We live in complex times. Things are complicated, and nothing seems to be black or white. A lot of gray area. Baseball is an exception. There is no gray area. Fair or foul, strike or ball, win or loss…Red Sox or Yankees. It is well documented just how much I loathe the “Evil Empire”. From George Steinbrenner all the way down to the guy who cleans the bathrooms at Yankee Stadium. No exceptions. What has really gotten to me lately is just how many celebrities are Yankees fans. A-listers like Billy Crystal and Denzel Washington wearing Yankees caps while watching their beloved team of villains. OK, so I’ll never watch a rerun of Soap or St. Elsewhere. I can live with that. Washington does make some good movies, but I’ll manage. I never liked “When Harry Met Sally”, anyway. This might be a tough one for my daughters, but life ain’t always a bowl of cherries. They love the Jonas Brothers as much as they love the Red Sox. Nick Jonas, the teen heartthrob, says he loves the Yankees. I have purchased Jonas Brothers concert tickets in the past, (for Eva and Carly) but NEVER again. Bruce Willis couldn’t hang onto Demi Moore, but he loves the Yankees. Willis is overrated- (sarcasm goes only so far with me) I will never root for the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Indianapolis Colts. LeBron James sports a cap with the dreaded NY on the front and despite his wondrous talent, has alienated me for good. (He already did that when he failed to shake hands after the Magic elimnated the Cavs from the playoffs this year). Dwight Freeney, the Colts All-Pro defensive lineman had the audacity to wear a Yankees hat on Sunday Night Football this week. It’s easy to root against Indy, no biggie. Paul Simon, the singer, not the senator has made some beautiful music over the years with or without Garfunkel. He had Mickey Mantle appear in his video years ago, “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”. I have never purchased a Paul Simon CD and seeing him in a Yankees cap makes me crave only one thing from him- The Sound of Silence. So far, I’m doing alright, but it does get tricky. When Derek Jeter broke Lou Gehrigs’ team record for career hits, actor Steve Schirippa (Bobby “Bacalla” Bacallieri) from the “Sopranos” was sitting in the overpriced front row at the Stadium, cheering for #2 (very appropriate). I watch the reruns of the HBO classic on a regular basis so it does present a dilemma. Jack Nicholson, perhaps America’s most well-known actor (apologies to De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman) cuts me to the quick with his love for the Los Angeles Lakers. I can handle that, but I can’t handle the truth that he is a Yankees guy. On my Bucket list, no more Nicholson flicks. Chris Rock and Adam Sandler, two of the most successful alums of Saturday Night Live are both Yankees fans. Rock, the most brilliant standup comic today makes perhaps the worst movies, ever. (Pootie Tang, Head of State). I guess I’ll watch his comedy specials alone, after everyone else has gone to bed. In the dark. Sandler always makes me laugh. As “Opera Man” on SNL, with the “Hannukah Song”, or in “Happy Gilmore” wrestling with Bob Barker, the goof ball actor is funny. But, as he taunted Barker with these now-famous words in that movie, when you love the Yankees, “The Price is Wrong, *****”. I can live with the fact that America’s most famous backup dancer, Kevin Federline (the former Mr. Britney Spears) likes the Yankees, or even that my stepson, Drew, exceptionally intelligent in every other facet, is a Yankees fan. I just can’t root for or wish any Yankee apologist well. I suppose that if Rudy Giuliani is someday elected President of the United States, I’ll support him (You must respect the office). My father watches Westerns. The old ones where the good guys wore the white hats and the bad guys wore black. No mixed messages, no crossed signals. Here’s the biggest moral issue I may ever have. Tom Brady, quarterback, hero and MVP of my beloved Patriots wears a “bad guys” cap. Alright, here’s the deal. I’m only going to root for him on Sundays in the fall. And sometimes on Monday Nights. Just promise me you won’t tell anyone. Nothing black or white about it. Even for me.
I have to admit I feel sick to my stomach after the Yankees wins over Boston on Friday and Saturday. The wins (or losses) probably don’t mean much to most people at this stage of the game, but I am definitely not most people. I absolutely cannot stand to watch the Yankees beat Boston. As I have said before, I know it’s not natural and completely irrational, but that’s me. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s look at the bright side. We are heading to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. More than likely, Boston will face the Angels, a team that they’ve routinely eliminated from the postseason every time they’ve met since 1986. It’s also good to see a lot of “our guys” (PawSox) helping out down the stretch. It’s also good to see a healthy Rocco Baldelli (in photo to the right with me) getting some at bats. Rocco was at McCoy the other day for a youth clinic, along with Pawtucket alum Daniel Bard. Rocco looks healthy and says he feels just fine, thank you. “I’m feeling pretty good. I’ve been coming out of every game I’ve played in ready to go the next day. Hopefully, I’ll finish strong this year.” Baldelli lead Bishop Hendricken to a state title at McCoy Stadium and he relishes the chance to get back and give back to the youth of the state of R.I. “I used to go the camps behind McCoy, the R.I. Baseball Academy. I used to have a good time. These are some of the memories I had as a kid. To be able to come back and see these kids having fun and enjoying themselves is great.” Baldelli admits that it has taken some getting used to not being an “everyday” player. He comes off the bench for the Red Sox. “It’s definitely different. When you’re out there playing every day and there’s no question if you’re in the lineup or not, you have a different mindset when you go to the field. When you don’t know or don’t find out until the night before, it’s tougher. You can’t be too hard on yourself. You try to produce, but it’s hard when you play once a week. You do your best and whatever happens, happens.” Despite limited playing time, Rocco has enjoyed his first season in a Boston uniform. “It’s pretty much what I thought it’d be. When I played for Tampa I came here a lot, played against the Sox a lot. When I got here, the guys made it easy. Tito and Theo make you feel really comfortable. It was about as smooth a transition as I could want.” Baldelli says his teammates are clearly the best part of being a member of the Red Sox. “Being with quality people and being in an organization that wins. When you show up to the park every day and you’re losing, it literally, is not fun. When you come out and have a chance to play for a World Series, just having that opportunity keeps you going.” You’ve got to love the “Woonsocket Rocket”. He won an American League championship ring last season with the Rays. Hopefully, this year he goes one step further.
After the dust of the 2009 PawSox season settled, there were a few items of business to still be conducted. The PawSox held their annual season ticket holders and sponsor appreciation days at the park. Hundreds of PawSox supporters lined up for a chance to take batting practice, field some ground balls and roam the grounds where their heroes play. In the end, they were treated to a barbecue feast under the red and white tent. All you can eat- burgers, dogs, chicken sandwiches, salads and soft drinks. I’m positive everyone had a blast. Watching the look on the faces of the folks was priceless. From the youngest child to the most successful CEO, these fans were given an opportunity that not many get. Some came in full uniform, others arrived in street clothes. Regardless, it was a chance to dip into the fountain of youth and be a kid again. One gentleman summed it up and probably echoed the sentiment of most of the participants. “I’ve played on the field of McCoy. I actually got some hits. I can cross this off my “Bucket List”. What a day!” Fans were given PawSox caps and T-shirts as souvenirs of the visit and the photos taken were made available on pawsox.com, so suffice to say no stone was left unturned. Just another reason to love the PawSox. Employees of the club were also treated to a great outing. In fact, the second of the season. You may recall my blog entry “Partyin’ with the PawSox” from early August. Last week, we sailed on the “Majestic”, also out of Newport Harbor. It was a cabin cruiser that took us on a moonlight sail around Narragansett Bay, under the Newport Bridge and among the remarkable vessels owned by the rich and famous. The dinner was beyond compare. As good as any meal you’d get in any restaurant. Steak, fish, chicken, salad, potatoes and vegetables, capped off with an assortment of incredible desserts. It was a relaxing way to cap off the season. Mike and Anna Tamburro were gracious hosts and saw to it that everyone had a good time.
In the recent Red Sox series with the Orioles at Camden Yards, they cut to a shot in the dugout and young pitcher David Hernandez was being mentored by a familiar face. Former PawSox pitching coach Mike Griffin earned a September call-up from Norfolk and is on Dave Trembleys’ staff for the remainder of the season.. (Incidentally, could Trembley look any more like William Shatner? Denny Crain, not Captain Kirk) Hernandez pitched against Pawtucket this season and in fact, we attended the same showing of the movie hit “The Hangover” later that night.
Congratulations to Hunter Jones. The lefthander was promoted to Boston on Wednesday. Jones went 4-3 with an ERA of 4.25 for the PawSox. Jones was back home in Florida and was surprised by the move. It was necessitated by Junichi Tazawa going on the disabled list (groin). Jones had been warned to stay in shape in case such a need arose. It’s Hunters’ second stint in Boston this year. He made 8 appearances out of the bullpen earlier in 2009. Last season, infielder Gil Velazquez received a similar call, late in the game.
The Durham Bulls are the 2009 I.L. champs and the winners of the annual meeting between the champion of our league and the Pacific Coast League. The Bulls beat Memphis 5-4 in 11 innings to claim the Triple A crown. The Bulls prevailed despite losing 10 players to the Rays or Team USA since August 31. By the way, the hitting coach for Memphis, the Triple A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals is former Pawtucket batting instructor, Mark Budaska.
As we draw the curtain on the 2009 season, I thought I’d check in with PawSox team President Mike Tamburro. Mike came to the PawSox and owner Ben Mondor, fresh out of UMass, 30 years ago. Tamburro has risen to become one of the most respected executives in all of baseball. Under his leadership, the PawSox enjoyed aother banner year at the box office, despite battling poor weather, an unsteady economy and a team that has lost over 80 games. “It’s been a remarkable season in a lot of ways. It’s always melancholy at the end of a year. You feel the seaon will go on forever, then boom, it’s over. It’s been a great year. A lot of happy memories. Not the greatest season on the field, but hopefully, we’ve planted a lot of seeds. A lot of young players came up towards the end of the year and we can look forward to next season, and those are the guys that can help us build the organization.” Tamburro was almost at a loss for words as he thought about all that conspired against the club in 2009. “I’ve been talking about these outstanding fans for over 30 years. They never cease to amaze me. The economy, we knew it was going to be a problem, I think what we never anticipated was the weather. Especially in June and July, the heart of the season. June was one of the darkest, wettest months we’ve ever had and July was the wettest July in history. For us to draw over 620,000 fans, I think our third or fourth best year ever. It’s remarkable. It’s a tribute to them. They have amazed me year after year. I thank them,this organization thanks them. Our outstanding staff has done a great job trying to build something here that the fans feel comfortable in.” As he pondered over his 30 years with the team, he wondered aloud where the time has gone. “It’s hard for me to believe, I’ve been in this business as long as I have. When you do something you love, it’s not work. Every day is fun. Every day is a challenge. Every day something new is going to happen. That’s what we love about this business and that’s what we love about the PawSox.” Mike has supervised the expansion of the PawSox empire. For the last several season, McCoy Stadium has played host to some of the top concert acts in the country. This summer, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp put on a show for a huge throng. “It was fun. It was a challenge to get by the weather, but to have nearly 10,000 come out on a terribly rainy day to see those performers, was a fantastic memory. The rained stopped for the three hour concert and as the folks were driving home, it started to rain again. I guess it was only fitting. It’s enjoyable to see this venue be used in a number of different ways. Seeing our fans enjoying a concert like that is a special feeling.” As we continued our conversation, we reminisced about my stint as a salesman for the PawSox in the ’80s. Along with Ben and Mike, G.M. Lou Schwechheimer, V.P. of stadium operations, Mick Tedesco and V.P. of Public Realtions, Bill Wanless are all still working here. Unheard of almost anywhere, especially in minor league baseball. “People ask about the long term success of the organizaton. It goes right back to the fact that we’ve had such a stable staff all these years. People know exactly what to do, what to anticipate, how to react, how to handle different situations. It’s not a learning lesson every day. We’re all in sync, we all know exactly the way we want to treat the fans and the type of atmosphere we want to build. It’s a staff that’s been built to last. It’s an operation that we hope’s been built to last.” Mike noted that the season goes by quickly, and so, we hope the offseason does as well. Tamburro promises that you’ll be able to enjoy the same type of great family entertainment, reasonably priced for everyone, in 2010. “We’ve got some things up our sleeves. We are doing our typical rehab of this building. A lot of concrete work. They’ll see a freshly painted stadium come the beginning of the year. That will be only the beginning of what we’ll have in store.”
After finishing the 2008 season 85-58 and earning a playoff spot, it looked like the PawSox would be primed for a repeat performance in 2009. It was not meant to be. The team will finish somewhere around 20 games under .500 for the year. There have been some highlights both on and off the field, however. I thought it might be fun to remember before we turn the page on the season.
BEST ON FIELD PERFORMANCE
1. Clay Buchholz’ near perfect game in Louisville. Buch went 8 and a third before surrendering a hit to Danny Richar. He faced just 28 batters. It was a defining moment for a guy who has already pitched a no-hitter in the Major Leagues. A memorable Memorial Day.
2. Daniel Bard strikes out the side on 9 pitches. Before being promoted to Boston in May, Bard was impeccable as the PawSox closer. 9 pitches!! You try it.
1. The collapse of 2009. Pitching carried the PawSox until their epic slide began in Scranton around the fourth of July. No hitting + no pitching = no wins.
2. Fans keep coming. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, but despite the tough economy and the poor on-field performance, McCoy packed ‘em in. The PawSox will again draw over 600,000 fans. Give yourselves a standing ovation.
1. Bowling with Mark Kotsay. The Big Leaguer footed the bill for the entire team (including yours truly) on a bowling outing in Louisville. It was a great night and a tremendous amount of fun, cutting loose away from the ballpark. Kotsay is a class individual.
2. Niagara Falls with my daughter, Carly. Took advantage of a day game in Buffalo and took the short ride to the Falls. Breathtaking. Ran into Jeff Natale, Sean Danielson, Mark Wagner, Junichi Tazawa and trainer Masa Kubota. Classic father/daughter day. Capped it off with an Italian feast at Chef’s in Buffalo.
If you listen to our broadcasts, you know food is IMPORTANT to us. Here are my favorite meals of 2009.
1. “The Beirut” in Toldeo. Being of Lebanese heritage, I have a discriminating palate. Had Kibbee, Tabouli and Hummus. Not as good as Lucille’s, but unbelievable for a meal on the road.
2. “The Dinosaur Barbecue” in Syracuse and Rochester. One night Dan and I had what we agreed were the best ribs we had ever eaten. The Dinosaur never disappoints.
3. “The Change of Pace” in Syracuse. Best chicken wings, EVER. Owner Steve Grilli (losing pitcher in the longest game in baseball history) has the recipe, and the PawSox fans who made the trip to Cooperstown all agree.
4. “Broad Street Grill and Deli” in Allentown. The best sandwich in the International League, bar none. Philly Cheese Steak (made with chicken) melted blue cheese, onions and pickles. Delicious!
5. “Chef’s” in Buffalo. We were treated to Easter dinner there by owner Ben Mondor. (Glad to say it was my idea). Went back with Carly. Spaghetti Parmesan is the specialty of the house.
6. “Packo’s” in Toledo. Always go there in honor of Jamie Farr, Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H* fame. The Hungarian hot dogs are really very good. The pickles are delightful, as well.
7. “Daddios” in Buffalo. Owner Jimmy rolls out the red carpet. Pizza, wings and great atmosphere makes this place a new favorite.
Honorable mention- Anchor Bar in Buffalo and the Italian place up the street from our hotel in Bethlehem, Pa. (don’t remember the name)
FAVORITE BALLPARK EXPERIENCE
1. Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio. They built a new park and they got it right. In the “Arena District”, we broadcast from outside. Plenty of amenities around make it a good trip. Nice hotel and the fact that my kids live there, make it my favorite stop.
2. Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Ohio. The staff is extremely helpful. Excellent park and it’s always a blast hanging out with the “dean” of I.L. broadcasters, Jim Webber.
PERSONAL FAVORITE MOMENTS
1. Interviewing Peter Gammons. The ESPN baseball expert and Hall of Fame honoree was gracious with his time. He told me that he enjoyed listening to me. How about that!
2. At Bat With Nat. Infielder Jeff Natale batted .1000 with his weekly pre-game interviews with teammates. I always got a good laugh..every time.
THE FACE IS FAMILIAR BUT….
1. Robert Coello
2. Brad Wilkerson
3. Joey Gathright
4. Chris Duncan
THE NICE GUYS (VETERAN DIVISION)
1. Mark Kotsay
2. Paul Byrd
3. Rocco Baldelli
I guess I could go on and on. It has been a blast getting to know “new” guys like Billy Traber and being with old friends like Jeff Bailey. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the development of men like Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden. It’s great when former PawSox players like Kevin Youkilis come back for a rehab assignment and they’re still as good guys as they were on the way up. Regardless of where the pieces to the 2009 puzzle wind up, I’m pretty sure we’ll cross paths, again. I hadn’t seen shortstop Chris Woodward in about 10 years, since we were together in Syracuse in 1999. Same for Indianapolis catcher Adam Melhuse. When you spend a season(s) with these guys, you form a bond that isn’t easily broken. 85-58 or 58-85, this is a great job!
Outfielder Sean Danielson has had a season he’d just as soon forget. Not because he couldn’t produce on the field. Because he couldn’t get on the field. Danielson was activated from the organizational disabled list and was in the starting lineup for the game September 1 against Lehigh Valley. He’d been on the DL since June 8 with a “strained calf.” Since then he appeared in three games, going 1-1. “Spike” as he was nicknamed by manager Ron Johnson, was very productive in 2008. He stole a combined 25 bases playing at Portland and Pawtucket. The rifle-armed outfielder ranked third in the I.L. in assists with 13, despite appearing in just 83 games. This season, his high point came on May 11 at Columbus, as he went 5-6 with a double and a home run. Since then the highlights have been few and far between. The Texas native who came to the Red Sox in the deal for Joel Pineiro from St. Louis on Halloween, 2007 has remained upbeat. “It’s very exciting to be activated. It’s been a long time. The nerves are kicking in, but I’m ready to play.” Danielson said he tried to be prepared in the event of an opportunity. “That was the only thing I could control. Be ready, stay sharp. It did get a little old coaching first base, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.” Spike admits that there were some difficult moments watching the team this season- “I’d say the hardest thing was watching the team struggle and knowing that I could help. It’s hard to watch sometimes, but it was something I couldn’t control.” Danielson says that there were positives gained from his long layoff. ” I considered myself a student of the game. I tried to learn by watching moves. Seeing what mistakes people made and learn from them. Just watch how the game is played. Make sure I don’t put myself in similar position when I get the chance to play again.” Keeping in tune physically, was a challenge for Spike. “That was the toughest part, staying in shape. Sprinting, throwing, batting. Strength coach Mike Jones has been keeping on me to stay in shape, so that’s helped. I just tried to stay strong.” Infielder Jeff Natale, Danielsons’ roommate has also been on the DL and Sean admits the two talked a lot, both inside and out of the dugout. “It’s very up and down. You’ve got to do your best to back up your teammates and stay positive. Sometimes it’s hard, but you do your best.” Sean added “We’re roommates, we’re together all the time, so there’s a lot of picking on each other and picking each other up, too.” With a week to go, Danielson is realistic- “I just want to go out there and leave it all on the field. Have fun and maybe raise my batting average a few points.” Defensively, he’d love to gun down some opposing baserunners. “Nobody’s ready for me or my arm. I’ll be the secret weapon and sneak attack them. Ambush ‘em!”