DA-NA-NA, DA-NA-NA

     If you read this blog, it is likely that you are a sports fan and if that’s the case, you probably watch ESPN and SportsCenter.  Makes sense, right?  If you do watch SC you were treated this week to an unlikely occurence.  A top ten play that came directly from McCoy Stadium and specifically, Lars Anderson.  The folks in Bristol, Connecticut rarely dip into the minor leagues for their highlights.  With so much going on now, it’s especially surprising.  NBA and NHL playoffs, Major League Baseball, the French Open, Soccer, Golf, The Indy 500, you get the point.

     What did the 24 year old Californian do that earned him a coveted spot in the top ten?  He hit himself with a baseball.  Well, not actually himself, but his likeness on the giant video scoreboard in right centerfield at McCoy.  A homerun that travelled an estimated 450 feet hit “video Lars” in his left shoulder and knocked out a bank of light bulbs on the board.  It was pretty impressive.  The highlight premiered at number 8 and by the time I saw it the next morning, it was entrenched at number 10.  The typically laid back Anderson took it in stride.  “There’s been a few around the same distance.  I’m not really sure.”  Lars said it took him some time to figure out the damage he’d done.  “I didn’t really know until I got back into the dugout and my teammates were like ‘man, you just hit yourself on the scoreboard’.  It’s kind of hard to see when you’re running down to first, so I didn’t know until I got back to the dugout.”

     Always analytical, Anderson was flattered by a comparison to Robert Redford in the movie “The Natural”, when a home run by Redfords’ character Roy Hobbs knocked out some lights, but he found holes in my theory. “I always though it was funny in the movie because it took place in the 30’s or 40’s and they didn’t even play night games at that point.  But hey, Robert Redford is cool.  I’ll take the comparison.” 

     Lars admitted to geting a kick out of seeing himself on SC.  “Yeah, it’s always a trip, because it’s something that you see every day.  The Top 10.  It was cool.  People wanted to talk to me about it.  It was fun.”  Anderson added that he had heard from a lot of people after the national coverage.  “Yeah, a lot of texts and a couple of phone calls.”  Anderson has been bashing the ball lately and says he feels pretty comfortable at the plate.  “I’ve actually felt pretty good the whole month (May).  We’ve been winning and it’s been fun.  Not a whole bunch to complain about.”

     Anderson has been a first baseman for his entire career.  In an effort to increase his versatility, the Red Sox have had hm play in left field a little bit.  A fish out of water?  No way, says Anderson. “It’s been really fun for me.  I feel like a ten year old again, learning a new position.  I’m really excited about it.  I feel really comfortable.  It’s a joy to see my name on the lineup card in left field.”  Lars explains the new skill set he’s trying to perfect in left.  “Good outfielders get good reads.  It makes it a little easier.  I’m working on it every day, during batting practice and of course, during the games.  That’s a huge part.  I’m not the fastest guy in the world, so I’m working on angles to the ball and I don’t have the strongest arm either, so I have to hit the cutoff man.  Just play fundamentally, man.  The outfield is the last line of defense.  If you make in imprudent play in the outfield, it turns a single into a double, or worse.  Playing the outfield, you really have to keep your head on your shoulders.”  Anderson has been working on his arm strength and is pleased with the progress.  “My arm’s getting better.  I’ve been playing a lot of ‘long toss’ and learning to get on top of the ball a little bit.  I’m noticing improvement, which I’m proud of.”

     Let’s just hope that the next time Lars Anderson makes the SC Top 10, he’s in a Major League uniform. 

  

THE EX FACTOR

     It’s like old home week at McCoy Stadium.  The Norfolk Tides, managed by former PawSox skipper, Ron Johnson are in town.  RJ’s pitching coach is none other than Mike Griffin, formerly the pitching coach at Pawtucket.  Ex Red Sox utility man Bill Hall plays for the Tides and Miguel Gonzalez, who pitched briefly for the PawSox in 2011, is on the Norfolk pitching staff.  The Tides’ starting catcher, acquired on waivers after Boston designated him for assignment, is Luis Exposito.  Expo began the season in Pawtucket and was slated to share the duties with Ryan Lavarnway.

     Exposito is in the visitors’ clubhouse for the next few days, but he doesn’t mind.  “It’s nice.  It’s good to be back here and see faces that I haven’t seen in a while.  Just catch up with friends I haven’t seen.  It’s nice.”  Expo sounds very happy in his new surroundings.”It was probably one of the happiest times of my life.  It’s a good opportunity and the Orioles showed that they wanted me enough to put me on their roster.  I’m grateful for that.”

     Since his move, Luis Exposito has appeared in 8 Major League games for the Orioles.  he says it was a remarkable experience.  “It was awesome.  There’s no feeling like it.  It’s what you work for since the time you were a kid.  It’s where you want to be.”  Even a highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter didn’t fade his enthusiasm.  It was him striking out against Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals.  “It’s OK.  He’s nasty, a tough guy to hit.”

     Manager Ron Johnson has known Exposito since he was a young kid in the Red Sox chain.  RJ told me that when the catcher became available, he advised the Orioles to snap him up.  Expo is pleased the Orioles took his recommendation.  “It’s magnificent.  It’s a really good feeling.  It boosts your confidence.  It’s a change and sometimes change is good.  Nothing against the Red Sox, but sometimes it’s business.  There are no bad feelings.  It’s part of the game and I’m happy with the change.”

     Even though Expo and shortstop Jose Iglesias were close as teammates, Luis explains that the two really haven’t kept in touch.  “I really haven’t talked to him at all.  You know, guys are busy.  I’ve had a lot going with my family.  Moving and all.  It’s been crazy.  Luckily, we’ve been blessed to get through it.  I’m glad he’s doing well.  I’m rooting for him and just go from there.”

     While Exposito seems genuinely thrilled in his new home, he laughed when asked about the biggest difference between the two organizations.  “The fan base.  It’s amazing here (Boston)  That’s the biggest difference.”  Expo adds that there is an adjustment to make.  “Red Sox fans care about everything.  They want you to excel.  It boosts your confidence.  It keeps you engaged consistently in the game.  It’s beneficial for the players and the team as a whole.”

     Exposito is excited for the future.  He hopes to rejoin the parent Orioles and stay this time.  He knows there is work to be done.  “I’ve got to get the bat going.  I had some good at bats up there.  I tried to make the most of it.  I feel like I caught well.  They told me to get down here and get to work.  They value me as a catcher and they want to see me play every day.  I can’t be mad at them for that.”

PUTTING ON THE HITS

     For the better part of the last month, the PawSox have had a stranglehold on first place in the I.L. North.  That has been due to great pitching, good defense and a terrific offense.  The Sox are at, or near the top of every major offensive category.  Hitting instructor Gerald Perry, a former National League All Star, is a big reason why.  This is Perrys’ third stint as a PawSox coach, most recently, he filled the same role in 2010, along side manager Torey Lovullo.  In 2011, Perry was the hitting instructor for the Oakland A’s.  He and Chili Davis essentially flip-flopped jobs this year.  “Third time, I guess it’s a charm.  I was looking forward to coming back.  It’s like the A’s and the Red Sox made a trade.  Me for Chili Davis.”   

     Perry is pleased with the numbers the PawSox are putting up, but he knows it all stems from one thing.  “The guys are looking for quality at bats.  We try not to look at the offensive numbers.  More so, what I try to look at, is when a guy makes it to the Big Leagues, how he handles Big League pitching.  I feel like my job is to get them prepared for that.”

     He is doing an amazing job in that regard.  Currently, former students like Will Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava, Che-Hsuan Lin and Scott Podsednik are helping Boston get out of an early season funk that finds them in last place in the ultra competitive American League East.  “I’m really not surprised at Wills’ success.  I told Dave Magadan, the big league hitting coach, that if they were getting the same guy that we had here, we’d never be getting him back.  He’s handled himself well, even from day one at Spring Training.  He got off to a good start and everything just carried over.  That’s what you like to see.”  Perry, known as “G”, credits Nava with being a hard worker and a good pupil.  “I looked at his 2011 numbers, and they were not ‘Nava’ numbers.  The Nava that’s up in Boston now is the Nava I saw here two years ago.  He trusts his hands, uses the whole field.  It looks like he got whipped up a little bit last year, but he has his confidence back.  I’m extremely happy for him.”

     Maybe the biggest change in 2012 is the evolution of Jose Iglesias.  The 22 year old shortstop is a defensive wizard, but needed to grow offensively.  He has.  His average has been as high as .280 this week.  He’s got a home run and is in double figures in RBI.  Perry is modest when asked about how he’s helped Jose.  “He’s made some changes.  Using the whole field and taking what the pitchers are giving him.  He’ll shoot the ball to the first base hole with a man on first.  Just doing  all the things you talk about.  He’s playing the game.  That development part wasn’t working at first, even though he was trying hard.  He’s stayed with it and hopefully he’ll continue to stay with it.”  Perry was asked to look into his crystal ball and predict the future for Iglesias.  “I just want to see him continue to work on the things we’ve been working on while he’s here.  Once he gets to the next level, stay within himself.  That’s important, staying within yourself.”

     Ryan Lavarnway blasted 34 home runs in 2011, including 18 with Pawtucket and 2 with Boston.  Through May 25, the slugging catcher had just 2 round trippers for the entire season.  The always-calm Perry insists there’s no need to push the panic button.  ” He could have 6 or 7 home runs right now, if it wasn’t for hitting balls up in the wind early in the year.  Right now we are just concentrating more on him using his legs and not thinking about home runs, just letting it happen.  That’s what happens when you stop thinking about it.  The home runs just come.”

PUTTING ON THE HITS

     For the better part of the last month, the PawSox have had a stranglehold on first place in the I.L. North.  That has been due to great pitching, good defense and a terrific offense.  The Sox are at, or near the top of every major offensive category.  Hitting instructor Gerald Perry, a former National League All Star, is a big reason why.  This is Perrys’ third stint as a PawSox coach, most recently, he filled the same role in 2010, along side manager Torey Lovullo.  In 2011, Perry was the hitting instructor for the Oakland A’s.  He and Chili Davis essentially flip-flopped jobs this year.  “Third time, I guess it’s a charm.  I was looking forward to coming back.  It’s like the A’s and the Red Sox made a trade.  Me for Chili Davis.”   

     Perry is pleased with the numbers the PawSox are putting up, but he knows it all stems from one thing.  “The guys are looking for quality at bats.  We try not to look at the offensive numbers.  More so, what I try to look at, is when a guy makes it to the Big Leagues, how he handles Big League pitching.  I feel like my job is to get them prepared for that.”

     He is doing an amazing job in that regard.  Currently, former students like Will Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava, Che-Hsuan Lin and Scott Podsednik are helping Boston get out of an early season funk that finds them in last place in the ultra competitive American League East.  “I’m really not surprised at Wills’ success.  I told Dave Magadan, the big league hitting coach, that if they were getting the same guy that we had here, we’d never be getting him back.  He’s handled himself well, even from day one at Spring Training.  He got off to a good start and everything just carried over.  That’s what you like to see.”  Perry, known as “G”, credits Nava with being a hard worker and a good pupil.  “I looked at his 2011 numbers, and they were not ‘Nava’ numbers.  The Nava that’s up in Boston now is the Nava I saw here two years ago.  He trusts his hands, uses the whole field.  It looks like he got whipped up a little bit last year, but he has his confidence back.  I’m extremely happy for him.”

     Maybe the biggest change in 2012 is the evolution of Jose Iglesias.  The 22 year old shortstop is a defensive wizard, but needed to grow offensively.  He has.  His average has been as high as .280 this week.  He’s got a home run and is in double figures in RBI.  Perry is modest when asked about how he’s helped Jose.  “He’s made some changes.  Using the whole field and taking what the pitchers are giving him.  He’ll shoot the ball to the first base hole with a man on first.  Just doing  all the things you talk about.  He’s playing the game.  That development part wasn’t working at first, even though he was trying hard.  He’s stayed with it and hopefully he’ll continue to stay with it.”  Perry was asked to look into his crystal ball and predict the future for Iglesias.  “I just want to see him continue to work on the things we’ve been working on while he’s here.  Once he gets to the next level, stay within himself.  That’s important, staying within yourself.”

     Ryan Lavarnway blasted 34 home runs in 2011, including 18 with Pawtucket and 2 with Boston.  Through May 25, the slugging catcher had just 2 round trippers for the entire season.  The always-calm Perry insists there’s no need to push the panic button.  ” He could have 6 or 7 home runs right now, if it wasn’t for hitting balls up in the wind early in the year.  Right now we are just concentrating more on him using his legs and not thinking about home runs, just letting it happen.  That’s what happens when you stop thinking about it.  The home runs just come.”

I LIKE MIKE

     Batman had Robin.  Martin had Lewis.  Jerry had George.  It might be unfair to classify a pitching coach as a sidekick, but the fact that Ron Johnson and Mike Griffin are reunited this season makes me smile.  The pair worked together flawlessly for three seasons together in Pawtucket.  Johnson managed and Griff was the pitching coach.  They now serve the Norfolk Tides in the same capacity.

     Seemingly, always in a good mood, Griffin is happy in the Orioles organization.  “Everything’s good right now.  I can’t complain.  I like the way some of our pitchers are going, so that makes me a little bit happy.  We’ve had some pitchers go up and have done well.  That’s what it’s all about, so right now, I’m doing well.”

     Griff says this is a good time to be with the Orioles.  It’s a time for optimism.  “I would definitely say so.  We have things going in the right way for us now, as  an organization.  It’s a really good time to be an Oriole and to be in the system and watch things get turned around.”

     Although he’s an Oriole, Mike Griffin still keeps a close watch on some of his former charges.  “I always keep up with everybody I’ve had in baseball.  That;s just the way I do things.  I watch Clay (Buchholz) and Jonny (Lester).  They look similar to when we had them in Pawtucket.  There’s always some things you could talk to them about, but I think they’re doing pretty good themselves.  I know Clay is struggling a little bit, but the season is still early and Jonny, from what I see, is pitching pretty good.”  Griff is equally upbeat when talking about future Baltimore pitchers.  “Chris Tillman is one.  Jason Berken, another of our starters is another.  We have Stu Pomeranz coming out of the bullpen.  There’s another guy who started out in the biullpen, who’s in the rotation, Miguel Gonzalez, who has really opened some eyes.  There are some things going on now that are really standing out.  Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

     Griffin laughed when asked his reacton to the news that RJ had been hired to manage in Norfolk for 2012.  “Oh boy.  I was ecstatic.  To be quite honest, I told my wife when he was hired as manager and I think she said it best.  Denise was jumping up and down and screaming at the topof her lungs- ‘he’s back, he’s back!!’  I said, Yeah, I know, he’s back.  Seriously, we work very well together, we know each other like the back of our hands,we can think ahead two innings and know what the other is thinking.”

     One of the staples for Johnson is his daily “Circle of Trust”.  It’s a chance to get the guys together and air out any issues and have a laugh to start the day.  Griff says the Tides players love it.  “They embraced it quite well.  We have a lot of fun with it.  It’s a way to start our day off on the right foot.  It works out really well for us.”

     The Tides pay a return visit to Pawtucket during the next homestand and Griffin is looking forward to it. “I am always looking forward to going to Pawtucket.  I love the fans there,  They are great fans.  I’m anxious to see everybody in the office.  It’s always a pleasure to go back.  I always look forward to it.”  It will be great to have Mike Griffin and Ron Johnson back home.  Like Fred and Barney.  Like Laurel and Hardy.

R.J.’S MANAGING OK

     I am always happy to see former PawSox people around the league, but never happier than when I see Norfolk manager, Ron Johnson.  R.J. managed the PawSox for 5 seasons (2005-2009) before serving as the Red Sox’ first base coach for two seasons.  In the aftermath of the September swoon, RJ was among the casualties.  It wasn’t fun.  “It was tough, but looking back on it, that’s baseball.  Looking back on my twelve years in the “Nation”- it was fantastic.  Looking at the experiences I gained, I don’t think you can put a price on them.  Going through that, and the season being a ‘whiplash’ season, I know those experiences are going to help me get to my ultimate goal, which is managing in the Big Leagues.”

     RJ landed on his feet.  He was hired to work with the Orioles by the same man who hired him to work with the Red Sox in 2000.  New General Manager, Dan Duquette.  Johnson doesn’t take it for granted.  “I was fortunate, very fortunate.  He had the confidence to hire me before and then hire me to come over here and run this thing.  This place reminds me of getting over to the Red Sox system early.  There is a lot of exciting things going on in the Baltimore Orioles organization right now.”  Johnson was also effusive in his praise for the man that runs the Orioles, Buck Showalter.  “You look over into that dugout and see Buck, I’ll tell you…once i got there to Spring Training and got to know him a little bit…Phenomenal.”  RJ added.  “His awareness and attention to detail, is second to none.  Tito was outstanding with that stuff.  Amazing.  Buck is just like that.  He made me feel comfortable right from the start.  There’s a lot of communication that goes on here, just like it did there.  We are going to be alright.”

     R.J.’s daughter is doing very well these days.  In August of 2010, she and the horse she was riding, were struck by a car, killing the animal and severing her leg.  After countless operations and procedures, Bridget is doing well and in fact, is still riding.  “Bridgie’s doing great.  She’s back riding and loves it.  she finished fourth in the state (Tennessee) in pole bending.  Last night she did very well riding “Youkie”.  On the medical side, she’s doing really well.  She has an amazing attitude.  She’s never asked ‘why me?’  You can’t tell Bridget she’s disabled.  She doesn’t want the sticker on the truck.”

     Yes, “Youkie” is named after a certain Red Sox third baseman.  When Bridget got hurt, Kevin Youkilis told Johnson that he wanted to replace the horse that was killed in the accident.  “I told him he didn’t have to do that.  He said he did.  He wanted to.  He said I didn’t realize the impact I had on his career.  I had Kev since he was in A Ball.”  Youkilis was surprised at how long it took Bridget to pick a new horse.  “I told him, it’s not like Wal-Mart.  You have to find the right one.”  She finally decided on a new horse and according to RJ, two days later, the new horse was delivered to their barn, courtesy of Kevin Youkilis.  The original name was Hootie, but not for long.  “Nah, she changed it to ‘Youkie and now the name is up on stall #1, forever.”  Johnson will always remember the gesture.  “Say what you want about Youk, but he’s got a big heart.  One of the bggest hearts in the game.”

YOUK’S BACK

     That’s the major concern these days for Kevin Youkilis and the Red Sox.  The three time All Star is in the midst of a rehab assignment with the PawSox.  On Wednesday night, Youk went 1-2, with a double and a walk.  Youk showed no ill-effects and seemed to swing the bat well.  During batting practice, he routinely deposited pitch after pitch over the 32 foot high wall at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.  Kevin is scheduled to play third base for Pawtucket on Thursday as his rehab continues.

     Before the rest of the media converged upon him, we sat down and had the chance to talk.  I’ve known Kevin since 2004 and have marveled at his achievements.  He was pretty clear.  His back was feeling fine.  “I feel great.  Ready to rock.  Just get off the rehab assignment as quick as possible and get back up and play for the Red Sox soon.”  Youk felt that there were no limitations or restrictions to hold him back. “I feel good.  I can do everything baseball-wise.  I’m just excited to do as much as possible and play some games here.”

     Youkilis and I last spoke in Fort Myers and he was eager to “turn the page” on the 2011 season.  He finds it frustrating to be injured again.  “It’s definitely frustrating.  You want to win games and stay healthy.  I think this is more precautionary than anything.  I’ve felt good for a while.  Trying to get healthy for the long run.  The Red Sox are picking it up a little bit, starting to win.  The key is pitching.  If we get good pitching, we’re going to win.  We’ve got plenty of offense.”

     Kevin Youkilis has come a long way since he was known as the “Greek God of Walks”.  He was won two World Series rings, a Gold Glove, a Hank Aaron Award and has finished as high as third in the American League MVP voting (2008).  He hesitated momentarily when asked to put into perspective.  “It’s definitely been a long time.  ’04 seems like it was yesterday, but the more I see guys come and go…the other day (Doug) Mirabelli was back (to help honor Tim Wakefield), it seems like it’s far away, with all the players that have come and gone since I’ve been here.  In one aspect, it seems like yesterday.  On the other hand, it’s been a long time.”  Youkilis continues to reminisce.  “There have been great years. ’04 and ’07.  Some good years too.  In ’08 we went to game 7 of the ALCS.  A lot of great times.  It’s weird.  I never think about it until after the season.  It probably won’t sink in until my career’s over.  Hopefully not for another 3 or 4 years.  It’s hard to put into perspective right now.  Going through the everyday grind now, you tend not to think about it.”

     Kevin Youkilis has gone from being the “kid” to the 33 year old veteran.  The emergence of Will Middlebrooks hasn’t helped.  Talk show hosts and “experts” are calling for a “changing of the guard” at third base.  Youk takes it all in stride.  “I just go out and do my job.  I can’t worry about that stuff.  Just have to get healthy, get some at bats and play the best I can play.  Those decisions are made from the front office.  For me, I just go out and play baseball, hopefully with the Red Sox.  There’s been a lot of talk about it and a lot of stuff put out in the media.  It’s not a bad thing.  You’ve got a player that’s playing well and you want him to do well.”

     One of Youks’ trademarks is his fiery demeanor and the emotion with which he plays.  Earlier this season, Bobby Valentine questioned his physical and emotional commitment.  Ridiculous to anyone who has ever watched him play.  Although he has admitted in the past that he was surprised by the comments, Youk refused to comment further in Durham.  “I really don’t want to discuss that.  It’s in the books.  I think that everyone knows how hard I play and how much pride I take in my game.  It’s in the past and nothing to worry about.”  Conversely, Youk appreciated the support he got from teammates like Dustin Pedroia.  “We’ve got a good group of guys up in Boston.  A lot of guys have become pretty close.  We have fun taking the field and we also have fun in the clubhouse, enjoying the game and talking about the game.  We also talk about other things, like life.  A lot of guys are fathers.  They’ve got outside things with their children and families.  We’ve got a good group of guys that really get along.  It’s pretty cool.  It’s good to have guys that are together and want to show up every day and see each other.”

     Youkilis is under contract with Boston until the end of this season, with a club option for 2013.  With trade specualtion swirling and questions about his health being asked, Youk just wants to get back to playing and let the chips fall where they may.  He says he’d like to be a Red Sox for life.  “Yeah. I think it’s a cool thing to play with one team for your whole career.  It doesn’t happen a lot anymore.  It would be a cool thing.  Sometimes, though, decisions are made that are outside of your control.  For me, and the things that I can control-  play the game as hard as I can day in and day out.  If it’s with the Red Sox, that’s great.  If it’s not, there are 29 other teams out there, but my first choice is the Red Sox.”