Hope is a beautiful thing. We all have it at one point or another. It’s what keeps us going a lot of times. Spring Training is all about hope. At the Red Sox camp alone, there are hundreds of young men, dressed either in uniforms, or blue shorts, red t-shirts and red baseball socks, all hoping to one day reach the Major Leagues. They literally come from everywhere. All corners of the United States, Cuba, Japan, the Dominican, Australia. Every single one has a dream as they fight through fatigue, injury or even self-doubt.
Ryan Westmoreland continues his battle back and continues to hope that the carrot at the end of the stick, that only a little more than a year ago was his for the taking, is still somewhere within his grasp. The Portsmouth, R.I. native continues his rehab after brain surgery in March of 2010. It was on March 15th, to be precise. The large tattoo on his arm has the date March 16, 2010. That date is the day he feels he was reborn, in a sense. The day his second chance began. Not only to play baseball, but to live the normal life of a 19 or 20 year old. Normal for us isn’t the same as normal for Ryan. None of us has ever been rated the number one prospect in the Sox organization. Very few of us are so coveted that we receive a couple of million dollars just to sign a contract to play baseball. And again, the majority of us will hopefully, never have to undergo brain surgery. After all the ups and downs, “Westy”, as his teammates call him, has an incredible attitude. “I feel great. I’m out here in the beautiful weather, doing pretty much everything everyone else is doing. It’s good for me to be back in that mode again, to feel like a player again.”
One of the things that can’t be ignored, is the incredible progress he has made since the surgery. I last sat down with Ryan in July, and he looks so much better and stronger than last summer. It’s taken a lot of hard work. “I set a lot of high standards for myself and my progress. Looking back on the last year and the things that I am doing, is special to me. Every player around me, that knows what I’ve gone through, is inspired.”
The skills that once came so easily to Westmoreland are slowly returning. He takes batting practice and does all the other things that aspiring Major Leaguers do in Fort Myers. “I’m still working on everything. Every aspect of the game. I’d say my hitting has come along the fastest. It’s a lot of instinct. In the beginning it was really tough, but I kind of let my instincts take over. My throwing has come a long way and so has my running. It’s a matter of sorting everything out and getting into a game atmosphere.” Ryan has good days and those that are a little tougher. “It’s taken me a while to accept the fact that baseball is not the easiest thing for me anymore. I keep looking back and keep making progress at every aspect of the rehab. It’s disappointing to know that I used to be able to do these things so easily in the past, but at the same time, realizing how much harder it was just a month ago, and that I’m getting better.”
Ryan knows that he hasn’t been able to do this alone. The support he has gotten, at times has been overwhelming. “My parents have been there for me throughout the whole thing. Charlene (his girlfriend) has been there through this whole thing. It’s amazing. Back out here and getting the support from my teammates. This doesn’t happen to a whole lot of people. The support from the guys has been incredible. They continue to push me, and I feel like I’m pushing them.”
Ryan told me that he’ll soon be heading to Boston for yet another surgery. As I understand it, he will have a nerve removed from his tongue and put into his eyelid to help its’ movement improve. He says recovery is just a day or two and he’ll be back in Fort Myers, sweating it out with the other players at extended Spring Training. Through everything, Ryan tells me that the Red Sox have never wavered in their support. “They’ve been there for me, through thick and thin and I can’t thank them enough.”
As the PawSox radio announcer, this offseason, the question I’ve been most frequently asked is “Do you think Ryan Westmoreland will be back playing this season?” My answer- “I hope so.”
The Red Sox swapped Adrians in 2011. They no longer haved Beltre, but they do have Gonzalez. The blockbuster deal cost Boston prospects like Casey Kelly, Rey Fuentes and Anthony Rizzo, but most experts feel that Adrian Gonzalez will shine in Boston, after establishing himself as a superstar with the Padres. Gonzalez is coming off shoulder surgery and by all accounts will be ready for opening day. While all of his Major League teammates had Wednesday off, Gonzalez played for the PawSox. Kind of. He had six at bats, hitting each time the PawSox came up in the first six innings. He managed three hits and an rbi in the exhibition against Durham.
Gonzalez spoke about the progress he’s seeing in Fort Myers, after his outing. ” For me, it’s all about getting my timing down. The first couple of days, I was just looking for fastballs, the last couple, I’ve been trying to get hits. It hasn’t worked out too well, so it was good to get out there and have some at bats and mix it up.” Gonzalez said it didn’t matter that he got some hits today. He’s looking to the future. “It’s really about seeing a strike and taking a good swing at a strike. The timing hasn’t been right. Today I felt a lot better out there.” Gonzalez also spoke about not over-swinging and consistency. “I’m never going to try to ‘unload’ on one during a game. My swing is going to be my swing. I look for pitches and if I get them, home runs come naturally. When you do overswing, the only thing that happens is that you swing through it and roll over. That’s not something I worry about.”
Gonzalez has already made it known that he’d like to play in all 162 games for Boston this year and Terry Francona is willing to go along with that. Gonzalez says he is ready to go all out, all the time. “I’m getting Thursday and Sunday off, but I’m scheduled to play in the rest of the games. I’ve gone into the seventh inning a few times already, so I’ll be ready.”
Gonzalez had batted in a lineup in San Diego that featured him. In Boston, he’s just one of a lineup that features talent from top to bottom and that excites him. “The transition’s been great. The guys have been great. My teammates are unbelievable. Everybody around here’s been awesome.” Gonzalez continued. “The potential is unbelievable. We have a very strong 1 through 9 and the guys that are going to be platooning, would be starters on most teams. It’s great to be in a lineup like that, because you some days you’re going to get to hit 6 times.”
Despite watching as couple of losses in Fort Myers, Tuesday was still a pretty good day. Early in the day, I ventured over to the soon to be defunct player development complex to check out the PawSox and Norfolk. The Tides dominated 8-0. There were some bright spots. Jason Rice pitched a scoreless eighth inning and Tommy Hottovy tossed a 1-2-3 ninth inning, Hottovy and Rice are definitely in the mix for the PawSox bullpen in 2011. Our friend Tommy is excited, as he and his wife are expecting their first child soon. Tommy says “It’s a boy.”
Former PawSox outfielder George Lombard is looking forward to his first turn as a professional manager. George will guide the Gulf Coast League Red Sox when the season begins in June. Until then, he and another ex- PawSox, Carlos Febles will run the extended Spring Training games in Fort Myers. One man that may pitch down there is lefty Kris Johnson. KJ had been hampered by the same tendinitis that he endured last season. He tells me that he’s fine now and is just a little bit behind. Adam Mills and T.J. Large are both healthy and by their own accounts, have had good springs. One other thing that George Lombard mentioned. His good friend and former Pawtucket pitcher, Joe Nelson had just left Fort Myers, after exploring job opportunities with the Sox and assistant General Maanager, Allard Baird. I will never forget Nelson and Chad Paronto dancing to the Miley Cyrus song “Party in the USA”.
Fresh from Big League camp, with a snile on his face is the unflappable Daniel Nava. Who’s a better guy than him? Absolutely no one. Nava is looking forward to working his way back to Boston in Pawtucket. I was also pleased to run into my man, Mike Roose. Mike, the veteran of the Iraqi War, and Pawtucket native will be back at McCoy for his second season as our strength and conditioning coach. Also on hand at the PDC was R.I. native, Senior Adviser for the Red Sox, Jeremy Kapstein. The proud uncle pointed out nephew Zack, who had gotten a hit in a game earlier in the day. Zack was drafted by the Red Sox in 2010.
A little bit later, I stopped by the Red Sox clubhouse at City of Palms Park. Not a good place to go if you have a thin skin or fragile ego. Luckily, I’m ok in that department. Former PawSox trainer Greg Barajas and his wife Heather, are the proud parents of a nine month old daughter. After his promotion to Boston, he moved the family east. Greg says that except for the winter weather, he loves it. Current PawSox trainer, John Jochim is ready to head north and set up shop at McCoy. This will be JJ’s second season as Pawtuckets’ trainer. Chatted with new PawSox skipper, Arnie Beyeler. Arnie is still with the Major League club, but he’s looks forward to guiding his PawSox in 2011. More immediately, the skipper was looking forward to a rare day off on Wednesday, one he was planning to spend with his son. The happiest guy in the clubhouse though, was Ron Johnson. RJ was excitedly anticipating the arrival of his wife Daphne and his daughters Cheyenne and Bridget.
Hard for the folks up north to imagine, but these guys are ready to get out of Florida and begin the season. They’re excited, just like we are.
Monday was a beautiful day in southwest Florida. I took the hour drive from Fort Myers to Port Charlotte to watch the PawSox face the Durham Bulls. Since many of the players that will fill out the rosters are still with the respective parent clubs, it’s not a true picture of what we may see next month. Still, it was a great day to watch the PawSox thump Durham, 8-1. Yamaico Navarro belted a solo home run. Aaron Bates had two hits and two rbi and Juan Carlos Linares capped it off with a three run homer in the ninth. Lars Anderson, Bubba Bell and Jose Iglesias also played in the ball game for temporary manager, Kevin Boles.
I caught up with Anderson after the game and after some goofing around, we got down to business. He says that it’s a smooth transition going from Big League camp to the PawSox. “I don’t think there are adjustments, really. I’m just going to keep on working what I’ve been working on.” Lars, recently optioned to the PawSox, says camp with Boston had its’ ups and downs. “It was OK. I didn’t hit the way I wanted, but I did exceed my expectations, defensively. Overall, it was a positive experience.”
Lars was pleased with the recognition he got for his defensive efforts, from none other than Terry Francona. “A lot of people under rate the importance of first base defense. People think anyone can play it. There is a big difference between being a good first baseman and a bad one. It makes a ton of difference. You save a lot of errors. You help the rest of the infield. Other than the pitcher or catcher, you handle the ball the third most. When I first started playing, I didn’t take a lot of pride in it. Now it’s something on my list.”
Once the top rated prospect in the Red Sox organization, Lars slipped a bit down the depth chart after the trade for Adrian Gonzalez. He was not satisfied with is offensive performance with the parent club. Lars isn’t overly concerned. He knows what he wants to work on. “I need to be more consistent mechanically and with my thoughts and my approach. Sometimes, I fall into a trap of trying to fix stuff every day, instead of sticking with something. More specifically, I need to stay back on the ball. I’m hitting it on the ground too much.”
I asked Lars if he could be excited to return to Pawtucket. Even if he was kidding, I liked his answer. “Sure man, I get to hang out with you!”
I’m sitting in the press box at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, as the Red Sox face the St. Louis Cardinals. Not quite as important as their meeting in October of 2004, but I am glad to be here. The Sox have what may be their Opening Day lineup on the field. It is formidable. My interest is coming up now. Maybe the greatest Cardinal ever, other than Stan Musial. Albert Pujols is facing Daisuke Matsuzaka. Pujols lofted a 1-1 pitch to deep right that nestled in the glove of J.D. Drew. The Sox have an array of All Stars taking the field today.
CF- Jacoby Ellsbury
LF- Carl Crawford
1B- Adrian Gonzalez
3B- Kevin Youkilis
DH- David Ortiz
RF- J.D. Drew
C- Jason Varitek
SS- Marco Scutaro
Jarrod Saltalamacchia more than likely will draw the assignment of catching Jon Lester on April 1 in Texas.
Earlier today (Sunday) The Sox assigned Daniel Nava and Mark Wagner to Pawtucket. Certainly, a shame for them, but PawSox fans have to be very excited about the potential Opening Day lineup that Arnie Beyeler will field on April 7 at McCoy.
1B- Lars Anderson
2B- Nate Spears
SS- Jose Iglesias
3B- Yamaico Navarro
RF- Josh Reddick
CF- Ryan Kalish
LF- Daniel Nava
C- Mark Wagner
Certainly, there will be movement, but this a great team on paper. Very exciting!!
My trip down was interesting. On one flight, I sat next to an uncle and his niece. Her father was sitting in the row ahead of us with his young son. This girl was 5 or 6 years old. Obnoxiously sweet, a modern day, female Eddie Haskell (“Google” it if you don’t know Ken Osmond). Problem was, she was much smarter than her adult uncle. This guy thought it would be a good idea to tell the kid that our plane might crash. I swear to you, I am not making this up. Jeff Foxworthy would have no problem identifying this redneck. The guy egged on the little girl so much that she yelled out at one point, “I don’t want to die!” His reply? “Oh, I was just playing with you. We probably won’t die.”
Wanted to watch NCAA March Madness on Saturday night and I am not a big “hotel room” guy. I decided to go to a favorite of mine, although after this experience, I refuse to name them. This is a chain known for its’ chicken wings and waitresses in orange shorts. I have debated the virtues of the place over the years with many women, and I really do like the wings. There were at least 30 TV sets in the place, every single one of them was tuned to some Ultimate Fighting Championship bout. Literally, EVERY one. I asked the manager if he could put one TV on the hoops. He told me that “Our place is known for the UFC. We have to have it on.” “Funny” I sarcastically answered. “How about that ad campaign that you guys are running with College Basketball analyst and Hall of Famer, Dick Vitale?” I felt like I was in a foreign country. He grudgingly changed one set over to the BYU game, so I could channel my “Inner Jimmer”. The smallest set in the place. Luckily I didn’t have to sit on an upside down bucket in the mens room. I was so put off by the fact that he changed it back to the UFC the minute the game was over, that I might only go there ten times this season. I usually hold a grudge longer than that, but a guys got to eat unhealthy foods. Right??
Made it into the Red Sox clubhouse before the game with the Cards. Former PawSox manager Ron Johnson was in mid-season form, insulting me, even before he said hello. Quickly caught up with the entire gang. Lester, Pedroia, Youkilis, Ellsbury, Papelbon, Buchholz, Lowrie, Reddick, Bowden, Atchison. It’s always a good feeling when the guys take time to say hi and acknowledge their old radio announcer from Pawtucket.
Check out this blog all week while I’m in Fort Myers and all season long as the Pawtucket Red Sox take on the International League.
The great thing about baseball, is that everyone has a story. I came across a good one recently, and I decided to invite her to appear on PawSox Insider, our weekly radio show that airs on 920 WHJJ, in Providence, Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Justine Siegal is a pioneer of sorts, having pitched batting practice to Major League teams this Spring in Florida. Justine said it wasn’t easy getting on the field. “I contacted all the Major League General Managers by e-mail and they all said ‘no’, well basically they all ignored me.” Siegal din’t take the response, or lack thereof, personally. “I decided to go to the Winter meetings and try to get a job in person. That’s when I got a response.” A couple of men were interested right away. “Joe Maddon (Tampa manager) and Billy Bean (Oakland General Manager) were immediately supportive of the idea.”
Justine says the feedback has been very good. “It’s batting practice and my job is to throw strikes, firm strikes. Velocity isn’t that important. When I was in my 20’s, I threw in the mid 70’s. Now (age 36) I just think about accuracy and durability. I work out with a trainer 6 days a week. I’m strong and ready. I can do it.” She adds that it would be great if this were more than just a novelty. “It would be fun to throw batting practice every day.”
Baseball is a male-dominated world. Ordinarily, no one pays any attention to who is throwing batting practice, unless Justine is on the mound. “The guys from both teams kind of gather around the cage. They want to see if I can really do it.” Justines’ first shot came against Cleveland, the team she rooted for as a child. “My first pitch, I was really nervous. My hands were sweaty, my heart was really beating fast. My first pitch was a strike. After that I settled in. By my final round, I had just decided to have fun.”
Justine has faced obstacles, playing baseball. She had coaches who wanted her on the team and others that didn’t. “I didn’t really care. I just dug in my heels because I love baseball. It’s the greatest game in the world. I never wanted to play softball.” Her journey has inspired her to begin an organization called “Baseball for All”. “I wanted to give other girls a chance to play, coach, or umpire baseball. Anything to get the girls out of the seats and onto the field.”
Siegal has coached baseball at Springfield College, where she is pursuing a PhD. She has also coached professionally, with the Brockton Rox. She is the first woman ever to coach first base for a professional team. Although I have absoultely no authority to do so, I promised her I’d speak to manager, Arnie Beyeler and ask if she could throw battting practice to the PawSox some time this season. She said she’d love to. She summed up her life in baseball quite simply. “Female athletes just want to be respected.”
Terry Francona is poised to potentiallly win his third World Series title with Boston. He has been effusive in his praise for Theo Epstein and the front office, after their Winter shopping spree. Newcomers like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford join a veteran nucleus, not only of players, but coaches, as well. Former PawSox skipper Ron Johnson missed a large portion of 2010, tending to his daughter Bridget, who was severely injured, when the horse she was riding, was struck by a car. The horse was killed and Bridget lost her left leg, at the knee. Ron Johnson remained by his daughters’ side until she was discharged from the Vanderbilt University Childrens’ Hospital. Johnson has returned to Fort Myers and is ready to get back to work. Francona, for one, thinks it’s a great thing. “It’ll be nice for him. He’s been away so long, dealing with so many important things. I really think it will be great for him to be back, surrounded by so many people that care for him so muc.h. If he needs to go home from time to time, he knows he can. We certainly want to be supportive, but we’re happy to have him back.”
Missing from City of Palms Park this spring are John Farrell and Torey Lovullo. Farrell has taken over as the manager of the Blue Jays and hired the ex-PawSox manager to be his first base coach. Francona goes way back with both men and will msis them. “The thing is, sometimes when you have good people, you are going to lose them. We hired Torey here and we were excited. John went to Toronto and he wanted good people with him. You can’t blame him for that. The happiness outweighs the sense of loss when something like that happens.”
After weighing in on the two former Pawtucket managers, Tito spoke about the new skipper, Arnie Beyeler. “I’m thrilled for him. He’s been around a long time and he’s put his time in. It’s a good opportunity and I’m excited to work with him.” Having been around for many years, I’ve seen first hand just how closely Francona works with the PawSox manager, whomever it may be. “We work very closely with the Triple A manager. It’s the next step.” When it was pointed out that Beyeler seemed to be a different type of guy than RJ or Torey, Francona quickly quipped- “No one is like RJ”. He then went into detail- “Everybodys’ personality is different. They can’t change that, nor do we want them to. Arnie is a hard worker. When you are in the lower minor leagues, everything is pretty strict. the game plan, the kids and what you are doing with them, he has stuck to that. Now that you’re getting up in the minors, things don’t necessarily get more relaxed, but styled more to each player. You’ll see Arnie change and adapt with that when he has older players.”