THINKING OUT LOUD

     First, let me tell you that it’s amazing that I haven’t smashed my laptop into a thousand pieces yet.  It’s on its’ last legs and seems to take great delight in devouring a blog that I’ve tried to post, or blanking out on me just as I’m about to do the scoreboard on the post-game show. As soon as the season ends, I will get a new one, and I will indeed, take a sledge hammer to this one.  As you might imagine, I’m about to write the same blog for the second time and I ain’t happy.

     (Deep Breath)  Kind of amazing that the PawSox are still in the thick of the playoff chase.  My friend Brendan McGair of the Pawtucket Times wrote a story the other day about the amazing turnover on the 2012 Pawtucket roster.  I haven’t counted, but according to Brendan, there are just 7 players left on the roster from Opening Day.  Yet, Pawtucket is in a seesaw battle with Scranton and Lehigh, as the three teams duke it out for the postseason berths.  Should the Sox make the playoffs, expect the roster to be further compromised, with the likes of Iglesias, Gomez and others going up to Boston to help them in their quest for fourth place in the A.L. East.   

     As I was sitting outside the hotel this morning, I chuckled as a taxi pulled up and picked up Daisuke Matsuzaka and his entourage.  What a waste of money this guy has been.  The brass in Boston has to be licking its’ chops, counting the days until they are rid of him and his exorbitent salary.  He will pitch in Rochester, leave and then rejoin us in 5 more days to start and throw another one of his patented 85 pitches in three innings.  Never a Cy Young, but most definitely a sayonara.

     Long, seemingly endless bus ride on Thursday night to Rochester after being swept at home by Syracuse.  After 5 hours on the bus, mercifully, we stopped on the NY state thruway.  “Sbarro” was still open and horrible pizza never tasted so good.  I felt like I was at an outdoor cafe in Tuscany, I was so hungry.  To that point, I had a box of Cheez-It crackers in my backpack, that I gladly shared with my buddy, Jose Iglesias.

     Went for coffee this morning and was amazed to see a guy get thrown out of Tim Hortons.  Apparently he had been sitting at his table for a long time without buying anything.  Intensely fixated on his laptop, the manager asked if she could get him anything.  He said he was all set.  A few moments later, she asked again.  When he said no again, she asked him nicely to pack up because the paying customers could use his table.  When he ignored her request again, she enlisted the help of a Rochester police officer.  The guy started arguing with the cop when he made it clear that he should leave immediately or risk arrest.  You really have to be a “bust-out” to get kicked out of a Tim Hortons.   The vagrant continued his argument on the street.  I figured I better take off before I was next to go.

      I can’t push my luck with this computer. I’m going to try to publish this blog before it disappears.  If you hear a loud scream from Rochester, you’ll know why,

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RYNE-O-MITE

     It’s rare enough to have a Hall of Famer at the ballpark, but this weekend we had two of them at McCoy. Wade Boggs was in the house for his induction into the International League Hall of Fame. Across the field in the visitors’ dugout, sat Ryne Sandberg, Lehigh Valley manager and Cooperstown teammate of Boggs. In fact the two former infielders were inducted into the Baseball Hall together in 2005. When Boggs spoke to the throng in Pawtucket, he made certain to acknowledge Sandberg.

      Sandberg is finishing his second year as Iron Pigs manager. He was, at one time a candidate for the PawSox’ position. “I enjoy it here in Lehigh Valley. We have a tremendous fan base, so the atmsphere is always great. We have a good group of guys here. I enjoy what I’m doing and this is a good place to do it.” Sandberg is thought to be the only man in I.L. history who was elected into the Hall before he became a league manager. In fact, it was his enshrinement that got him thinking. “When I got into the Hall in 2005, going through that process, I figured out that I really wanted to be back in unioform, in some capacity. After coaching in Spring Training as an instructor for 8 years, I made up my mind that I wanted to try this in 2007 in A Ball. My reflection back on past coaches and managers and the game in general, is really what helped me decide. I’m thrilled about it.”

      Sandberg returns to Cooperstown every summer for the induction ceremonies. He says the Phillies are very good about giving him the time off. He looks forward to reuniting with his brethren annually. Last summer, outfielder Brandon Moss played for Ryno in Lehigh. The former PawSox standout told me that you’d never know the manager was a Hall of Famer. Sandberg considers that a compliment. “I talk to our guys on a daily basis, about how we’re all in this together. I’m out here to help them get better. Sweat and do all the things I need to do to help them. If that’s the message, that’s great. That’s how I went about my business as a player and I continue to do so as a manager. I take a lot of pride in preparation. Pre-game work. Quality work. Work hard and have fun.”

      As a Hall member, Sandberg hears the ongoing debate about steroid users and whether they should be included in Cooperstown. He doesn’t shy away from offering an opinion. “The conversation needs to be had. It was a big part of the game. However long it went on, those were baseball games that were played. I think it’s going to be very tough to put any of their plaques up in the Hall of Fame. It’s up to the sportswriters and baseball. It’s going to be a tough road to travel. These players played and I don’t think you can disregard this part of history. If there’s a compromise to recognize these players, OK. But remember, The Hall is about stats. It’s about character and integrity and playing the game the right way. Players that boosted their stats by breaking the law and going against the rules…I think that will speak for itself.”

GOOD BYE LARS AND GOOD LUCK

  The July 31, non waiver trade deadline has come and gone.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter.  This time it did.  Scott Podsednik was shipped off to Arizona with Matt Albers for former Pawtucket reliever Craig Breslow.  A loss, certainly, but Scotty “Pods” hadn’t been around that long.  The one that hit me was bittersweet.  Lars Anderson was traded to the Indians.  Lars has been in the Sox organization since Day 1.  Six years.  At one point, Baseball America rated him the top prospect in the organization.  He never quite lived up to the pressure or burden of such a billing.  You can’t judge him by that.  At age 24, Lars has a tremendous upside that I think will benefit Cleveland. 

     It was a poignant moment at Frontier Field in Rochester.  Heavy rain was falling and the guys were milling around the clubhouse, monitoring Twitter for the latest rumors.  Manny Delcarmen, the Scranton pitcher, who of course, is a Massachusetts kid with a Red Sox World Series ring was chatting with Daniel Bard and me when word about Lars got out.  Manny knows how quickly you can fall out of favor and be traded.  Sometimes it’s hard to come to grips with changing teams and uniforms.  Manny’s been gone a while now.  He knows what lies ahead for Lars.  Bard, who has struggled this season, had to be contemplating his own future, as well.

     As always, Anderson was philosophical when talking about his future.  “I’m really excited, man.  I had an awesome six years in the Red Sox organization.  I feel like I’m ready for something new.  A change of scenery is going to be good.  Something to energize me.  A place where there’s more of an opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing in the Big Leagues on a more regular basis.  All that is there in Cleveland.  It feels good to be wanted by a team and I’m excited to get started.” 

     Exactly a year ago, Anderson was traded to his hometown A’s.  When pitcher Rich Harden failed his physical, the deal was cancelled, leaving Lars back at McCoy Stadium.  It was a difficult situation for him.  One he handled as deftly as a hot smash to first base.  “There’s no other way to go about it constructively.  It stung as little bit.”

     In exchange, Boston gets a 27 year old knuckleballer, Steven Wright.  Wright converted to the knuckler a couple of seasons ago.  The Sox have tried over the years to find another Tim Wakefield with guys like Charlie Zink and John Barnes.  Nothing personal, but I’ve never been a fan of the pitch.  I can remember sitting in my crib, as a baby, just ripping Hoyt Wilhelm.  Ok, so maybe that is a bit of an exxageration, but you get the point.

     Lars leaves behind a lot of good friends.  He leaves behind a best friend, Ryan Kalish.  Anderson had to take a deep breath before talking about leaving Kalish in Boston.  “We talked about this possibility last night when he got called up to Boston.  We may never play together again.”  Anderson paused.  “Who knows?  Maybe we will.  Ryan and I will remain friends.  We’ll probably live in the same city during the offseason and train together.”

     Lars had no inkling that he’d be dealt.  Nor did he envision his landing spot.  The Columbus Clippers.  “I was completely blindsided.  I had heard nothing.  I was getting ready to play tonight.  When Arnie (Beyeler) told me, I was surprised.”

     Anderson isn’t worried about making new friends.  Playing first base comes with some advantages.  “I  get to chat with all the guys that reach base when we play them.  So we kind of know each other a little.  It’s not totally unfamiliar.”

      As I told Lars, I was having a tough time reading him.  I’m certain there had to be a range of emotions swirling around him.  He clarified for me.  “I’m really pleased with this.”  I will miss Lars.  I got acquainted with his mom Diane and his dad, George.  I even enjoyed conversations with his grandparents over the years.  I watched Lars mature from a kid into a thoughtful young man.  It has been my pleasure.  Good bye and good luck, friend.          

WE ARE FAMILY

      One of the things I have always loved about my job is the friends you make and fraternity-like atmosphere around the park and throughout the league.  There is a good deal of “looking out” for each other.  I have always contended that they never will hold the bus for the radio guy.  Tonight, I was proven wrong.  I was still in the radio booth about a half hour after the PawSox had lost to Scranton, 2-1.  I was wrestling with my uncooperative laptop, trying to send in various reports back to Rhode Island, when my phone rang.  It was Terry Bussy.  Terry has been one of our bus drivers for the last couple of seasons.  An affable Englishman, we have become quite friendly.  “Bussy” is a generic name for the bus driver in baseball, as in “Hey Bussy, what time we gonna get there?”  There are tons of people you might not know by name, but that doesn’t preclude them from being my friend.  Terry, my friend was calling to tell me the bus was about to leave.  He clearly had my back.

     One such guy works at the Plaza Hotel, where we stay in Rochester.  He is a fixture there.  Always nattily attired in a vest, tie cap, and gloves with the fingers cut off, he and I have been talking about the Celtics and  Syracuse University Basketball for the last decade.  We greet with a warm handshake and a “man hug” and I am always genuinely happy to see him.  He seems to feel likewise.  I don’t know his name.  I’m positive he doesn’t know mine either.  It’s OK.  What’s in a name.

     There’s George, the van driver, who takes me to Dunkin’ Donuts when we’re in Scranton.  Countless familiar friendly faces greet me every time we check into our hotel in Durham. There’s a lovely woman who works at our hotel in Syracuse, who treats me like a long lost friend every time we are there.  I don’t know any of their last names and very few first names.  In my 12 years in the International League, I estimate I’ve stayed in some of the individual hotels, as many as 96 times.  More than three months of my life at each of these places.  I guess I see some of these friends, more than I see my real friends.  During the season, these are my real friends.  Talk with them.  Ask about their kids.  Brag about mine.  Otherwise, it’s a lonely world.

     Other announcers, stadium personnel, players.  We’ve all seen each other.  They may think of me as “Pawtucket Radio guy”.  I may regard them as “Buffalo security guy”.  It’s OK.  It doesn’t matter.  We’re all in it together.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but there are so many nice people I see at McCoy Stadium on a regular basis, many who have been there a while.  Just because I don’t know their names, really doesn’t mean I don’t care.  We can all always use a smile, or a “what’s up?”

     I feel like I’ve made some good friends this year at McCoy.  “Bubbles” the batboy on the visitors’ side is a great young guy.  Hardworking and sincere as the day is long.  Connor, who works for Chef Ken Bowdish, is an aspiring sportswriter, whos’ work I’ve had the pleasure of reading, is a talented kid.  The young lady that works with Connor, Caitlin is a sweet girl who always has a smile on her face.  I look forward to my daily conversations with John Rezanski.  John is a retired school principal who acts as concierge outside the clubhouse at McCoy.  More often than not, we talk about baseball, family and food.  The list goes on and on.  Home or away,  these people are all part of my “family”.  They’re good people.

     In the theme song from the TV show, “Cheers”,  They tell us that sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.  That may be true, but I’m here to tell you that it’s sometimes ok to be where nobody knows your name, too. 

NELSON FIGUEROA FITS RIGHT IN

  The PawSox knocked off Indianapolis in a Wednesday matinee.  The Indians boast the I.L.’s best record while Pawtucket is locked in a three way race in the North Division.  The PawSox got a much-needed lift from veteran right hander, Nelson Figueroa.  In his PawSox debut, the 38 year old worked 5 innings, scattering 5 hits, allowing 2 runs.  Ironically, Figueroa had already pitched against both teams in 2012.  The well travelled Brooklyn native takes his newest assignment in stride.  “I’ve moved so many times now, I’ve come to expect it.  I’m a veteran of this game and I’ve come to realize the business side of it.  I’m excited about my chance with the PawSox.” 

     Figueroa seems to embrace the lifestyle that has seen him pitch all obver the world.  “That’s the beauty of it.  18 years ago I got the chance to play professional baseball.  Put on a uniform and live the dream.  I’ve been very blessed.  I’ve got tremendous family and friends who’ve supported this journey and continue to support me, every step of the way.”

     Growing up in a “concrete jungle”, Figueroa says it wasn’t always easy to find a spot to play.  But, it’s even harder now.  “I was just home in Brooklyn when the call came from the Red Sox.  A lot of the fields I played on aren’t even there anymore.  You realize how hard it is for kids these days to get a break.  I start thinking about how lucky I was to get this far.  Even to get signed.  With so many people playing this great game, to have the opportunity to do what I’ve gotten to do…I got a chance to live my childhood dream by making it to the Major Leagues.  I’ve worn the uniform of the Mets, which was my favorite team growing up.”

     Although it’s his first stint with the Red Sox, it isn’t his first time pitching in Boston.  Figueroa starred at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass.  “I was up there for a tournament when I was 17.  The pitching coach spotted me.  He started asking me questions.  Asked me about my grades.  I went back to school and talked to one of my deans.  He said ‘funny, you don’t even look Jewish’.  I did my research, discovering it was one of the best places in the country to get an education.  It worked out.  I got a chance to pitch right away.”

     Nelson Figueroa is grateful for every opportunity he’s received.  Whether it was pitching for the Mets, or in Taiwan, he has appreciated every moment..  “It’s all surreal.  It’d make a good book.”  He continued.  “I look at it all as a blessing.  So many guys I came up with would have a setback, and that was it for their playing careers.  I seem to have been very fortunate.  I live the dream for all the guys who had to play independent ball, have surgery or couldn’t make it back.”

     Figueroa has fit right in.  He’s been at it a long time.  “Once you get past the first day, putting names and faces together, it’s like kindergarten.  Baseball has a universal language that takes care of itself.”

  He shared one last story about his involvement post-9/11.  The native New Yorker saw a need and took action.  “Right after the tragedy, I was messing around with my computer.  I put together an image of a baseball and the flag and I added a phrase.  ‘For all the victims and the heroes, united we stand.”  Lots of major League teams used the shirts as Batting Practice tops.  Fans started seeing them and asked where they cou;ld get them.”  They started a website and got items donated from Big League players.  Selling the shirts helped raise $450,000 in a matter of two weeks.  Majestic Sports took over, offering Figueroa royalties for each item sold.  He adamantly refused.  “I wanted ALL proceeds to go to the families of the victims.”  He was amazed.  “One day in New York City, we sold 10,000 T-Shirts in 15 minutes.  It was overwhelming.  I’ve been very fortunate.  I was glad I had the chance to give back.”

     That good karma continues to follow Nelson Figueroa as he writes the next chapter with the PawSox.

HEE’S THE MAN

     For the second time in a week, Arnie Beyeler had to use a position player to pitch in extra innings, and for the second time in a week, the PawSox emerged with a victory. Jon Hee came in to pitch the bottom of the twelfth on Sunday night and helped Pawtucket earn a 9-3 win in Louisville. Hee had already contributed with a two run double in the top half of the inning, part of a six run assault that opened the game up for Pawtucket. The 26 year old Hawaiian was pleased to hear his name called. “I’ve loosened in the bullpen once this year in Portland. In fact, it was the day before I got called up to Pawtucket. I was at a loss for words. I was excited, but a little antsy at the same time.”

     Hee laughed when asked if he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to hold a six run lead..”Nah. I really didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to go in there and throw strikes.” Hee conceded that he drew a little inspiration from Andy LaRoche. The PawSox third baseman actually won a game for the club, pitching a scoreless fourteenth inning last week at McCoy. “They tell us to just go out and try to throw strikes. Andy got a win. I thought I might be able to get a save, but we had scored too many runs (6 in the top of the twelfth).”        

     Hee enjoyed the experience. “It was fun. I was a little nervous. Not nervous, but I just didn’t know what to expect.” After the outing, Hee said he hadn’t pitched in a game in 16 years, since he was a little leaguer in Honolulu. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway caught both of them and compared the two- LaRoche and Hee. “Rochie threw in the nineties with a little sink. but Hee threw about 78 with a lot of sink. As far as what guys are used to seeing…it’s not Hee. They both did very well. LaRoche pitched in a tie game, Hee had a six run lead. If one of them was to convert to pitching, Rochie might have a bigger upside.” Lavarnway also offered this insight. “As a hitter, you never want to face a position player. It takes you out of your game plan and out of your element. You try to do too much.”

     Either way, manager Arnie Beyeler a has a couple of extra bullets that he can use, even if they don’t come directly out of the bullpen.

HEE’S THE MAN

     For the second time in a week, Arnie Beyeler had to use a position player to pitch in extra innings, and for the second time in a week, the PawSox emerged with a victory. Jon Hee came in to pitch the bottom of the twelfth on Sunday night and helped Pawtucket earn a 9-3 win in Louisville. Hee had already contributed with a two run double in the top half of the inning, part of a six run assault that opened the game up for Pawtucket. The 26 year old Hawaiian was pleased to hear his name called. “I’ve loosened in the bullpen once this year in Portland. In fact, it was the day before I got called up to Pawtucket. I was at a loss for words. I was excited, but a little antsy at the same time.”

     Hee laughed when asked if he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to hold a six run lead..”Nah. I really didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to go in there and throw strikes.” Hee conceded that he drew a little inspiration from Andy LaRoche. The PawSox third baseman actually won a game for the club, pitching a scoreless fourteenth inning last week at McCoy. “They tell us to just go out and try to throw strikes. Andy got a win. I thought I might be able to get a save, but we had scored too many runs (6 in the top of the twelfth).”        

     Hee enjoyed the experience. “It was fun. I was a little nervous. Not nervous, but I just didn’t know what to expect.” After the outing, Hee said he hadn’t pitched in a game in 16 years, since he was a little leaguer in Honolulu. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway caught both of them and compared the two- LaRoche and Hee. “Rochie threw in the nineties with a little sink. but Hee threw about 78 with a lot of sink. As far as what guys are used to seeing…it’s not Hee. They both did very well. LaRoche pitched in a tie game, Hee had a six run lead. If one of them was to convert to pitching, Rochie might have a bigger upside.” Lavarnway also offered this insight. “As a hitter, you never want to face a position player. It takes you out of your game plan and out of your element. Youi try to do too much.”

     Either way, manager Arnie Beyeler a has a couple of extra bullets that he can use, even if they don’t come directly out of the bullpen.