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The Fall Classic

In MLB on October 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm

By Chris Hallenbrook

The World Series is baseball’s ultimate showcase, not only for the talent, but also for the history of a game that embraces continuity with its past in a way that few sports can match. Toward that end, this year provides an ideal matchup, not only because the Red Sox (est. 1901) and Cardinals (est. 1882) have both played in their cities of origin for over a century, but also because of their October history together, having met in three previous fall classics that have woven together the fates of generations of fans in Boston and St. Louis.

1946 – Cardinals in 7. Stacked with Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, as well as Hall worthy players Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, this Red Sox team inaugurated decades of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” Ted Williams was hit with a pitch in an October exhibition game, and played the World Series with a swollen elbow that held him to a mere .200 batting average. In Game 7, with the Red Sox down 3-1 in the top of the 8th, DiMaggio laced a two run double off the wall that missed going out of Sportsman’s Park by mere feet. Trying to leg for third, DiMaggio went down with a hamstring injury. In the bottom of the inning, Enos Slaughter would fly through the stop sign to test the arm of DiMaggio’s replacement, scoring all the way from first with the game, and Series, winning run (Pesky didn’t hold the ball. Leon Culberson was no DiMaggio, and Slaughter admitted he wouldn’t have tried it if the Little Professor was still in the game). For my grandfather, a 14 year old coming of age in postwar America, Slaughter’s Mad Dash was the first time the Red Sox broke his heart.

1967 – Cardinals in 7. This was such a watershed year for the Red Sox that losing the Series couldn’t ruin The Impossible Dream. The Sox had been so bad for so long that many thought the young Dick Williams was in over his head when during spring training he brashly declared that “we’ll win more than we lose.” A Yastrzemski triple crown/MVP campaign and a Jim Lonborg Cy Young season later, the Red Sox inched out victory in a four team pennant race on the last day of the season. The Red Sox were fantastic in that Series, with Yaz posting an other worldly 1.340 OPS and Lonborg allowing 1 run in 18 innings during his first two starts. But a 101 win Cardinals team featuring Roger Maris, Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton and the legendry Bob Gibson were too much for the Sox. Lonborg made a valiant effort in Game 7, but working on two days rest he just didn’t have enough left to truly compete with the dominance of Gibson. My father, a 22 year old private just home from Vietnam, would watch The Cardiac Kids come just short, blissfully unaware that he wouldn’t live long enough to see their Idiot cousins finish the job.

2004 – Red Sox in 4. By now you surely know the story of the team affectionately known as the Idiots. (If not, go watch the “Four Days in October” episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.) The Varitek vs. A-Rod midsummer brawl. The 0-3 deficit. The Steal. The Bloody Sock. The Slap. The Comeback. The New York tabloids running headlines such as “Hell Freezes Over” and “The Choke’s On Us.” Momentum may only be as good as your next day’s starting pitcher, but this Red Sox team rode a wave of emotion (and solid pitching) to the franchise’s first World Series title in 86 years. I was a 17 year old high school senior, and within a week my classmates were wearing t-shirts that read “Now I can die happy.” My grandfather celebrated his first Red Sox World Series Championship at the age of 72.

2013 – This is the story that is yet to be written. Will Carlos Beltran add to his portfolio of post-season heroics? Will Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha remind the world that pitching wins championships? Or will David Ortiz add to the legend of Big Papi? Perhaps Koji Uehara will put a fitting capstone on one of the greatest seasons in the history of relief pitching. The only thing we know for sure is that with these two franchises, and these two teams, each winners of 97 regular season games and each fresh off a 6 game LCS triumph over a championship caliber opponent, it will be a Fall Classic in the truest sense of the term, and two fan bases will always remember where they were when “it” happened, whatever “it” may be.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @CHallenbrook.

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Hall of Fame DH?

In MLB on July 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

With the Designated Hitter having now existed in the American League for 40 years, it is evident that it is not some passing fancy that baseball purists like Crash Davis can simply wish away. Since the position is here to stay, David Ortiz breaking the all-time record for hits by a DH raises the question: is there such thing as a Hall of Fame DH?

For the sake of reference, let’s begin by laying out the resumes of the two best everyday DHs the game has seen, Edgar Martinez, who this year received only 35.9% of the vote for the Hall of Fame this year, and David Ortiz. (Slash lines are batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage.)

Edgar Martinez was so good as an everyday DH that after he won five Outstanding Designated Hitter Awards, Major League Baseball threw up its hands and named the award after him. His career numbers: .312/.418/.515, 309 HR, 1,261 RBI (Stats junkies claim RBIs are overrated, but for a DH, driving in runs is the primary job. As a result, RBIs are as important to this analysis as any other accomplishment.) and 2,247 hits.

David Ortiz .287/.381/.551, 420 HR, 1,391 RBI and 1,953 hits (statistics are as of the end of day on July 10, 2013)

This first hurdle for arguing that either of them are Hall worthy is the worn-out old claim that since DHs don’t field, they only play half the game and therefore cannot ever rank among the game’s all-time greats. Interestingly enough, one never hears it said of American League pitchers that since they don’t hit they only play half the game and therefore shouldn’t be eligible for the Hall. Now there is not perfect symmetry to those claims, but I hope it shows something of the absurdity of diminishing a player’s accomplishments at their primary task due to rules that they don’t control. More seriously, let’s consider the case of Brooklyn Dodgers catcher and deserving Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. With career totals of .276/.360/.500, 242 HR, 856 RBI and 1,161 hits, Campanella didn’t make Cooperstown on his bat. It is of course necessary to remember that his MLB career started at the age of 26 due to the color barrier (he joined the Dodgers the year after Jackie Robinson did), but the point is that he is a Hall of Fame defensive catcher, not a Hall of Fame hitter. One doesn’t have to be an all-time great both offensively and defensively to be an all-time great.

So on principle an everyday DH should be able to join the immortals in Cooperstown, but do either Martinez or Ortiz meet the threshold? Let’s compare them to some other Hall of Famers. Legendary Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew hardly generated controversy by entering the Hall with totals of .256/.376/.509, 573 HR, 1,584 RBI and 2,086 hits. Both Martinez and Ortiz have much better slash lines than Killebrew, with Martinez having over 150 more hits and Ortiz likely to pass Killebrew’s hits total by this time next year. Martinez’s hit total also stacks up nicely with other no-doubt Hall of Famers, including Eddie Mathews (2,315).

A more recent player whose best know skills are quite apt for this discussion is Jim Rice. Jim Ed is in the Hall of Fame primary based on being a fearsome slugger who dominated his era and whom Commissioner Giamatti called “the Hammer of God sent to scourge the Yankees.” His stats? .298/.352/.502, 382 HR, 1,451 RBI and 2,452 hits. Both DHs under consideration can compete with his slash line (Martinez beats it on all counts), Papi has more homers and will likely surpass Rice’s RBI total in 2014, while Martinez ended his career only 205 hits shy of Rice’s mark.

Now some challenge whether Rice, elected in his final year of eligibility after a major push by the Red Sox organization to convince voters that his accomplishments measured up with those already in the Hall, should have been put in the Hall. Personally, I don’t think that matters as at the end of the day he is in the Hall. But to assuage those critics, let’s turn to Reggie Jackson, who we all agree is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. He’s in Cooperstown with a slash line of .262/.356/.490 that is inferior to both Ortiz and Martinez on all counts (albeit with 563 HR, 1,702 RBI and 2,584 hits, all of which dwarf both DHs). What is particularly telling is where Jackson made his nickname. When Mister October played in October the totals were 77 games, .278/.358/.527, 18 HR, 48 RBI, 78 hits (1.01 per game) and 2 World Series rings. For Señor October it is 66 games, .283/.388/.520, 12 HR, 47 RBI (that is one fewer RBI in 11 fewer games), 69 hits (1.05 per game) and 2 World Series rings. Ortiz’s postseason numbers thus compare very favorably with the most famous postseason performer in the history of the game, a fact that cannot be ignored in any Hall of Fame debate.

I could keep the examples coming all day to show that Martinez and Ortiz, who has a legitimate chance of joining the 500 home run club in the next few years, stack up with guys already in the Hall, but I don’t want to belabor the point. The bottom line is that calling a DH half a baseball player doesn’t make sense. The position is part of the fabric of the game now. It is time for the voters to wake up to the fact that this is the 21st century and vote in the man from whom the Most Outstanding DH Award is named for, and brace themselves for the fact that a second everyday DH, perhaps even better than the first, is getting ready to slug down Cooperstown’s doors.

The Whiplash Red Sox

In MLB on April 28, 2013 at 9:12 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

One of the great things about baseball is the unpredictability of it. You can watch games your whole life and yet never know what you are going to see at the ballpark on any given night, and on any of those nights you may see something you have never seen before. In recent years, no team has embodied that unpredictability quite as vividly as the Boston Red Sox. All of two years ago, in the sunny spring and summer of 2011, all seemed well on Yawkey Way. In the offseason Theo Epstein had signed free agent speedster and all-around Red Sox killer Carl Crawford away from the Rays and traded for slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, making the Red Sox a near-consensus pundit pick to face the Phillies in the World Series. Then, the infamous September of chicken and beer struck, and an inability to win on consecutive days led to an MLB record collapse as the Sox led the Wild Card race by 9 games on September 3rd and still failed to make the playoffs. Then, in the blink of a eye, Terry Franconca was scapegoated was fired quit in one final act of being a good company man, Theo Epstein fled to a more desperate fan base accepted a new challenge with the Cubs, Bobby Valentine was brought in as the new sheriff in town, and having all the talent in the world led to the worst Red Sox season since 1965 and an unprecedented waiver-wire trade that blew up the team and dumped a quarter of a billion dollars in salary on the Dodgers. Just like that, a team that was slated to compete for championships for years to come looked like it was ready to be dead and buried for just as long.

All of which brings us to the 2013 edition. After an offseason of overpaying for aging mediocrity, the Red Sox were picked to finish dead last by ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated and most staffers at The Boston Globe, and had the makings of a squad that couldn’t take candy from a baby. And yet as of the end of the day on April 26, the Red Sox have been in first place every day this season, setting a franchise record for longest stretch in first to start the season and own a 16-7 mark that constitutes the best record in baseball. Once the dizziness goes away from all these mad swings, the question left to ask is: how on Earth have they done it?

1) Pitching. Talk about Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Last year this pitching staff absolutely killed the Red Sox, with the starting rotation posting a hideous ERA of 5.42. Josh Beckett pitched his way out of town over 127 and a third ulcer-inducing innings, Jon Lester looked washed up at the age of 28 and Clay Buchholz had us all wondering if he would ever live up to his potential. This season? Buchholz seems to have finally put it all together, starting the season 5-0 in five starts with a 1.19 ERA, which is akin to Bob Gibson’s 1968 season for the ages. Jon Lester has returned to ace form, with the Sox winning all his games. In Lester’s case the turnaround is made all the more impressive given that even in his best seasons he has been shaky at best in April with a near 4 ERA to compare to this year’s 2.27. The change since the return of pitcher whisperer John Farrell has been so remarkable that if I didn’t know better I’d think that last year was just an act to get Bobby V fired. But whatever it is that caused the turnaround, with the Sox two home grown studs throwing like aces, Ryan Demptser making a mockery of claims that he couldn’t hack it in the American League, and the bullpen answering the bell on a nightly basis (it is amazing how much better your bullpen is when your starters can actually make it to the 7th inning), last year’s Achilles heel is this year’s juggernaut.

2) Hitting. While pitching has been the driving force behind the resurrection of the Red Sox, the offense has certainly made the pitchers’ lives easier. When David Ortiz went on the DL to start the year, Sox fans were understandably worried about where the firepower was going to come from in the post-Gonzalez era. But as it turns out, such fears were unnecessary as Mike Napoli has been white hot, Jacoby Ellsbury is reminding us of what we can do when healthy and overall the Sox are scoring runs as though they were the ones who stole traded for almost every good player the Miami Marlins had.

3) Grit. I’m not going to try to argue that tenacity and wanting it more will always prevail over talent, but it is undisputable that baseball is so physically demanding that mental toughness is essential to long run success. We have yet to see how this team holds up after a long losing streak or after a rash of injuries, but we do know a couple of things. One is that this team was utterly unfazed by David Ortiz starting the season on the DL and averaged a healthy five runs a game in his absence. The other is that when bombs struck at the heart of Boston, these guys rallied to support the city and the people that has supported them for so long. The day after the attack they had a “617 Boston Strong” jersey in the visiting dugout in Cleveland and looked like they wanted to cry as they stood on the foul line for a moment of silence. They’ve channeled that emotion on the field, winning their first four and eight of eleven since the marathon bombings, all while telling Boston “this is our f-ing city…stay strong” in the words of Big Papi. I’m not saying that this will carry them into October, but if history has taught us anything it is to never underestimate a team that is playing with emotion, with purpose and with pride.

Can it last? I have no idea. In general terms it takes two months to get a feel for the true nature of a baseball team, and as the 2011 Red Sox showed, you can never truly know before crunch time. There is plenty that can derail this team, including injuries (I lose sleep over Papi’s Achilles), age (Victorino, Napoli and Dempester aren’t exactly in their prime) and regression to the mean (Napoli isn’t going to drive in 27 runs a month and Buchholz isn’t going to finish the season with a 1.19 ERA). That said, I think I speak for all Red Sox fans, especially those of us who hail from Boston, when I say that between the wild ups and downs of the past two seasons, and the moral support they’ve lent us and our city these past two weeks, come what may we will simply fasten our seatbelts and enjoy the ride.

Boston Red Sox Offseason To-Do List

In MLB on September 21, 2012 at 4:17 pm

With the end of the MLB regular season less than three weeks away, there are more than a few teams who will look back at the year with disappointment and regret.

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who still might not make the playoffs after making the biggest blockbuster trade in the history of the league.

The New York Yankees, who blew a ten game lead to a team who hasn’t had a winning season since 1993. 

The Arizona Diamondbacks, who suffered injuries and under-performance, and failed to live up to the expectations of 2011.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who acquired Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, yet are 4.5 games behind the Oakland A’s (a team whose payroll is roughly $100 million dollars less than the Angels) for the last AL Wildcard spot.

The Philadelphia Phillies, who imploded under the weight of big contracts and egos. 

The Detroit Tigers, who like the D’backs, also failed to live up to expectations. 

The Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins, simply for being the Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins. 

And lastly, any team who didn’t have a player suspended for PED’s, yet have to watch the San Francisco Giants and A’s play in October. 

There are a lot of teams who will look back at 2012 with heartache and sadness, anger and frustration, but none of them will have more heartache, and feel more sadness, anger and frustration, than the Red Sox of Boston.

“I wonder if anyone wants to go out for KFC…”

After suffering one of the biggest meltdowns in the history of Major League Baseball last season, the Red Sox fired Terry Francona, the skipper who broke The Curse of the Bambino, and replaced him with Bobby Valentine, a man few thought would be successful in the position (know what I’m saying, Curt Schilling?).

Valentine was doomed to failure as the manager of the Red Sox from the beginning. First, the club’s management was torn about hiring him from the get go. Second, the players were still pining away for the last guy they got fired. Third, because Valentine’s managerial style was completely opposite of Francona’s, Valentine was never able to fully embrace his style of coaching, and consequently was never able to sell his vision to any of his players.

It didn’t help that Valentine also kept digging his grave with his constant misspeaks and gaffes.

This isn’t to say all of the troubles befalling Boston can be pointed to the hiring of Bobby V. The players themselves are just as, if not more responsible for how 2012 turned out as anybody. They vastly underperformed. They refused to change their ways. They refused to play like professionals.

Yet, for all the problems facing the players and the franchise, there are three simple solutions the Red Sox can take in the offseason, to begin the rebuilding process and turn this ship around.

1. Fire Bobby Valentine

“Please do what I say.”

While Valentine has had a successful major league managerial career, he will not find success in Boston. Unless Lou Luchino (The Red Sox’s President and CEO) plans on trading away the entire roster, top-to-bottom (going so far as to rehire new beer and hotdog sellers, as well as Fenway parking lot attendants), Valentine has lost the clubhouse. He will not be able to pull any player from the current roster to his side, and therefore has to go.

2. Fire Bobby Valentine

“And so now you agree with Curt that you weren’t the right man for the job…?”

Curt Schilling was right; Bobby V wasn’t ever going to work in Boston. With the roster the way it was built, the team just wasn’t going to easily transition from Francona’s laid back, beer guzzling, fried chicken eating ways, to Valentine’s strict regime. Instead, the team need to look at other guys who are somewhat like Francona, yet bring a new voice of leadership to a team longing for someone they can believe in.

Bob Brenly did the same magic for Arizona over a decade ago, after he replaced the strict rule of Buck Showalter. Currently, all Brenly’s up to is sitting in the announcer both in Chicago. Trying to jumpstart the Red Sox couldn’t be worse than having to watch the Cubs play everyday, could it?

I didn’t think so.

3. Fire Bobby Valentine

“It’s not you, Bobby, it’s me. Specifically, it’s me hating you.”

Everyone knows Dustin Pedrioa leads this team. He’s already led a mutiny against his manager, and as long as he plays in Boston, no’s ever going to listen to anything Valentine will ever say. While the players are in the wrong for not giving Valentine a fair shake at his job, it’s time for the club to find a man the team can respect.

Valentine’s Day Massacre: Why the BoSox Need to Rethink Their Mess

In MLB on May 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm

It’s only May, and if you’re a professional baseball team, panicking about your team’s record at this point is sort of like freaking out about your report card after the second week of school. But, if you’re the Boston Red Sox, especially after today’s loss, maybe your feelings aren’t so far-fetched. Maybe it might be time to take your team back to the drawing board.

And I mean a completely blank page.

2012 Boston Red Sox team photo.

First draft: You trade Youkillis, Ortiz, Beckett, Lester, Gonzalez and Pedrioa. See what you can get Sweeney. See if you can get anything for Ross. Purchase a “Whacky-Waving-Inflatable-Arm-Flailing-Tube-Man,” and host an “Everyone Must Go” fire sale outside Fenway. Afterward, burn down the stadium and file an insurance claim. Relocate the team to Oklahoma City and rebrand yourself “The OKC Corrals,” but only after ruling out “The Storms,” as a possible name. Change the team’s colors to orange and blue.

After stepping away from the drawing board for a while, you take a few deep breaths, calm down, and approach the table once more.

Second draft: You admit your mistake and fire Bobby Valentine.

You put the two drafts side-by-side and judge each draft’s merits. You realize you have a team loaded with expensive talent and a new manager you hired to replace the manager you fired after he won you two World Series following an almost ninety-year drought. Valentine was supposed to bring discipline and order to your franchise, which was falling apart after losing last year’s playoff spot on the final day of the season, but has instead so far only isolated himself in a clubhouse filled with pissed-off players whom he pissed-off and isolated.

You consider your options. If you truly believe that Valentine’s leadership is the future of your club, you need to wipe the slate clean and get rid of everyone associated with the last regime. You need to go so far as to get rid of players like Gonzalez, who despite playing only one year with the former manager  (who will be referred to as ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’), is still tainted by the influence of ‘He Who Must Not Be Named.’ Everyone must go, even players like Ross, who despite joining the team just this season, has still been corrupted by the lingering influence of the past. Burn the thing down and rebuild.

Or:

You realize you made a miscalculation by hiring Valentine. You realize that maybe the tactics of the former manager (who isn’t nearly as bad as Voldermort, but your still not ready to say his name) weren’t so bad, and that maybe the club really did respond to that type of coaching, and maybe you tried to put a candle out with a waterfall. You consider that maybe Bobby Valentine is like R.L. Ermey’s drill instructor from ‘Full Metal Jacket‘ and your team’s like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, and no amount of discipline and yelling is going to make them stop with their imaginary fried chicken, beer, or golfing on days they’re supposed to be injured. It’s just not going to happen. The two styles can’t mesh together and they never could.

“How many more losses until I can go back to Baseball Tonight?”

So after some thought, you call up your manager, assure him it’s not him, it’s you, and that you hope you can still be friends. Then, you log on to Match.com and see who’s available (One of the many compatible matches that pops up first is that of Bob Brenly, who’s stuck in a broadcast both over in Chicago. After going through his profile, you see that he not only has a World Series pedigree (against your hated rival, no less) but he did it by getting a bunch of expensive underachievers to play up to par, all while famously throwing out the rulebook imposed by the former manager, Buck Showalter, an infamous control freak himself).

Whomever you choose, make sure he’s compatible with you first. You’re the Boston Red Sox of course, and there’s no shortage of suitors who would love to nestle up to your East Coast-elite deep pockets. Make sure you’re compatible first, and then give it some time. These things don’t happen over night, after all. And if it doesn’t work after that, then you can go back to considering that first draft.

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