We were standing around the batting cage at Harbor Park in Norfolk, Virginia. Customarily, during “BP”, the P.A. system at the park plays music. That was the case when Tone-Loc came on and the ’80s hit “Wild Thing” reverberated throughout the yard. If you don’t remember Tone-Loc, he had other hits, lioke “Funky Cold Medina” on his album, “Loc-ed After Dark.” I admit, I bought it. I loved it. As it played in Norfolk, 25 year old Matt Sheely started bopping as he waited for his turn in the cage. I said “Sheels, you weren’t even born when this was a hit.” He replied. “I was born in 1986.” I could picture the infant Matt Sheely rolling around in his crib to the gravelly-voiced rapper. It made me chuckle.
I turned to PawSox hitting instructor Chili Davis, a veteran of 19 seasons in the Majors. Most of his career was spent in southern California as a member of the Angels. “Chili, did you dig Tone-Loc back in the day?” The likeable Davis looked at me like I was from Mars. “Like him?” He asked incredulously. I used to hang out with him, back in the day!” Davis went on to explain that he and Loc (Anthony Terrell Smith) met at a “Lakers party I was at with Magic”. I verified that it was indeed Magic Johnson. Chili told me that they became good friends and spent quite a bit of time together. Loc, he told me, was still doing voice work in animated features and working as a music producer. Ironically, both Tone-Loc and I had the same motto back then. “This is the eighties and I’m down with the ladies.”
That was not the end of Davis’ musical stories. A young boy named Stanley Burrell, who was a good baseball player in SoCal used to hang around Davis. Burrell was also a fledgling musician who would often go to the Davis home and take advantage of the “mixing equipment” that Chili had. “He was good.” Davis said. Burrell never became a baseball player, but he did go on to a musical career as rapper MC Hammer. The young man who went on to stardom with hits like “Can’t Touch This”, learned to ply his trade with Chili. Davis says he has some old cassette tapes at his house somewhere. “If I could ever find those tapes. He recorded a song that I think could have been big. Stanley was a religious kid. A church kid. He recorded a song called “Holy Ghost Boy”. It was good. I’ve got to find that cassette.”
Davis has at least one other musical connection. It’s with the ultra-talented Bruce Hornsby. Davis and a group of his Angels teammates made cameos in Hornsbys’ 1995 video “Walk in the Sun.” Chili, along with Gary DiSarcina, Mark Langston, Rex Hudler, Chuck Finley and others appeared in the video. Hornsby, who claims he is a distant relative of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, is a big baseball fun. “Stuff like that was fun.” said Davis.
Kevin Millwood is 36 years old and since 1997 has earned roughly 89 million dollars. He has won 159 games at the Major League level. After losing 16 games in 2010, you might think Millwood would be ready to ride off into the sunset. Not so. Millwood tossed a masterpiece on Monday, working six and two thirds innings, holding Norfolk to one run on 5 hits. Millwood whiffed 4 batters and didn’t walk any. Millwood was understandably pleased after his outing. “I felt good. I felt like my mechanics were close to where they need to be. My location was good. I got a lot of quick outs. It kind of went the way I wanted it to go.”
Millwoods’ outing against Durham was a far cry from his first effort five days earlier. He gave up four runs in two and two thirds innings. “The biggest difference was locating the ball better. If I locate the ball, I’m going to pitch better, and that’s what happened today.”
It wasn’t his first appearance at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He pitched there in 1996 when the Bulls were an A ball team. It was his first time back at “DBAP”. “I’ve been by here, but I’ve never been in here. It’s been a while, but I’ve always loved this place. It was a fun place to play. I don’t know if there’s a better place to go for a Triple A ballpark.”
All the money. All the wins. Things that a lot of people only dream of. With all he’s accomplished, why ride the busses of the minor leagues? “It’s an opportunity to get back in the Big Leagues with a really good ballclub. If I can go out and prove that I can still pitch and get people out, then I’ll have that opportunity.”
Millwood is from Gastonia, North Carolina. He joked that folks wouldn’t make the drive to Durham to watch him pitch. ”Nope. No family or friends today. It’s a little bit of a drive from Gastonia.” Millwood joked. “I think they’ve seen enough of me.”
Maybe they’ll just wait until he’s back in the Major Leagues.
“It was the best news I’ve gotten all year.” - Michael Bowden talking about the Major League promotion of teammate Tommy Hottovy.
That was a direct quote from Bowden. Friday morning, as news filtered through the PawSox travelling entourage that lefthander Tommy Hottovy had earned his first Major League callup, Bowden had a big smile on his face. That’s the kind of kid he is. Fighting for Major League appearances himself, the 24 year old reliever rejoiced at Hottovys’ good fortune. Bowden has had his ups and downs, literally, as he’s travelled Route 95 between Pawtucket and Boston. “It’s been a whirlwind for me. Going up for a couple of days, coming back down for a few days and then getting called back up and getting the chance to pitch. I did alright, but immediately after the game I got sent back down here (Pawtucket). I’m just grateful that I’m the guy that’s here and I’ll be called upon if someone is needed up there. (for the record, Boston needed a lefty to replace Rich Hill, thus Hottovy, rather than Bowden, this time.)
Bowden is happy to get the call anytime. Recently, while the PawSox were in Scranton, Bowden got a false alarm, of sorts. “That was a teaser. I got called up. I packed my bags. I went to the airport. As I was getting off the bus to go inside the airport, they called and said ‘no’, they had changed their mind. It was OK, though. It was a week later that I got the second call. Despite spending time in the Majors in each of the past 4 seasons, Bowden says it’s exciting every time he earns the promotion. “There’s always going to be a thrill for me, whenever I get the call to Boston, I’m going to have butterflies. It’s always fun when you get a call and the manager tells you that you’re going up there. I don’t think it will ever wear off.”
Two of Michaels’ last four outings have not been “Bowden-esque”. He has given up home runs late in games to Andy Marte and Scott Thorman. Manager Arnie Beyeler chalks it up to inactivity, while Michael was in the Bigs. Bowden agrees. “The first time I was up there for 6 days. I wasn’t crisp. I gave up some hits. I didn’t feel great, but I should have been able to manage it a lot better than I did. I had another outing in between. It was OK, but still a little bit sloppy. The next time out, I blew the game. It was the first time in my career I did that. I’ll tell you what. It’s a terrible feeling when you let your team down like that. I know it happens. You just try to learn from it. I can’t tell you what went wrong there. I just gave up some hits and then the homer. It just happened real quick.” Bowden has an unparalleled work ethic and prepares meticulously. He realizes that sometimes, even that’s not enough. “You do exactly what you need to do. That’s what makes this such a great game. Baseball. You think you master it one day and the next day you give up four runs. That’s the beauty of this game.”
Bowden has been promoted and optioned back several times in his career. He said he turned the tables on Red Sox manager Terry Francona when it was time to head back to Pawtucket. “When Tito called me in there, I told him to hold on, I knew the drill. He thought that was funny. He told me to get back here and just keep pitching. He told me that they weren’t afraid to call me up if they need somebody. That’s a great feeling to know they have the confidence in me to go up there and help them.”
Michael Bowden is a good pitcher and an even better guy. Solid as a rock.
I first met Mike Griffin in 2004. It was my first year doing PawSox broadcasts and he was the teams’ pitching coach. Buddy Bailey was the manager that year. After Bailey was fired by the Red Sox, Griff stayed on as the Ron Johnson era began. Mike Griffin, whenever possible, lent some sanity to the proceedings. Very often the good natured Griffin was fodder for one of R.J.’s practical jokes. More than once, the portly skipper of the PawSox tied the unsuspecting Griffins’ shoes together while he slept on the bus. He took it in stride, because we all do. You have to. It’s a long season. Mention the name Mike Griffin to one of his former “students”, and the response is universal. They respect him, and in a lot of cases feel even stronger. Former PawSox All Star, retired righthander Tim Kester, now living in Florida was recently told that Griff was in town and his reply? “Aw man. Love that guy. Tell him Hi.”
Griffin serves as the pitching coach for the Norfolk Tides. He was here in Pawtucket for five seasons. He loves to come back to R.I., although this year is a little different. “Ben (Mondor) will always be remembered by me and my family. He took care of us all those years I was here. I greatly appreciated his kindness, welcoming me to Pawtucket, welcoming my family. What a special guy he was. He will always be remembered by the Griffins.” Although Mike is the longest tenured pitching coach in PawSox history (5 years), he’s been gone for four seasons. “I have fond memories of Pawtucket and Providence and Rhode Island, especially. Being here as a member of the Red Sox and coming to this ballpark every day was a privilege for me. It’s something I’ll always remember. It was a great 5 years. We saw a lot of very good pitching arms come through here, go up to Boston and do very well. Also to help them win two World Series. I’m very proud of the work that was accomplished here.”
The list of pitchers that Griff has worked with over the years includes names like Bronson Arroyo, Clay Buchholz, Manny Delcarmen and Jonathan Papelbon. Perhaps he is the proudest of a young lefthander that has developed into one of the best pitchers in the game. Jon Lester. “Very proud. Very proud of him. Coming here his first year, being very raw, a raw talent with a lot of special quality stuff that he brought to the table, on the mound every single night he pitched. To watch him mature as a pitcher and a person and develop and get to Boston…I’m very proud of him. I’ve since had some very long conversations with Jon. He’s a very special person for me and in my career.”
We spent some time talking about our old friend Ron Johnson and the hardship he and his family endured last summer when his daughter Bridget lost her leg in an accident when the horse she was riding was struck by a car. Griff, a father of two, Kimberly and Brad, couldn’t imagine what the Johnsons went through. “I don’t know how I would have dealt with what he and Daphne went through. I hope I never receive that phone call. I hope I never have to live what he and his family went through. We’ve talked and I think he has changed for the better. Life is precious and we can’t take it for granted. I think the ordeal has changed him in a good way. I had four great years with him. He and I are pretty close and I hear that everything is going pretty well at home and I hope it continues to go well.”
As we sat together, there were two things about Griff that popped into my mind. Things that I will always associate with him, as long as I live. His love of free popcorn and the Norman Rockwell baseball necktie he wore on every single road trip. He laughed. “I don’t wear the Rockwell tie anymore. It had a Red Sox guy on it. That’s been put away on a tie rack in a closet at home.” Popcorn, however, is a very different story. “It’s a staple. I’ve got to have it every day. I’ve got to have it on my bus rides. I’ve got to be able to reach down and pull out a wad of popcorn and put it in my mouth. I just love popcorn. It’s one of my staples. I love it. What can I say?”