette but you can enforce civility. Security could come by (giving notice or a warning, call it as you see it) and ask fans to comply voluntarily with park etiquette. If security needed to return, it would mean automatic ejection.

Yes, a few hundred fans (fewer I hope) might be inconvenienced by being required to act like human beings, but thousands of other fans might enjoy the experience and return even more willingly to unseat the unruly. The Sox probably don’t care whether people like me return, or if they do, they had a strange way of showing it last night. Do we want the fans to enjoy the games with the same sobriety as those attending the symphony or the opera (not that I would know from personal experience)? Hardly. But do our children and we need to accept harassment when trying to enjoy this great pastime on a beautiful fall night?

As for the ugliness, the game ending spoke volumes, but that’s baseball.

Ron S.

Moo-vin' on up

8.30.04: Beau Vaughan and Jon Papelbon have a lot in common. Each is a 23-year-old right hander taken by the Red Sox in the 2003 draft -- Vaughan in the 3rd round out of Arizona State, Papelbon in the 4th out of Mississippi State. Stocky, 6-4 230 lb. power-pitchers, both are one-time relievers now dominating opposing hitters in a starting role.

Vaughan is 7-3, 3.30 at Low-A Augusta despite missing time with a shoulder ailment; Papelbon is 12-6, 2.69 with a league-leading 149 strikeouts at High-A Sarasota. And while each takes a bulldog approach to the mound, off the field is another story.

"Along with being good competitors," said Farm Director Ben Cherington, "each is what could be called a different personality."

Those personalities came out last season when they were teammates at short-season Lowell. In a pre-game attraction, Papelbon won a cow-milking contest, much to the delight of his teammates -- especially Vaughan.

"He handled it like a champ," said Vaughan, "and was probably the only guy on the team with the courage to do something so outrageous. I told him he looked almost a little too good."

Papelbon, who refers to Vaughan as "a jokester," took a lot of ribbing for his exploits, but did so with a smile.

"Having never milked a cow before," he explained, "I had to ask what to do. They told me: 'Just yank on them!' Hey, I love to work hard, but you can't be serious all the time -- especially in baseball -- so it was a lot of fun.

Life is more than just fun-and-games for the two emerging prospects.

"Off the field Jon is a free-spirit," explains Vaughan, "but he turns on a switch and gets serious when it's time to work."

"We became workout partners last year and pushed each other," said Papelbon. "Some days I'd push him, others he'd push me. I've always prided myself in my work ethic. If you have the same talent as someone you can always work harder than they do -- that's your edge."

Each has the talent to back up their hard work, and their similarities on the mound are striking. Both come right after hitters with a plus fastball and quality breaking pitches -- notably an effective change-up.

"Vaughn has a heavy sinking fastball," said Cherington, "along with a quality curveball and slider -- both with late action. Importantly, he understands how to use both. He also has a good feel for his change-up and has gotten numerous swings-and-misses on this pitch."

"Papelbon has a plus fastball with good command and the ability to pitch to all four quadrants of the zone," adds Cherington. "He has good feel for a change-up and a developing breaking ball."

They also share a love of the game and an appreciation of what baseball means to Red Sox Nation.

"I'm happy to be in an organization with such an amazing fan-base," said Vaughan. "Players love playing for fans. If we weren't playing we'd have the seat next to yours."

"I don't want to play for a team where the fans don't care if you win or lose," adds Papelbon. "I want be in a place where they lose sleep over it. Boston is like that."

Right now they're the hottest pitchers in the system, and they're enjoying every minute of it -- including the work.

"Baseball needs to be fun," said Vaughan, "and I'm going to do everything I can to succeed at it. Jon and I both have a shot at the big leagues, and we're milking it for all we've got."

- David Laurila, Cambridge, MA

The Mild Card

8.12.04: The Marlins and Angels have won the Series with "backdoor entry", while the Sox have only rare post-season play by any other avenue since its inception, but there is something particularly unsatisfying about groveling for a wild card with this team and it's not even my $120 million.

Certainly, all will be forgiven if a playoff and October white-wash emerges, but looking at it from the investment and return perspective of...say...a billionaire options trader, a finish equivalent or worse than last season seems money poorly spent, with heads to roll in consequence.

Start with the talent brain trust, which added one of the best pitchers and relievers in the game, re-signed one of the best power hitters cheaply, but botched a mega-trade that left bridges burned and ultimately necessitated a trade, further undermining any sense of this team's development relevance.

In that, there are a mere handful of Sox players who actually worked for the club in the minors and while this may be par for the MLB now, i.e. you trade to success, this year's result may again indicate such a temp staff road is also paved with nothing more than good intentions.

The mid-season discovery that the Club lacked gloves, omitting a fix for the still questionable 3-4-5 slots and relief woes, struck me as disingenuous from the molders of this team and possibly worse -- cheap. While it's nice to see double-digit ass-kickings of late and a fire lit under a previous offensive underperformer, whom do you trust to start in game three of any playoff series -- Wake, Lowe or Arroyo? Depending on the day, you could get a no-hitter or softball game.

I see little chance Lowe will be resigned, which may preclude postseason starts should it happen, but that digresses from the view that somebody -- in a suit -- gets whacked for this season if the fund does not show better returns on year.

After all the navel-gazing about ALCS Game 7, was the managerial selection a tremendous step up from Grady or a trump card in placating new acquisitions on the future Fenway house approach?

Close games still are not going the Sox way, which means either strategic, talent or motivational weaknesses or likely all three. Our closer had 43 saves last year, while at this point in August has 18; is this just the nature of how the current team wins or the fact that it is not in a position to win too frequently? Rising E.R.A. for all starters indicate more latitude extended to get the W, but at what cost? Yippee, Wake gives up six bombs and wins, but the decision to keep him out there in a wildcard race, regardless of middle relief woes, boggles the mind. Francona is managing to win player trust, not games, and that is a liberty the Sox do not have.

Similarly, the traders of John Henry's account must continue to execute whether a deadline has passed or not, using the same arbitrage that brought starters and relievers late last year. Just getting to the dance, as noted, is not enough, and the fund managers should expect termination or worse - comparison to their predecessors - if returns are not up on year.


What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted

(adapted from Jimmy Ruffin)

As I walk this land with broken teams
I have visions of many things
Lowe's happiness is just an illusion
Filled with wildness and confusion,
What becomes of the broken-hearted
I’m the shortstop now departed.
Theo I've got to find
Defensive peace of mind

The money tree grows all around
But for me it comes a tumblin' down.
Every day heel aches grow a little stronger
I can't stand this pain much longer
I walk at shortstop
Searching for light
Cub all alone
No Fenway in sight,
Hoping and praying for someone to care
Always moving and going nowhere
What becomes of the broken hearted
With my glove I’m now departed
Theo you've got to find
Defensive peace of mind

I'm searching though I won’t sign now,
But someone look, there's a growing need.
Oh, I am lost, there's no place for beginning,
All that's left is an unhappy ending.
Now what's become of the broken-hearted
With my bat I’ve now departed
Theo I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
I'll be searching everyday
Just to find someplace to play.
I'll be looking, Doc fixed me,
I’m worth the millions, Sixty.

Nothings gonna stop me now
I'll find a way somehow
I'll be searching everywhere
- Ron

No Crying in Baseball

Who smiles through life –
except when crossed?
Who knows, or thinks he knows the most?
Who loves good things: baked,
boiled or roast?

Oh, Taurus.

7.25.04 - In A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks reminded the ladies that "there’s no crying in baseball." After watching the first two games of the Red Sox – Yankees weekend confrontation, it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, "I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then."

Although some might argue that these games had entertainment value, that exists only in the same sense that NASCAR collisions serve to amuse the patrons. Once again, the Red Sox proved themselves totally incapable of playing professional defense. This week’s atrocities included Johnny Damon staggering around in centerfield, infielders doing soccer imitations on ground balls, and pitchers simulating drunken sailors throwing to bases. Not since Matt Young have such defensive indiscretions appeared at Fenway.

Enough about the results, can plausible causes exist? First, since it’s a homestand, that eliminates the most heinous boozing and womanizing rumored so rampant on the road in MLB. Any sensible players would have long adapted the military’s slogan ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, or remained single, although not celibate in the tradition of the clergy. Just kidding. They can't have exhausted themselves with early tee times, because frankly, the weather hasn’t cooperated.

What about some legitimate, logical possibilities? Of course, some terrific new movies have hit the big screen, and with luck, players can catch the late showings. I’ve heard that some players wouldn’t go to the movies for fear of damaging their eyesight. Health problems? Can’t be that, as Ramiro Mendoza has just come off the DL, and the return of Nomar and Nixon hasn’t exactly been nirvana. Aside from bad haircuts, the local nine appear hale, although not hearty.

Maybe it’s a management problem. Sox skipper Terry Francona was born April 22, 1959, making him a Taurus. “Taurus personalities tend to be ruled by their affections.” Darn, another players manager. "Taurean people tend to be slow, practical, methodical, and reserved." That sounds like exactly the ticket for robo-organization. Could it be biorhythms? Terry’s intellectual biorhythm has mostly been down in July and his ‘mastery’ rhythm is just coming off a low.

Must we consider the most invidious possibilities? There may be no crying in baseball, but gambling certainly exists. No, with the cheese these guys pull down, we need not consider that. Could the Sox fortunes coincide with the stock market? We know about the relationships between skirt lengths and Super Bowl winners and the stock market, but could the stock market somehow be linked to the Sox mediocrity. Herald beat writer Tony Massarotti argued the Sox were like a Fortune 500 company, making a fortune and playing .500. Clearly contemporary players don’t have to throw nickels around like manhole covers. I can’t picture Manny Ramirez on his cellphone all day long to some Merrill Lynch guy asking about semiconductors.

Gotta listen to the players, Derek Lowe citing Dire Straits,

Now look at them yo-yo's that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and chicks for free
Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

All of which brings me to my two greatest fears about the Sox. First, Alien Abduction. You must remember the Betty and Barney Hill story. That would explain how the April start vanished when substitutes replaced the originals. At least according to ESPN, I, Pedro does bear a resemblance to I, Robot. We are the closest franchise to the global alien landing zone, Exeter, New Hampshire. Although I’m not aware of an entire team being spirited away, it could happen. Sports precedent exists. Have you taken a look at Sam Cassell?

Of course our biggest concern has to be the simplest. Schilling and Pedro are the alpha and the Omega, as in Schill and Pedro and pray for snow. The bullpen wears thin from constant usage. The Sox have proven for four and a half decades that hitting alone can’t get it done, and as they say in court, ‘the defense rests.’

Blame Francona, blame Theo, blame John Henry, blame the grounds crew. Player accountability doesn’t exist. Never has in this town. Probably never will. They’re our boys.

The Sox just aren’t that good, and if they are, to paraphrase Billy Beane, "if they’re so good, how come they don’t play better."

- Ron

Can't Take a Joke


7.21.04: Abe looks like someone just woke him up from under a bridge. I can't believe the Red Sox organization would post this picture of this guy... this is embarrassing.

How can we (the fans) "Keep the Faith" with half assed efforts, gangsta getup, and managerial/organizational mis-steps??? What the hell is going on over there?

As a fan, I want to see a sincere effort from all levels of the organization... I'm getting sick and tired of the enabling and listening to the manager and Larry make weak excuses for the $130 MILLION mediocre cry babies.

These guys really need to suck it up and play baseball... crooked dirty hats are not helping any of them play better. How about getting back to the basics and focusing on the fundamentals of the game.

Michelle McDonald

(In fairness Michelle, Abe is legally blind in his left eye, and the tilted cap keeps the glare off his good eye and gives him better peripheral vision.)

Independence Day

"Nothing you could do could change anything now..." If the New York series and the midseason break are catalysts for major personnel changes on the Bosox, at least the heartbreak isn't waiting until autumn this year. After extra-inning losses in which run production seemed like attempts at unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions, the team was so adept at leaving the lonely at third (and other bases) I barely could keep my eyes on the meter.

A "Killer Instinct", if it ever existed, has morphed into a "Victim Mentality" with the wait before losing and recriminations on "Oprah" unbearable. And that is the point. Even truly mediocre teams that jumped out to April leads in the early 1980s only to flounder by June created at least the desire to watch. This squad, with huge payroll and marquee off-season acquisitions, cannot make a double play (it certainly can hit into them), cannot win by a run (it certainly can lose by one) and shows all the gutlessness, poor management and indifference that have ended seasons of lesser Boston nine.

Calling anyone out runs the risk of omission, while hacking just for the sake of renovation is not enlightened policy either. With Nomar, the depths this relationship has sunk to would only be measured by an idiotic trade that in one version adds Carlos Delgado; here is a 2003 softball star with bad wheels joining a team stacked with DHs. Solve the riddle of why this squad doesn't work, Theo, but don't bullshit us for three months with occasional homerun fireworks and bandaged wounds. Despite years of conclusions to the contrary, we are still stupid enough to want to believe, but taking us for fools will not be tolerated. DJS, 7.5.04 -- 20/20 continued

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