July 2011

PAWSOX GETTING IT DONE, REGARDLESS

     Before I regale you with my innermost brilliant thoughts again, let me acknowledge the passing of “Red Sox Royalty.”  82 year old Dick Williams, the manager of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox, has passed at the age of 82.  The Hall of Famer was felled by a ruptured aortic aneurysm.  Williams was the very first manager I was aware of as a young boy.  He piloted the ’67 Sox to a seven game World Series meeting with the immortal Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals.  He later guided Oakland to a pair of World Series titles in 1972 and 1973.  He also took the Padres to the Fall Classic in 1984.  Williams was elected to Cooperstown in 2008.  Just a random thought.  Dick Williams has passed at age 82 and Jack McKeon, at age 80, is currently managing the Florida Marlins. Skipper, RIP.

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     It boggles the mind when you think of all the injuries and/or callups the PawSox have endured, yet still remain in the very thick of the I.L. North and the Wild Card playoff chase.  I am hard pressed to think of anyone who hasn’t made a significant contribution this season.  I’m no “brown-noser”, but allow me to be the first to say that Arnie Beyeler, in his first season as manager of the PawSox, warrants strong consideration as the 2011 I.L. manager of the year.  There is obviously, still a long way to go, but Arnie has masterfully shuffled whatever deck of cards he is handed, on any given night.  One of the latest “cards” is infielder Ryan Khoury.  Khoury is off to a fast start in Pawtucket.  It’s his third stint in a Pawtucket uniform.

     What makes this time around so special, is that Khoury was rescued from baseball  “purgatory”.  He was released by the Red Sox late in Spring Training and hs found his way back.  “I’d be lying if I said I’d ever expected to be back in a PawSox uniform.  It’s been awesome.  Just like I remember it.  Great support.  It’s great to be back.”  Khoury was all smiles as he talked about his return to professional baseball.  He laughed out loud as I stole a line from ESPN legend and basketball Hall of Famer, Dick Vitale about Khoury having the “Greatest comeback since Lazarus.”  After his release, he was contacted by former PawSox teammate, Zack Borowiak, a coach with the independent Gateway Grizzlies.  Khoury considered his offer to play, and accepted.  Khoury compared the level of play to high-A ball.  The major exception was that the pitching in indy ball is not as good on a consistent basis.  Khoury said one of the best “perks” for him with the Grizzlies came on the bus.  “It was kind of different for me.  I was about the highest ranking or highest tenured guy in terms of playing in Triple A.  It was kind of weird getting on the bus and getting the best seat, or getting  a seat to myself.  Those bus seats in independent ball are pretty valuable.  The buses aren’t as big.  They’re not as spacious.  It was kind of cool to be able to do that for once.”  he chuckled.  As a point of reference, on the PawSox bus, Kevin Millwood, a former National League All Star and winner of 159 Major aleague games is the guy who should always get the seat he deserves.

      Ben Crockett, from the Sox front office called Khoury and made him the offer he couldn’t refuse.  Did he want to come back?  Silly question.  “Obviously, it was exciting and something I was eager to get back to.”  With this new lease on life, that not a lot of guys get, Khoury almost feels like he is playing with “house” money.  “Oh yeah, but a couple of years ago I tried to start taking pressure off myself.  That’s when I’m the most loose and have the most success on the field.  There’s still wanting to prove yourself and wanting to play well for the team.  We’re right in the playoff hunt and you want to play as well as you can.”  Khoury is off to a fast start.  He homered in his first at bat back and hasn’t slowed dow, hitting near .300 so far.  He admits that the fact that he has played in Triple A before with the PawSox has been helpful.  “In terms of being comfortable and knowing the ropes and the guys, Yeah, it’s been really helpful.”  Just another trump card for Arnie Beyeler.

THAT WASN’T JOE WALSH AT McCOY

     I am a life-long Eagles fan.  Not Boston College.  Not Philadelphia.  Eagles.  As in Glenn Frey and Don Henley.  Those Eagles.  Imagine my excitement the other day when I heard the James Gang was going to be at McCoy Stadium.  The James Gang was lead by current Eagle, Joe Walsh.  They were never really too popular outside of Ohio in their heyday (roughly 1968-1977)  They are a little more well known now, due to Walshs’ success with the Eagles.  Walsh is a legendary guitarist and in his day, a legendary partier.  Any how, I was all revved up, until Dan told me “No, no.  I didn’t say the James Gang.  I said James Kang.”  Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh.  Never mind.

     James Kangs’ return to Pawtucket was just as exciting.  The 5’9, 175 pound infielder belted a home run, a three run blast into the bullpen at Frontier Field to help lead the PawSox to a 6-3 win over the Red Wings.  Kang was as shocked as anyone that he went deep.  It was just his second professional homer, ever.  “I was a little surprised.  When I hit it initially, I knew I hit it well, but I didn’t think it was going out.  It felt good off the bat.  I jumped on it.”  Kang admitted to getting a little “jacked” after going yard.  “Of course, it was very exciting.  I wasn’t sure if the ball went over at first because it hit a railing and it bounced back onto the field.  I was just happy to get a good piece of the ball and get some rbi’s.”

     Kang follows guys like Ronald Bermudez, an outfielder that has made the jump to Pawtucket, directly from A ball, in Salem.  It speaks volumes to the job the Red Sox do as an organization, that they can plug in young guys with little experience and still see great results.  ” Initially, I think it’s the coaching staff that makes everyone feel comfortable.  Guys like me and Ronny Bermudez coming up from the lower levels.  They make us feel at home as we adjust to a higher level.  They tell us to maintain our approach and don’t change anything.”  Kang says they rely on older teammates.  “The older guys help us with pitchers, adjusting our defensive positioning, things like that.”

     Kang finds inspiration from a man who is physically similar in stature.  Former PawSox infielder and 2008 American League MVP, Dustin Pedroia.  “It’s always nice to see that there are smaller guys who make it up to the Big Leagues.  I look up to a player like Pedroia, because it makes me feel that I could accomplish the things that he does.”

     Kang realizes the facts of the game.  He realizes that his stint in Pawtucket could be short-lived.  He takes a business-like approach and tries not to think too far ahead.  “I try to take it one day at a time.  I try not to think about what’s going to happen the next day because nothing is really certain. One day at a time and I don’t worry about it.”

     Kang heard from a lot of people after his three run homer, all with congratulations.  “I heard from just about everybody I know.  People back ion Boston, folks who were watching it on TV.  A lot of texts from my teammates back in Salem, too.  It felt nice.”  Kang welcomed the contrast.  His season in Salem hadn’t been going all that well.  “It’s been kind of a struggle.  Playing time wasn’t that consistent.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a role player, not playing every day.  It’s a big adjustment.  It’s my first full season.”  The name “Kang” just rolls off the tongue.  I like saying it.  According to James, I’m not the only one.  “A lot of people call me ‘Kangaroo’ or ‘Killer’.  They mess around.  Yeah they seem to like it.”

     After I got over the shock of the James Gang not coming to town, I asked James Kang about the musical group.  Surely, over the years, you’ve enjoyed some of their music?? The young Kang laughed. “I’ve never even heard of them.”   A few more three run homers and Joe Walsh will want his autograph.

CATCHING UP WITH AARON BATES

     The PawSox faced Rochester again on the Fourth of July and again, they thumped the Red Wings 6-3.  Lars Anderson and James Kang each bashed three run homers to lead the way.  The Red Wings were decked out in “flag” jerseys.  The red and white stripes, etc.  I liked them, Dan didn’t.  The Wings were auctioning off the uniform tops to benefit charity. Looking dashing, playing first base for Rochester, was our old friend, Aaron Bates.  Bates was released by Boston, this spring and signed in May with the Twins.  Bates was disappointed with his departure from the Sox.  “It’s always tough when you leave a situation with so many friends.  We’d been together a long time.  Basically, I grew up with those guys.  It was tough, but I think the change has been good.  I’m grateful that the Red Sox gave me the opportunities they did.  It was tough to say goodbye.”

     Bates, who played in 122 games for Pawtucket last year sensed that the shoe might be about to drop late in March in Fort Myers. “I knew that unless there were some real injuries, it would be tough.  They had a pretty full roster.  It looked like it was going to be a tough situation.  Going into the office, I had a good idea that something was about to happen.  Arnie (Beyeler) came and got me.  It was just one of those things.  You’ve got to be professional about it.  I thanked them for the opportunity and everything else.”  Bates says it’s not ego or anything like that hurts when you’re cut free.  He says it’s much more simple than that.  “It’s the camaraderie you miss most.  It’s your first organization, you grew up with these guys.  It’s the only thing you know as far as professional baseball goes.”

     Bates was fortunate.  He was “on the beach” for a relatively short time after his release.  “I was just working out in Boston with a former teammate, Jeff Natale.  Working at his facility “Frozen Ropes”, working some camps.  The Twins got in touch with me early in May.  They had suffered injuries this year, like Boston sustained in 2010.  Their front line had been depleted, so they made me an offer.  It was an easy decision for me.  I’m excited to be a part of the Twins organization.”  Aaron says despite his release, doubt never crept into his mind.  “No. I had a good Spring Training, probably the best one I ever had.  I felt good all Spring.  I was really swinging it well.  I knew I wasn’t done.  I knew I could play the game.  It was just a matter of whether an opportunity arose.  A matter of being patient.”

     Bates and his fiance, Lacey Wilson maintain their residence in Boston. Wilson is the former Miss Massachusetts (2010) and the daughter of San Jose Sharks general manager, Ron Wilson.  Bates was able to muster a little joy for the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.  “I was very happy for the Bruins.  I just wish the Bruins had to face the Roberto Luongo that the Sharks faced in the Western Finals.  The way the Bruins played after their guy (Nathan Horton) got hurt was inspiring.  Luongo against the Sharks was very similar to Tim Thomas against the Canucks.  You just couldn’t score on him.  This guy was Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek all rolled into one.”  For the record, I’m very content with the Luongo they faced.

     Bates’ only Big League time came in 2009, when he debuted with the Red Sox and hit an impressive .364 in his brief time there.  “It was something I’ll never forget.  Making your Major League debut at Fenway Park.  It was against the A’s.  I grew up in the Bay area,  and having my family there…my friends back home got to see it.  There are so many great guys up there.  First time on a road trip, Mike Lowell took me out to dinner.  The whole thing was something I’ll never forget.  Being a part of the Red Sox organization was a great experience.  Unless you’re in it, you don’t realize how great the fans are.  How smart they are.  It’s packed every night and the fans make it more special.”

WOW! WAS I WRONG, OR WHAT?

     One of my favorite TV shows when I was growing up was “Happy Days.”  Teenagers growing up in the 1950′s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The breakout star of that show was Henry Winkler, the actor who portrayed Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli.  The Fonz was ultra cool.  He could seemingly command women with a snap of his fingers.  He could start a jukebox or pinball machine with the bump of his fist.  The one thing he couldn’t do, was say the word  “wrong”.  “Sorry, Mr. C- I was wwrrrrroooo”,  “Hey Rich, I might have been wwrrrroooo”. A recurring joke, that always got a laugh.  I am not the Fonz.  I will admit that I was wrong, for at least one day.

     The other day, in this very space, I wondered aloud what the Red Sox were thinking, promoting Yamaico Navarro.  I detailed his history in 2011.  His struggles with the PawSox since his return from the DL. (5-43, .116).  I did everything but call the Red Sox nasty names for the promotion.  I even got into it a little bit with Bostons’ Director of Player Devlopment, Mike Hazen, when he appeared on “PawSox Insider” Saturday.  “Who would you suggest we promote?” He asked me.

     With the game on the line on Saturday night in Houston, Navarro got his first major League at bat of 2011, in a  pinch hitters’ role.  He drilled a 3-1 pitch from J.A. Happ into the night. His very first Big League home run!  That made it 5-2, Boston, as they eventually rolled to a 10-4 win.  Navarro was caught by surprise.  So much so, that he had to wear the helmet of an unidentified teammate.  Navarro is a man with immense natural ability.  The talent is not in question, not even for a millisecond.  That homer may be the jump start Navarro needs.  Tito Francona has tabbed him as the starter at shortstop on Sunday.

     For the record, Mike Hazen, a man I like and respect very much, exchanged good natured text messages with me after his appearance on the show, and again, later that night, after Navarros’ bomb.  The Red Sox have a good track record with their development system, and when I doubt them, it is because I am such a huge Sox fan.  Always have been.  Nice job, Yamaico!!!

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     Pawtucket had a horrible day on Saturday, getting shut out in both ends of a doubleheader against the Scranton- Wilkes Barre Yankees.  The PawSox managed a total of three hits in the twin bill (2 by Tony Thomas).  My true regret is that Yankees Captain and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter is rehabbing with AA Trenton, rather than with SWB.  I would have loved to hear the reaction of the 10,000 assembled at McCoy when #2 stepped up to the plate.  I also would have enjoyed the chance to interview my nemesis (even though he doesn’t know he is.)

BUSY WEEK AT THE YARD

     This has been a very busy week at McCoy Stadium.  Aside from baseball, we enjoyed team President, Mike Tamburro unveiling Mondor Gardens outside the leftfield wall at the park.  The serene setting, complete with statues of children playing baseball, park benches and lovely landscaping, is dedicated to the memory of the late Ben Mondor, the PawSox owner, who passed away last October.  “Ben bought these statues over a year ago.  It was just a question of where to put them.  We were putting in this walkway at the time and he kept asking me when the walkway was going to be done.  He just wanted to find a place for these.  We thought that the perfect tribute to him would be a garden.  that’s why we did it.  It’s in a great area betwen the ticket office and the berm.  All fans will walk by here.  It’s going to be a real special place.  I can see him sitting on this bench and looking at the kids.”

     Mondor was a man who brushed aside fanfare and accolades. Ben was never interested in having a stadium named in his honor.  That’s why Tamburro feels that the Garden is the perfect tribute to the longtime PawSox owner.  “We always talked about some type of “park” setting at the Stadium.  This is perfect.  It’s a great day.  It’s a special day”.  After the brief ceremony ended, I told Mike what I pictured in my mind.  Ben sitting in the Garden on a bench and jokingly telling us.  “Alright you guys, I’m not paying you all to sit around and look at flowers.  Now get back to work!”  It would be nice to hear him one more time.

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     I’m not surprised that Matt Fox made the All Star team.  The right handed pitcher clearly deserves the nod.  It was interesting that he was the sole representative for the PawSox, however.  We’ve compared Fox to a “Swiss Army Knife.” One night he’s the screwdriver, one night he’s the bottle opener and on yet another night, he’s the little pair of scissors.  His versatility is what makes him so valuable.  He has pitched well all season- 4-2, 3.73 in 18 games,(11 starts)  Fox is second on the team in both strikeouts (62) and innings pitched (72.1).

     I am surprised that Yamaico Navarro was promoted to Boston.  Since coming off the disabled list for his oblique injury, Navarro has struggled, going 5-43 (.116)  That’s not going to “play” at Fenway.  Navarro was on the shelf from May 7-June 16.  I don’t understand a lot of things the Red Sox do.

     Still thinking about the masterful performance turned in by Kyle Weiland on Wednesday night at McCoy.  Eight innings, 12 strikeouts, 1 hit, 1 run.  It was truly a thing of beauty.  Weiland tried to explain his success.  “The last couple of times out, I didn’t have my fastball command.  I just tried to establish it.  Usually when I do that, the other pitches follow.” Weiland also showed appreciation to his catcher, Luis Exposito.  “I gotta thank Expo too.  He stuck with me and called a great game behind the plate.”  Weiland told me that his work between starts was also a big factor in his success.

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