On Tuesday afternoon in Ft. Myers, Pawtucket faced a Durham Bulls team featuring a “ringer” on the mound – Tampa Bay Rays flamethrower David Price.
The end result wasn’t pretty for the PawSox. Price tossed 7 scoreless innings, struck out 8 batters, and only allowed one hit.
I’m here to tell you about the hit.
In his first at-bat, Pawtucket first baseman Aaron Bates pulled a 94-mph fastball directly into the teeth of a 20-mph wind and hit the ball at least 350 feet to left field. The ball landed on the warning track for a double, but on most days – in most ballparks – it would have been long gone.
“That was a home run,” Bates told me with a grin after the game. “No one catches that ball. That ball is over the outfield billboards in Pawtucket.
“Facing Price was fun. I was telling somebody the other day that I’d like to face (Washington Nationals phenom) Stephen Strasburg or somebody like that because when you face the upper-tier pitchers you learn what it looks like at that level. You want to see what those guys have. So it’s a good measuring stick as far as where I’m at this spring.”
(photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
The 26-year-old first baseman spent most of the spring in major league camp, and batted .179 (5-for-28) in 17 games for Boston.
“My spring up until this point has been a little inconsistent,” Bates said. “I had some great at-bats in big league camp, but didn’t have great numbers. When you’re a young guy you want to get in there and show them what you can do, but you don’t want to press. It was nice being up there. Big league camp was a great experience – I learned a lot. And having RJ (former PawSox manager Ron Johnson) there helped a lot because he’s always laughing and in a great mood.”
Last season was a breakthrough year for Bates as he climbed from Double-A to Boston. He thrived in Double-A batting .340/.405/.505 in 52 games with Portland, and did well in his limited taste of major league ball, going 4-for-11 (.364) with 2 doubles in 5 games with the Red Sox.
Triple-A was the only level where Aaron struggled as he batted .213/.285/.305 in 76 games with Pawtucket. He admits that being just a 45-minute drive from Fenway Park was mentally challenging.
“When you’re in Triple-A with the Red Sox, you’re so close to Boston that you can get caught up in a lot of that stuff,” Bates said. “In Portland, I just went about my business every day and played baseball. In Pawtucket, guys are in the locker room one day and gone the next and there is a lot of media attention – you almost have to block all of that out and not think about Boston. You have to be like a little kid and just enjoy playing baseball and if the manager calls you into the office and tells you that you’re going to Boston, then you go there and try to do the same thing. If you get caught up in that stuff it’s going to drive you crazy and you’ll put too much pressure on yourself.”
Bates rebounded nicely over the winter as he spent three months in the Puerto Rican Winter League and batted .315/.370/.435 for Caguas.
“I was some of the most fun I’ve had playing baseball,” Bates told me. “I love playing there. It’s a unique experience. I hit probably the best home run I’ve ever hit in my life down there – it tied the game in Game 4 of the playoffs and the fans down there were going crazy.”
Aaron’s team won its opening round playoff series and he experienced something he isn’t likely to experience in the United States.
“When we clinched the first round of the playoffs there were random fans in the locker room celebrating with us so that was kind of fun,” Bates said. “It was Game 7 and we were playing against Carlos Delgado’s team and we wound up winning. Our clubbies went running on the field with champagne and left the clubhouse wide open. I have it on video – I’ll have to show you – as the team is celebrating in the clubhouse you can see random fans in street clothes celebrating with us.”
I look forward to seeing the video this summer . . . as well as more blasts like the one I saw Aaron hit off of David Price on Tuesday.
This spring, Josh Reddick has put his baseball bats to good use, as he leads the Red Sox in hits, doubles, and total bases.
His razor, on the other hand, hasn’t seen any action.
With Boston’s opener looming on Sunday night at Fenway, Reddick is sporting a shaggy beard that Johnny Damon – Circa 2004 – would have endorsed.
Since the Red Sox have a strict “no beards” rule for their minor league players, Josh knows he’ll have to shave it off if he doesn’t make Boston’s Opening Day roster.
“That’s why I haven’t shaved all spring,” Reddick told me on Monday in Ft. Myers. “I’m going to let it grow for as long as I can until I actually have to get rid of it.”
It’s not the first time that Reddick has “pushed the envelope” when it comes to his grooming habits.
Last year at Double-A Portland, Reddick didn’t break the facial hair rules, but he did have a Mohawk . . .
(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
. . . and also sported a mustache that was more suited to a certain genre of film than professional baseball.
Last July 31st when Josh was promoted directly from Double-A to the big leagues, Portland manager Arnie Beyeler told him that his head and upper lip had to be clean-shaven by the time he got to Fenway.
This is how Josh looked when he arrived in Boston.
Despite his torrid spring this year, the 23-year-old outfielder expects to begin 2010 in Triple-A.
“My mindset right now is going to Pawtucket,” Reddick said. “I don’t want to get my hopes up too high, so that’s what I’m going to stick with right now. If I make the big club that would be great, but if not, I’m going to be happy playing wherever.”
If Josh is correct and doesn’t open the season in Boston, he’s put himself in a position to be one of the first player’s called-up when the Red Sox need an outfielder or a left-handed hitter. He’s not only posted big numbers (.383/.408/.638), but he’s shown improved plate discipline this spring.
“I’ve worked a lot on taking more pitches like they’ve wanted me to do, even though I only have two walks,” Reddick said. “I feel like I’m swinging at fastballs a lot better – I’m waiting for the ball to be in the strike zone and I’m laying off the off-speed stuff early in the court. That’s been a key improvement for me. Even though the walk numbers haven’t been there, I’ve worked the count until I’ve gotten fastballs. I’ll never go up there looking for a walk and they say they don’t want to take my aggressiveness away, so it’s a fine line.”
I asked Josh if the Red Sox have shown him data and/or video that illustrates the importance of getting into hitter-friendly counts.
“We don’t sit down and study numbers – I’m not the kind of guy that likes to look too far into things. I just want to know what a pitcher throws and how he works on me – we’ve got a great resource for what pitchers do in certain situations. I try not to look too far beyond that because I don’t want to be thinking too much at the plate. Hitting is already hard enough – why make it any harder than it is.”
So far this spring, he’s made it look easy.
* * * * *
Josh Reddick is not the only member of the 2009 PawSox having a tremendous spring.
Jeff Bailey is batting .444/.516/.704 in 19 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks with a pair of home runs.
According to a recent story in the Arizona Republic, Bailey is battling Rusty Ryal, Tony Abreu and Cole Gillespie for the final bench spot on the Diamondbacks roster.
After more than three decades of running the Pawtucket Red Sox, owner Ben Mondor, President Mike Tamburro, and the entire staff have Opening Night planning down to a science.
But that wasn’t always the case.
“I remember the very first year, 1977, when we were expecting about 1,000 people – which was a big crowd in those days – and we got about 2,500,” Tamburro recalled with a laugh. “I remember (former Red Sox general manager) Haywood Sullivan standing on a chair in the entry lobby selling tickets off of the chair because the lines were all backed up. So Ben Mondor was on one chair, I was on another chair, Sully was on another chair, Ben’s wife Madeleine was on a chair, but we got that 2,500 in and we would love to have that problem on April 8th. If you see me in the lobby on a chair, it’s probably good news.”
I can guarantee two things: Mike Tamburro won’t be standing on a chair at the home opener, and the crowd will be considerably larger than 2,500 fans.
(photo courtesy of Tom Perreira)
In fact, last year’s Opening Night crowd of 11,982 is the largest for any game in McCoy Stadium history. With this season’s opener less than two weeks away, the PawSox president is confident that everything will be in working order when they open the gates.
“Stuff will get done, but there are always butterflies,” Tamburro said. “There’s excitement about Opening Day that is like nothing else. When the season ends, you begin to work your entire off-season based on one date and that’s opening day. We look forward to it. It’s great to see this building come back to life. It’s great to see our friends – the fans who haven’t been in the building since September. It’s a community center and it’s great to see the community come together around these great kids that we’ll have on the field.”
Fans who are returning to McCoy Stadium will notice a big change in 2010 – literally big – the new high-tech video board that will be among the largest in minor league baseball. Imagine a plasma TV that’s 22 feet tall and 38 feet wide.
“This is all about creating as great a value as we possibly can for our fans,” Tamburro told me. “It’s hard to believe, but the original video board was 10 years old and technology changed dramatically – I think when fans see the new board they’ll understand why. It’s going to be phenomenal – we’re really excited about it. Kevin Galligan, who runs all the scoreboard operations here, has some great creative ideas so it’s going to add a heck of a lot. Who knows – maybe if there’s a great Red Sox/Yankees game at the end of July, we might just open the building and watch it here.”
Ticket prices have gone up slightly – for the first time in several years – but remain family friendly, as they range from $5 to $11. Parking is free.
“Affordability has always been the mantra here – it’s what we built this operation on going back to 1977 when Ben and I first came here,” Tamburro said. “It’s about giving value at the lowest possible price. We still believe in that – that’s what “Kids Eat Free” is all about. From Opening Day until the 15th of June, every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, kids 12-and-under with a box seat ticket get a hot dog, Pepsi, and a bag of chips absolutely free. It’s about the economy, it’s about the recession, it’s about saying thanks, and it’s about letting our fans know that we care and we want them here at McCoy.”
The only thing the PawSox can’t promise is a winning team, but the fans of Red Sox Nation understand that the mission of a Triple-A affiliate is to develop future major league players.
“We told our fans in those early years, ‘Don’t judge us on wins and losses – judge us on who goes to the big leagues,’ Tamburro said. “That’s what these murals are all about. There’s no greater thrill for us and our fans than to see a young guy who’s had success here, get the opportunity to play at the big league level. That’s what it’s all about.”
Tuesday was Ron Johnson’s 54th birthday.
It’s too bad that he wasn’t on a plane with my broadcasting partner Steve Hyder.
For the past five years when RJ was Pawtucket’s manager and Hydes was one of the broadcasters, Steve would pull the same gag every time that the PawSox took a flight. Hydes would ask a stewardess to wish passenger Ron Johnson a happy 75th birthday (or a similarly inflated number). Invariably they did, and RJ good-naturedly played along.
Once on a Southwest Airlines flight, the crew even sang, “Happy Birthday.”
Now that was funny.
After five years of bogus birthday greetings, RJ finally tired of the gag late last season and Steve stopped making the request rather than annoying his friend.
But it would have been impossible to resist a “Happy Birthday” greeting on the actual day.
* * * * *
Pranks on a baseball team are a time-honored tradition. Moments after Abner Doubleday supposedly invented baseball, a young farm boy from Cooperstown probably gave him the game’s first hot foot.
One gag that never gets old is the three man lift. Here’s how it works: A veteran player tells an unsuspecting rookie that he is strong enough to lift three men off of the ground at the same time. The rookie naturally thinks that it’s impossible and agrees to be one of the three people that the veteran will attempt to lift. The kid is told to lie on the ground in the middle of two teammates and the three of them lock arms. At that point, the rookie is pinned down while the entire team dumps a nasty concoction of whatever is available in the kitchen on top of him – catsup, mayonnaise, eggs, etc.
If you would like to see the three man lift, here’s one of the many examples that can be found on YouTube.
Clubhouse pranks are not strictly limited to players and coaches. Virtually anyone who enters is considered fair game.
When I was the broadcaster for the Syracuse Chiefs, our manager Bob Bailor decided to have a little fun with the beat writer from the local newspaper. After an especially good pitching debut by a young right-handed starter named Rob Wishnevski, our manager told the writer how incredible the performance was considering that the pitcher had always been a lefty until hurting his arm in spring training. Remarkably, just a few months later he was getting hitters out at the Triple-A level with his right arm. The writer was obviously skeptical, but when he approached Wishnevski at his locker, Rob played along with the gag and added a few more details. Sure enough, the headline in the next morning’s paper read something along the lines of, “Ambidextrous Pitcher Leads Chiefs to Victory.”
The players and coaches found it hysterical. The newspaper . . . not so much.
I can’t tell that story about a fellow member of the media getting “punked” without describing how it happened to me.
When I was hosting the Cincinnati Reds pregame show on Fox Sports Ohio, Kent Mercker was on the pitching staff and we often discussed golf in front of his locker. Kent is a skilled golfer who has a home at Muirfield Village near Columbus, OH – the home of the prestigious Memorial Tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus.
Kent must have sensed that playing at Muirfield had always been a dream of mine (OK, I might have given him a few thousand hints), and he promised that he would invite me to play the course as his guest.
Sure enough, midway through season, Kent gave me a date and tee time to meet him in Columbus. It was the Monday after the Memorial Tournament and the Reds happened to have an off day in the middle of a homestand. It was the ultimate opportunity to play Muirfield because the course would still be in prime condition after hosting the world’s best pros.
After initially jumping for joy and thanking him profusely, I realized that I couldn’t make it. That was actually two days after my wedding date, and Peg and I would be on our honeymoon (I didn’t think she would go for a romantic night in the Columbus suburbs).
Mercker was ticked off, telling me that the course wasn’t even supposed to be open on the day after the tournament and said that he had pulled some major strings to set up our tee time. He made it abundantly clear that I had blown my one and only opportunity to be his guest.
I bought it hook, line, and sinker and felt awful . . . until he began cracking up and admitted that another member of the media had told him when I was getting married.
I had to admit – it was pretty funny.
And I really got a kick out of it when I eventually got to play the course.
Famed baseball writer, historian, and statistician Bill James, who works for the Red Sox as a Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations, did a lengthy interview a few days ago with my friend C. Trent Rosecrans who covers the Cincinnati Reds for cnati.com.
The interview was split into two parts. You can read them here:
Most of the interview concerns the Cincinnati Reds, but one of Bill James’ answers in Part 2 will be of interest to Red Sox fans. Here’s the exchange:
Rosecrans: What about (Reds minor league prospect) Juan Francisco? Here’s a guy who strikes out a ton, doesn’t walk, but hits for a decent average. That doesn’t seem to be a recipe for success, or at least so far in the history of the game.
Bill James: There are always those odd cases of guys who can do that, I’m not saying he has to be Vladimir Guerrero, but Vladimir and Roberto Clemente could do that.
Rosecrans: Funny you bring that up, that’s who I was thinking about today when Dusty Baker talked about the worst part of Francisco may be that he has some success on those pitches out of the zone.
Bill James: There’s a special problem with teaching those guys. Sometimes there’s no point in sending those guys down because they just go to AAA and hit .350 and don’t learn a damn thing from it. I shouldn’t name names, but we have one of those in the Red Sox system, too. We can never figure out what to do with him because he’s not ready to help the Major League team until he gets a little plate discipline but there’s no real point in keeping him in the minors.
So Red Sox nation, who do you suppose Mr. James is talking about?
I’m guessing that it’s Josh Reddick.
(photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
The 23-year-old outfielder is having a tremendous spring for Boston, batting .438 with 5 doubles, 1 triple, and 1 HR in 12 games. His OBP is .455 and his slugging percentage is .750.
But he’s only walked once.
Yea, I know – considering Reddick’s 1.205 OPS in the Grapefruit League, that’s like studying the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and pointing out that Brooklyn Decker has pointy elbows. But drawing more walks and being more disciplined at the plate is the key to Josh’s future.
Last year Reddick began the season at Double-A Portland and displayed good – not great – plate discipline as he batted .277 with 30 walks for a .352 OBP in 63 games. But his numbers plummeted above Double-A as he batted .127 with a .190 OBP in 18 games with Pawtucket, and .169 with a .210 OBP in 27 games with Boston.
“I think the biggest thing we noticed last year is he’s such a free swinger and aggressive kid, and he started swinging at more strikes,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters in this story on MLB.com. “That’s what was noticeable. If he swings at strikes, he’s got so much good natural ability and some strength in that swing, he’s going to be pretty successful. Now that’s easier said than done.
“We don’t want clones, but we want guys to swing at strikes. If you swing at strikes, and you take nice, healthy swings at strikes, it leads to guys getting on base, hitting for extra-base hits. I think they all tie together. I don’t think you go up looking for a walk. You do that, you’re going to be just hitting down in the count a lot.”
That sure sounds like the player that Bill James was referring to.
Baring an injury to somebody in the Red Sox outfield, Josh appears almost certain to begin the season in Pawtucket.
The Red Sox front office – including Bill James – will be watching to see if Reddick displays an improved “eye” at the plate.
Last year I attended a taping of the Late Show With David Letterman and learned that Dave comes out and takes a question or two from the audience before the show begins.
Well, I returned this week and was picked to ask a question before tonight’s (Friday’s) show, so I asked Dave if he would like to join me as a guest color commentator on 700-WLW radio during the Big East basketball tournament. When Dave started laughing, I told him that I was serious because my broadcast partner Chuck Machock was kicked out of a game once for yelling at the refs and I might need Dave’s help if it happened again in New York.
Here’s a photo of Chuck being escorted off the court by a cop in the 2003 NCAA Tournament game between Cincinnati and Gonzaga.
And here’s a photo of CBS using a telestrator to point out where my color analyst was supposed to be sitting.
Letterman was amused to learn about Chuck’s infamous moment and turned it into a running gag on tonight’s show.
You’ll recognize a certain bald man laughing hysterically in the front row.
UPDATE: Here’s a link to Dave’s opening monologue: http://tiny.cc/QaRio
I ran into Kevin Youkilis on an airplane a few days before Christmas and barely recognized him because he was clean-shaven. The bushy goatee that inspired its own website – Beard of Truth Dot-Com – was nowhere to be found.
(photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
I didn’t ask Boston’s two-time All-Star first baseman and 2007 Gold Glove Award winner why the chia pet on his chin was gone, but my guess is that he shaves it in the off-season to be a little less recognizable. Having achieved rock star status in Red Sox Nation, I’m sure that Youk has a hard time going anywhere in public (especially in New England) without being engulfed by autograph seekers and cell-phone camera picture takers.
Perhaps a winter without whiskers was the inspiration for his latest charitable endeavor called “Facial Hair Frenzy.” Here are the details, courtesy of the Red Sox media relations staff:
FACIAL HAIR FRENZY: Kevin Youkilis’ Hits for Kids charity began the “Facial Hair Frenzy” on Thursday, March 4th…For every dollar given to Hits for Kids, donors will get a chance to vote on how Kevin’s facial hair will look on Opening Day…The “look” that receives the most votes (and donations) is how Youk will take the field on April 4…Voters choices are goatee, mustache, clean shaven or Fu Manchu…For more information visit youkskids.org or call (781) 444-9685.
If you go to the website, you’ll see this box labeled “Mirror Mirror On The Wall” that shows what Youk would look like with each of the four choices.
(image courtesy of youkskids.org)
I’m planning on voting for the Fu Manchu. It costs $1 to vote. You can vote as many times as you want if you’re willing to spend $1 for each vote. All of the money goes to Youk’s charitable organization Hits for Kids.
Hits for Kids teams up with children’s charities and medical research programs in New England and in Kevin’s home town of Cincinnati, to help them raise money and awareness.
In this case, Youk is putting your money with his mug is.
There are more than 200 players and coaches in the Red Sox spring training camp and I have a pretty good guess as to which one of them had the shortest off-season.
That would be PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur.
(photo courtesy of Tom Perreira)
After the PawSox played their final game on September 7th, Sauveur went home for a couple of weeks before heading to South America to serve as the pitching coach for the Leones del Caracas (Caracas Lions) of the Venezuelan Winter League.
His stay there was extended when the Lions advanced to the league championship series to face the archrival Navegantes del Magallanes.
“It’s just like the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry,” Sauveur told me from Ft. Myers. “It’s just something that you can’t imagine unless you’ve been there. I tell everybody to look on YouTube and pull up ‘Leones of Caracas’. The atmosphere is absolutely incredible – I can’t even explain it. There were 25,000 people at our games in Venezuela, and I’ve had people tell me that those 25,000 were louder than a full house at the Metrodome.”
The championship series lasted seven games with Sauveur’s Lions winning the final two to capture the Venezuelan title.
That meant advancing to the Caribbean World Series.
By the time that week-long event ended on February 7th (the Dominican Republic won); Sauveur’s “off-season” was basically over.
“I got back home on February 10th and I came down to Ft. Myers on the 12th to watch a couple of pitchers throw,” Sauveur said. “And then I officially reported to camp on the 16th. I did get three days off during Christmas though – that was nice. That was 72 hours that I got to spend at home.”
This will be the third year that Sauveur has spent his summer in Pawtucket and he’s the only returning member of the 2009 coaching staff. Former manager Ron Johnson is Boston’s new first base coach and hitting coach Russ Morman has joined the San Francisco Giants minor league staff. They have been replaced by new manager Torey Lovullo and hitting coach Gerald Perry who previously coached in Pawtucket in 1998.
“Torey has asked a lot of questions about Pawtucket and I’ve filled him in,” Sauveur said. “He’s going to be a good manager. He’s as nice as RJ is – just not as flamboyant. And RJ has been fantastic down here – he’s been like a kid in a candy store and it’s well-deserved. He’s doing a great job down here and the players love him. I think it’s a great fit.”
While it’s too soon to say who will make up the PawSox opening night pitching staff, the likely candidates include highly-touted prospects Michael Bowden, Junichi Tazawa, and Dustin Richardson along with last season’s All-Star closer Fernando Cabrera.
“I’m very excited,” Sauveur told me. “We don’t know exactly who we are going to have and I don’t want to speculate because these guys are trying to make the major league team, but from what I’ve seen, we’re going to have a nice staff.”
Perhaps the pitching will be strong enough to extend the season and lead the PawSox back to the playoffs.
Who needs an off-season anyway?