As the PawSox 2011 Hot Stove event unfolded at McCoy Stadium earlier this month, the most frequently asked question I heard as the fans lined up for player autographs, was asked of 24 year old rightrhander, Jason Rice. The affable, 24 year old answered patiently and nicely dozens of times as he was continually queried if he was related to another former PawSox standout, Hall of Famer, Jim Rice. “No” he’d smile, “I’m not.” Rice understands the question and he doesn’t seem to mind. “Ya know, it’s funny. I get it a lot. With the same last name and everything…I think it’s pretty cool to be asked that.”
Not only aren’t they related, they have never met. Jason hopes that changes in February in Fort Myers. “I hope to meet him this year at Spring Training. Hopefully, I’ll get called up to a Big League game and get a chance to meet him. I know he’s with the Big Leaguers in Spring Training and does a lot with the organization. We’ll see what happens.” (For the record, Jason is not related to Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, either.)
In 2010, Rice, a rule 5 guy who came over from the White Sox in 2008, was the closer for the Double A Portland Sea Dogs. Rice notched 13 saves in 48 appearances (all in relief) to earn a third place tie in the Red Sox minor league system in that department. In 2009, at Salem, Rice dominated with a 2.44 ERA in 41 games, allowing just 38 hits in 70 innings, striking out 94. Jason pitched under Manager Arnie Beyeler last season and hopes to do so again, this time at McCoy. “Arnie was our skipper last year and he got promoted , so congratulations to him. The biggest thing is, you’ve got to work hard and put your time in. I’ll go to Spring Training and try my best. I will fight for a job.”
Jason Rice took part in the Red Sox rookie development program in January. It was his first trip to Boston, although he lamented coming close to playing at Fenway Park in 2010. “I had dreamt of what the field looks like and how it would feel to play there. When I got “fived” here, I went to High A, and I was pretty upset that Lowell went there and got to play in Futures at Fenway. I had missed it by a year. I was, like, ‘Darn it!’, Oh well.” If it makes Jason feel any better, the PawSox are scheduled to be in the Futures at Fenway in 2011 on August 20, against Syracuse.
Maybe, by then, Jason Rice will have met Jim Rice.
One of the highlights of the PawSox annual Hot Stove event is meeting the young men who might wear the Pawtucket uniform during the upcoming season. Over the years, I have gotten a first glimpse of guys like Kelly Shoppach, David Murphy and Daniel Bard. This years group included pitcher Stephen Fife, a 24 year old right hander out of the University of Utah. Fife had recently participated in the Red Sox rookie development program and it meant an awful lot to him. “It’s a tremendous honor. To think that they bring 11 guys in and there are probably 150-180 guys in the system, that they think that highly of me to have me come in for two weeks. I definitely take it as a huge honor.” Fife continued. “They bring in all kinds of resources to talk to you and teach you invaluable lessons that you won’t get anywhere else.”
The 2008, third round pick says the program is an incredible bonding experience. “No matter where you go in baseball, it is a bonding experience. You’re in the clubhouse, building friendships, spending time together. This just helps it grow deeper.” One relationship that existed long before this months’ program, was the one he has cultivated with former #1 prospect, Ryan Westmoreland, the Portsmouth RI native who underwent brain surgery last March. Fife says despite geographical challenges, the two manage to keep in touch. “I try to be as close to him as I can. Obviously the distance between us makes it harder. I’ll be staying with him at Spring Training. He’s just a tremendous kid with a huge heart and a great family. I really enjoy being around him.”
Fife remains optimistic that his friend will lead a normal life and is confident that a career in baseball is still a distinct possibility. “I believe that him getting back to normal is just around the corner. He is progressing pretty rapidly. He’s hitting balls out of the park right now. His work ethic and mentality have never changed. His personality either. I fully expect him to be back on the field some time this year at some point. Hopefully, he’ll break camp and go to Greenville or maybe even Salem. Even if he gets to Lowell at mid-season finishing up his rehab, I fully expect to see him in uniform this season, in a lineup.”
Stephen Fife is a young, strong athlete. Like a lot of guys, he felt an air of invincibility. After being around Westmoreland and cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo who was traded to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, Fife realizes that nothing in life is guaranteed. “You can’t take anything for granted. Crazy things happen in this world. Crazy things happen to people every day. If it is all taken away from me tomorrow, I hope I can look back and say I didn’t leave anything on the field. You have to live today for what it is. You have to enjoy life as much as you can. Meet people and be as good a friend as you can. That’s something Rizzo and Ryan have in common. No matter how bad they felt or how down they were about not being on the field, they both continued to be the same guys, and they’ve both made it back .”
This past week, dating to last Thursday, has been a refreshing reminder of what is around the corner. It began on Thursday, as I travelled to Boston with my dear friend Joe McDonald of espnboston.com for the annual Boston Baseball Writers Association of America Dinner at the Westin. Joe not only covers the Red Sox, but also the Boston Bruins. Part one of our “excellent adventure” took us to the TD Garden for the Bruins morning skate. They would lose to the Sabres that night. Not a big hockey guy, I did correctly identify Zdeno Chara (the Bruins do not wear numbers on their jerseys during a skate) I shouldn’t be that proud. On skates, Chara is almost 7 feet tall. Nonetheless, it was interesting to listen to Coach Claude Juliens’ comments. Ran into some old friends like Bruins radio broadcaster, the talented Dave Goucher. Also Kathryn Tappen from NESN. Kathryn used to work at Channel 10 in Providence. For my money, she is the complete package on TV. Knowledgable, likeable, and very easy on the eyes.
After lunch, we ventured to the Westin for the media opportunity with the Red Sox luminaries who’d be at the dinner that night. Terry Francona, Jed Lowrie, Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald, Clay Buchholz and Anthony Rizzo were there and you will hear from all of them in the coming days on this blog. It is always heartwarming to see your former PawSox friends who have gone on to Big League success, remember you and take special time aside to chat. Clay and his beautiful wife Lindsey have a six month old daughter, Colby, and Buch was understandably proud.
The dinner is always interesting. I’ve been fortunate to attend many times over the years. Always look forward to hearing what the guys have to say. Sometimes the speeches are a letdown, but Darnell McDonald did not disappoint us when he accepted the “Jackie Jensen Hustle Award” named in honor of the Red Sox former American League MVP. After a very cordial and heartfelt acceptance, he asked us to remember the family of little Christina Green, the 9 year old girl who was tragically killed in Arizona on the same day Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Christinas’ father John, was the scout who signed Darnell to his first professional contract. Johns’ father is Dallas Green, who managed the Phillies to the 1980 World Series title.
For those of us seated at Table 16, the highlight of the night came when it was announced that henceforth, the New England player of the year will receive the “Ben Mondor Award.” This years’ recipient is Carl Pavano, the former PawSox righty who won 17 games in 2010 with the Twins. Pawtucket Red Sox team president, Mike Tamburro was eloquent and no doubt, emotional as he spoke on behalf of the organization. I later asked Mike what life has been like since Ben passed away, last fall. “I think that paternal feeling that has been looking over all of us for so long is missing. Some of us have to step up and try to fill his shoes to a bit of a degree. We’ve lost a very special guy and I think that drives each of us to try to do a little more, be a little more and make this organization as good as it can be.” One of Bens’ favorite lines was always “I’m not a jock like you guys, I’m a businessman. What happens on the field matters little to me.” It was so transparent, because Ben cared very much about the results between the lines. I knew it and certainly Mike knew it. “He always talked like that, but there was no bigger baseball fan in this building than Ben. I don’t think he missed a pitch in 33 years. He sat in that box and he would not leave until the last pitch was thrown. He loved this game.”
Mike admitted that tributes to Ben Mondor would take place this season, but wasn’t ready to share them just yet. “We’re still putting all those plans together. There’ll be an announcement as we get closer to the season and opening day for what we plan in Bens’ memory.” Whether it’s a patch on the uniform, a statue or the renaming of the ballpark, it will be greatly deserved and anticipated. Tamburro says that he won’t go against Bens’ wishes and rename McCoy Stadium. “To be honest, we’ve been approached by the city fathers, and that’s not what Ben wanted. We’ve got some ideas that will eventually take the place of that, that will give him a fitting position in this stadium.”
Spring Training begins in 3 weeks. Get ready!
It has been cold around here. Very cold. Snow and ice on the ground, wind whipping, teeth chattering, people shivering. Winter…it stinks. The holidays are over and thankfully we have the Patriots and Celtics (and Bruins too, Joe) to keep us interested. Good news. Baseball can’t be that far off if it is time again for the annual Pawtucket Red Sox Hot Stove celebration at McCoy Stadium. It’s coming this Saturday January 22 from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and it is absolutely FREE.
“Hot Stove” conjures up the image of a couple of old-timers gathered around a wood burning stove, speculating and prognosticating about their favorite teams. That may be the old image of the Hot Stove. Come to McCoy on Saturday and you will see thousands of fans pack into the home clubhouse and indoor batting cage to get a glimpse (and a photo and autograph) of their “Boys of Summer”. Men, women, young, old. All races and walks of life. Great PawSox fans who are the faithful ones. They’ll line up early Saturday morning, clutching their photos, bats, baseballs and anything else they want to get signed. I am usually in the hitting cage, conducting the session there, hosting and fielding questions for the guys, while P.R. guru, Bill Wanless does the same thing in the PawSox clubhouse.
Once we get this event on the calendar, the countdown to Spring Training and Opening Day begins. The PawSox open April 7th at home against Rochester. Can’t wait. Given the talent the Red Sox should have in Boston, Pawtucket should be loaded. The PawSox look for their first playoff berth since 2008. It’s a long season and a long way off, but the playoffs would be great again.
Fans will be getting their first up close and personal look at new manager, Arnie Beyeler. He most recently managed in Portland. I know that Maine is part of “the Nation”, but I think he’ll be pleasantly surprised at the knowledge and fervor of Pawtucket Red Sox fans.
Fans who are chomping at the bit, will be able to buy tickets at the box office and purchase the latest PawSox merchandise in the team store. Food and drinks will be available to fans, absolutely free. It is a great day and there’s no way to beat it. Whoever told you that a “robin” is the first sign of spring obviously was not a baseball fan.
Incidentally, the PawSox will be accepting donations of non-perishable food items on Saturday to help benefit the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. PawSox fans have always been notoriously generous and I’m certain this Saturday won’t be any different. I look forward to seeing you!
I think the voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame spoke loudly and clearly as they cast their ballots for the Class of 2011. Second Baseman Roberto Alomar was a cinch, receiving an overwhelming 90 % approval. Alomar, in his second year on the ballot, got over the hump of the 75% of the vote needed for enshrinement. Bert Blyleven, snubbed 13 times before by the voters earned almost 80% of the voters approval this time around. Both the players deserve admission. The one blight on Alomars’ baseball resume came when he spat on umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996. Alomar alleged that he was reacting to a racial slur the umpire directed towards him. A year later, the two shook hands at home plate after Alomar had been fined $50,000 and served a suspension. Alomar claims that the two have become friends and have worked together for charity. Blyleven was, to me, the pitching version of Jim Rice. Clearly, at least statistically, the righthander with the devastating curveball deserves the nod. He had been outspoken in past years when he had come up short.
To me, the interesting thing about this years voting, was more about who didn’t get in, or even get close. We are seeing the fallout from the steroid era in baseball. Players like John Franco, John Olerud and Marquis Grissom will be spared further embarassment. They will be removed from future ballots for not receiving the requisite 5% necessary to stay on. Others like Dave Parker, who’ve been on the ballot 15 years, will have to rely on the kindness of the Veterans’ Committee, if they still hold out hope. (Side note- Luis Tiant is still, in my mind, the best player NOT in the Hall. Wake up Veterans’ Committee!!)
The “steroid guys” are the interesting component in the voting. Players who have been linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs (ped’s). I guess the poster boys for this gang are Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. The duo combined for 1152 career home runs, yet neither received as much as 12% of the necessary votes. For Big Mac, it was his fifth try and for Raffy, his first. I don’t know if we will ever see either one in Cooperstown. Right now, it’s easy for the writers to not vote for them, or anyone else linked to ped’s. In the coming years, the dust will settle and we may have a better perspective on the entire situation. There’s no real way to tell if any current member of the Hall got in with “some help”, but for the time being, if you are under suspicion, you’re out the door.
I don’t know Bobby Jenks. Never have met him. Of course, I’d recognize him if I saw him, but anyway… He is very high on my list of new favorite people, after reading his comments about his former manager in Chicago, Ozzie Guillen. Jenks said something to the effect of how nice it would be pitching in Boston, for a manager who knows how to run a bullpen. Ozzie Guillen has been one of my least favorite baseball people (Non-Yankee category) forever. Ever since his days as a malcontent under his manager, Terry Bevington with the White Sox. Guillen is a guy who just doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut. Winning the World Series in 2005 has bought him a ton of good will in the Windy City. I lived in Chicago for a couple of years and on the sports totem pole, the White Sox are way down. They love Da Bears, the Cubs, the Bulls and again the Blackhawks, now that they’re good again. There are a few things that we, as New England sports fans, shouldn’t take for granted. #1- Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Obvious reasons. #2- Terry Francona. I don’t know if Tito is the best manager in baseball, but he’s done an exceptional job in Boston. He is the right man for that job. He will never embarass the organization with a stupid comment. He will always stand up for his players. The same can’t be said for Guillen. He has, over the years, been publicly critical of his charges and his club.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that his son, Oney is a loose cannon, too. Oney resigned from his job in the White Sox scouting department (Gee, how’d he get the job?) last Spring after offending the organization with his “tweeting”. Prior to that, he had been critical of Chicago General Manager, Ken Williams. Not the smartest thing you could do. My guess is that Ozzie Guillen commended him, rather than admonish him for biting the hand that feeds his family. It’s a different world today. When I was a kid, if a call came to my house from a teacher that said I was misbehaving (not that it ever really happened), I was punished for my indiscretion. I have a couple of dear friends who are teachers today. If a similar call is made to a house, the parents are ready to “lawyer up”. “My little Johnny would never do such a thing!!” I have news for you. Yes he would.
I will never forget the time I was accosted by an angry parent of a Syracuse University football player I had criticized for a dumb move he made. Shelby Hill was avery talented and likeable wide receiver at S.U. The Orangemen were getting crushed in Miami and in frustration, Hill picked up an incompleted pass and punted the ball into the stands. I criticized him on the postgame call-in show for letitng down the kids who were watching, his teammates and his school. A week later, as I was about to begin the pre-game show at the Carrier Dome, literally, minutes before I was to go on the air, I hear a booming voice behind me. “Who’s the guy that does the call-in show?” I stood up and said “I do. What can I do for you?” “I’m J.D. Hill. How dare you criticize my son?” J.D. Hill was a former NFL player, who should have known better. He was coming after me and I believe, to this day, that he would have hit me if security hadn’t intervened. “The very fact that you defend him, tells me all I need to know about why he did what he did.” Needless to say, I was still fuming when the post-game show started and I vented. Most of the callers supported me, but not all of them. Anyway, Just another example of the apple not falling far from the tree.
I hope Bobby Jenks is a tremendous success with the Red Sox.
I want to take a moment to congratulate my friend and colleague Dan Barbarisi of the Providence Journal. The Red Sox beat writer, who introduced me to the concept of “paragraphs”, has accepted a position with the “Wall Street Journal”. All the best!