REINFORCEMENTS ARRIVE

     Somehow, the Mighty PawSox just keep rolling along.  Halfway through May, they’re ensconced in first place in the North Division.  They’ve done it with a revolving cast of characters.  Due to injuries, and promotions, the PawSox of today look very different than the opening day team.  All Star Kevin Youkilis is scheduled to arrive here in Durham sometime in the next 24 hours and begin a rehab assignment, presumably as DH.  Youk has worked so hard over the years, and has made himself, when healthy, one of the best all-around players in the game.  The emergence of Will Middlebrooks in Boston, may make for an interesting decision for the Sox.  Along with Youk, I expect a flood of scouts and the like to converge on Durham Bulls Athletic Park to check Kevins’ progress themselves.

     Incredibly proud of, not only Middlebrooks, but Daniel Nava, as well.  Really, an afterthought this year, Nava has re-emerged from the pack.  His home run into the Monster seats on Monday night, made me stand up and cheer, very much the same way his 2010 Grand Slam against Philadelphia did.  Nava is an incredible young man.  If you had a son, you’d want him to be Nava.  If you had a daughter, you’d want her to marry Nava.  He continues to defy the odds.  A person close to the situation recently told me that he thought Nava might be the best hitter in the Sox minor league system.  Not bad for a kid who wasn’t even invited to Major League Spring Training.

     Replacing Nava on the PawSox roster is former American League All Star, Scott Podsednik.  A career .279 hitter in ten Major League seasons, Scott was purchased from the Phillies. He’d been playing at Lehigh Valley.  Podsednik paid immediate dividends for Pawtucket.  In his first game at McCoy, he had a single, a sacrifice fly and two RBI.  The veteran seemed to take it all in stride.  “It was a pretty fair day one, I guess.” 

     Podsednik didn’t seem at all surprised with the transaction that landed him in Rhode Island.  “I’ve been around for a while, been doing this for a long time.  I’m not surprised.  If you play the game long enough, you see all sorts of movements, trades, and decisions that take place during the season.  You’ve got to take it in stride, focus on what you’ve got to do and try to come over here and help the club.”

     Podsednik says the fire stil burns inside of him and he is eager to get back to the Big Leagues.  “I still feel that I can compete at that level.  My body’s in good shape.  I’m still running well enough to steal a base.  There’s still some gas left in the tank.  I keep hearing from guys who played the game, to play as long as I can.  Until they rip the jersey off my back.  With that said- I’m still having fun, and I’ve got that fire burning deep inside.  I enjoy the competition.”

     One thing that has to be exciting to a guy like Scott, is the willingness of the Red Sox to make room on their 40 man roster for men who produce.  Given time to prove himself, he’s just a phone call away.  “They’ve made a lot of moves.  They’ve had a lot of unfortunate injuries.  A lot of transactions have taken place.  I’ve been around long enough to undestand that there are just certain things you can control as a player.  You can waste a lot of time and energy getting caught up in moves and transactions.  I try to focus my energy and attention on getting my body ready to go out and compete.  If you do that on a day in and day out basis, the rest will take care of itself.”  Spoken like a true veteran.

WHAT’S A DUCKWORTH?

     I guess I’m still a little “old school” and the title of todays’ entry sounded a little like an old Groucho Marx joke and it made me chuckle a little bit.  Anyway, if you’re a baseball fan, you know the worth of Brandon Duckworth, the right handed pitcher in his second year with the PawSox.  “Duck” is  4-0 a a starter and a bullpen guy for the first place Pawtucket club.  Currently in the starting rotation, he has proven his worth time and time again in the last season and a quarter.  Brandons’ last win was the 100th of his minor league career.   When asked about the milestone, he laughed.  “It means I’ve been playing an awful long time.  You can look at it in a number of different ways.  It’s really cool to have that many decisions and wins,but at the same time, you wish they were up in the Major Leagues.  But, ya know, this is my fifteenth season and that says a lot. ”   Duckworth hasn’t taken his longevity for granted.  “It goes by so fast.  You don’t realize it until you’re into it for ten plus years.  It just keeps getting faster and faster each and every year”.

     Duckworth admits that time can take its’ toll on a man.  Preparing for games isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago.  “Oh, it’s different.  I’ve learned my body.  You know what your body needs, day in and day out, over the course of time.  As you do get older, you learn what you need.  You may not throw as much in certain situations, like sidework, the things you need to do in order to stay on top of your game.”

     Brandon also has 23 Major League wins under his belt, with Philadelphia, Houston and the Royals.  He has spent parts of 8 seasons in the Bigs, appearing in 134 games.  Still, he has the desire for more.  “It’s been a dream come true.  Any kid that picks up a bat and ball, it’s an aspiration that everyone has.  To be able to do that, play in the Big Leagues for the over 8 years I’ve been there…you just kind of pinch yourself.  I may not have been there all 15 years, but at the same time, I have a good amount of time in at the Big League level.  You just have to take that with a lot of pride.” 

     With the amount of experience he has, there comes a certain amount of wisdom, as well.  Whether he’s starting, or coming out of the pen, he’s ready.  “I’ve had a lot of experience doing both.  During some of my time in the  Majors, I had to do that.  I’d spot start, come out of the pen, fill multiple roles.  You just learn how much you need to throw and really, how much you don’t need to throw, if that makes sense.  That’s where the mental portion  of the game comes into play.  That’s the biggest key for me,learning over time and knowing how to implement it every day.”

     We have all sat back and watched with horror, the starting pitching of the Boston Red Sox.  Duckworth feels he could contribute as he continues to bide his time in Pawtucket.  “You’ve got to look at it in multiple ways.  You’ve got a lot of guys, young guys that are going to be their core guys for years to come.  You have contracts that  you have to deal with and you also have to look at roster spots and what they can and can’t do.  If there’s a need, they’ll make a move.  It’s my job to be ready.  You’ve just got to keep driving.  You can’t look at it in a negative way.  If you do, the only thing that suffers, is your own game.”

     In my mind, Duckworth has assumed the role of “leader of the staff”. That’s a role filled in the last couple of years by guys like Scott Atchison and Chad Paronto.  Duckworth doesn’t back down from his responsibility to the game.  “We’ve got a lot of good young arms.  It’s a matter of going out there and learning new things.  I’ll relate my own experiences to the younger guys.  I ask them a lot of questions, like what they’re thinking in certain situations.  I try to pass on information to them, like it was passed on to me.”

     Here’s hoping that all our guys some day have at least 123 professional victories each.

THE CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN

     This has been a long road swing for the PawSox.  10 games, 4 cities with a last minute shift from Batavia to Rochester.  That move was necessitated by the presence of veteran lefty, Andy Pettitte.  The future Hall of Famer is very close to completing his comeback with the Yankees.  Ironically, it comes the same week that his teammate and friend, Mariano Rivera went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.  Along with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, those men combined to form the “Core Four”.  The Core Four was the heart and soul of the Yankees, and as any good Red Sox fan can tell you, they made life miserable for us.

     Sunday at Frontier Field, I was interviewing PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler for our pre-game show when a large black SUV pulled right on to the playing field in Rochester and stopped at the backstop behind home plate.  The door opened and out stepped Pettitte.  The height, the unmistakable profile and the menacing eyes that sent chills through the hearts of hitters for the last generation.  Pettitte quickly made his way inside to safety while dozens of autograph seekers, who had been waiting for hours outside the park, continued their vigil, not realizing they had missed their quarry.

     Beyeler, who could be called a stoic, admitted he was looking forward to the days matchup.  “With Pettitte pitching, they’ve got a lot of tickets sold.  Should be a big crowd.  A little day baseball, get on the bus and go home.  It’s about time.”  Beyeler spoke about the oddity of his club playing 4 days in 4 different cities,  Toledo, Batavia, Rochester and Monday in Pawtucket.  “It’s not the norm.  It reminds me of being in Venezuela in the winter time.  You go to a different town every day to play.  You don’t think much of it.”

     Arnie commented on the “shoe being on the other foot”.  Usually it is the Red Sox making a splash with a Major League rehabber like Dustin Pedroia or David Ortiz.  This time it’s the Yankees.  “I think this is great.  Guys like him who have the ability he’s got.  Possible Hall of Fame career, a great competitor.  I think it will be fun to see him.  A quality pitcher like him.  I’m sure his stuff is still good.  The place will be buzzing and going crazy today.  It should be a lot of fun.”

     The irony of Pettittes’ comeback coinciding with the injury to Mariano Rivera was not lost on Beyeler.  “Any time you’ve got a superstar guy like that and he goes down, it’s not good for the game.  Hopefully, Mariano will rehab, get back and get back to form.  it will be better for him if he can finish on his own terms.  The respect among players at what he does as possibly the best relief pitcher ever.  Hopefully he comes back and we get to see him pitch some more.” 

     PawSox catcher Mike Rivera caught Pettitte while they were both Yankees players.  He has some advice for his current teammates, but not much.  “Watch for the cutter, cutter, cutter.  You may know it’s coming, but that doesn’t mean you can do anything with it.”  Pitching coach Rich Sauveur says the cutter is a variation of the slider, held just a bit differently, with a slighter break.  “Pettittes’ cutter is so good, because it has ‘depth’ to it.””

IN THE LOBBY

     For a guy who spends as much time on the road as I do, I hate hotels.  The rooms are somewhat depressing, so as a result, I spend a ton of time in the lobby.  It’s a fun place to people-watch, do a crossword puzzle, drink your coffee or just chat with the guys.  Over the years, I have developed a rapport with our players.  I feel that they trust me, because what “happens in Vegas…”  The bond doesn’t occur overnight.  It takes a while to develop.  As a young broasdcaster, I adopted the philosophy that this was their world and I was fortunate to have a front row seat.  Consequently, I have never taken my position lightly.  There have been many times over the years when I could have “broken” stories, but that’s not my job.  I ride the same busses, stay in the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants.  Whether you are a top prospect, or the 25th man on the roster, it stays in the “vault.”  Most people I’ve worked with, understand.  Others will never get it.  Not my problem, as they drown in paranoia.

     I thought it might be fun to spend an hour in the lobby of the Park Inn in Toledo, Ohio.  This has been the team hotel for as long as I can remember.  Not the best place we stay, but not the worst.  Folks who think this is a glamorous job would be interested to find out that there some very mundane moments.  Very often, more mundane, than not.  So far, catchers Ryan Lavarnway and Mike Rivera have made their way to the restaurant on the other side of the lobby, “Mad Mikes”.  I can honestly tell you that in 9 years with the PawSox, I have never taken one bite of their food.  Both acknowledged me as they passed by.

     A couple of moments later, a gruff, older man approached the front desk.  He had gone up to his room and his key didn’t work.  He took it out on the front desk clerk.  I learned a lesson today.  It’s not the front desk clerks’ fault.  As he left with his new key, he threatened, “This better work!”

     Trainer John Jochim, seemingly always busy, stopped at the front desk and nodded my way as he finished.  Pitcher Alex Wilson, a top prospect greeted me with a “Hey Hyder” as he passed by.  In baseball, last names, or variations thereof, are the norm.  Very few people in the “civilian world” can get away with it.  We had a kid that worked in the front office at McCoy, who has since moved on, but he called me Hyder once and I told him that it was acceptable, only if he put “Mr.” in front of it.  He got my message.  The lobby is pretty quiet, even at 10:00 a.m.  Yesterday was a different story.  Several wrestlers from the W.W.E. were staying here for a show they did on Tuesday night.  It was rather amusing watching these behemoths showing off their new sequins tights to each other.

     Over the years, I’ve had some great conversations in this very lobby.  I fondly recall the encounters I had with the grandfathers of two of our guys.  Chris Carter, an outstanding hitter and super guy, had a grandfather who listened to our broadcasts every night.  As I recall, he lived in the Cleveland area.  We talked for an hour about baseball, about his grandson and about life in general.  He thanked me for being his eyes into Chris’ career.  He meant it quite literally.  Mr. Carter was blind.

     On another occasion, I had the pleasure of talking with Lars Andersons’ grandfather, John.  A fascinating man, he is a retired PGA club professional, who worked and lived in Pennsylvania.  He told me a great story about being summoned to the golf course one day for a “command performance.”  A mutual friend wanted John to join a foursome that included a young man that had just won a fairly big tournament.  The man, Arnold Palmer, the tournament, The Masters.

     The lobby is still fairly quiet.  Lavarnway and Rivera finished the morning meal and when I asked how the breakfast was, Lavarnway lifted up his shirt a few inches and slapped his belly in approval.

     Nothing very exciting happens in the lobby, but it’s a comfortable home away from home.

STRONG AS EVER

     Mike Roose is a Pawtucket native, born in the shadows of McCoy Stadium on the night of the longest game in professional baseball history.  He served 4 tours of duty with the United States Air Force, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For two seasons, he was the strength and conditioning coach for the PawSox, and now serves as the coordinator for the entire minor league system.  His “office” is a gleaming, state of the art facility at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers.  Recently, Roose joined the PawSox on the road and we had the chance to catch up.

     Roose is grateful for his new opportunity.  “It feels great.  It makes me realize that working hard and putting the extra time in taking care of guys, eventually pays off.  I’m working on a larger scale now, but a lot of people had my back.  Arnie (Beyeler), JJ (Trainer John Jochim), the coaches.  They all put in a good word for me.  They are the ones who thrust me into this position and I appreciate it.

     Instead of working with 24 or 25 players, Roose is charged with the responsibility of coordinating the whole system.  “I work with all 7 affiliates.  4 are playing right now.  I’ve got a bunch of guys in Fort Myers,  It’s a great responsibility, but I’ve got a lot of good people that do a great job.  All the trainers at every level are really good at what they do.”  While the workload is greater, Roose fondly recalls his years with the Pawsox.  “It was great.  I was near my family and got to spend time with my buddies.  It was a lot of fun.”

     Roose says his military background has been integral in helping him with his career in coaching.  “Oh Yeah.  It was the biggest experience of my life.  The discipline.  Learning to work in some less than ideal environments, you make adjustments.  Pushing guys, motivating them, even when they’re tired…that all came from my military background.”  Roose will try to relate his experiences to his players.  He knows that a 7 hour bus ride or the heat of Fort Myers aren’t the worst things that can happen to you.  “That stuff is luxurious compared to being in the desert.  I know it’s a long season, but there’s definitely worse places to be than on a bus going to play another baseball game.”

     The Red Sox spent a lot of money on their new facility in Fort Myers and with Mike Roose running it, they’ll get the most out of it.

MANNY BEING MANNY…AS A YANKEE

     When the Scranton Wilkes Barre Yankees came to McCoy this week, I was very excited about one thing.  Seeing Manny Delcarmen, the kid from West Roxbury, who realized a dream.  Manny grew up a Red Sox fan and always wanted to wear the Boston uniform.  He was drafted by the Sox and worked his way through the system, of course pitching for the PawSox, before earning the promotion to Boston.  Manny eventually won a World Series ring in 2007.  Now he’s pitching for the “enemy”, trying to get a spot in the bullpen in the Bronx.

     I was on the field, talking to strength coach Lee Tressel of the Yankees.  Lee is the nephew of former Ohio State football coach, Jim Tressel.  I asked him where Manny was and he told me he was running in the outfield.  A short while later, Tressel told me “Here he comes.”  I turned around to greet my old friend and extended my hand in friendship.  By then, it was too late.   Manny said hi.  “I’m Manny Banuelos.”  He shook my hand.  I quickly apologized and got more specific.  “Oh, I’m sorry, I meant Delcarmen.”  I found out that Banuielos is the Manny in the Yankees minor league system.  Delcarmen finds it ironic that again, he’s the other Manny.  With the Sox, he played in the shadow of Ramirez, now he toils as the second most popular Manny on his team , again.  “Tell the PawSox fans that I’m really the original Manny.”  he joked.

     Manny looked different sitting in the visitors’ clubhouse with the Yankees t-shirt on and the pinstripe uniform hanging in his locker.  He seemed to be happy to be back in somewhat familiar surroundings.  “This is great.  I’m really happy to be here.”  Delcaarmen spoke about the adjuwstments he had to make after leaving the Sox.  “When I first got traded it was a little shock to me.  I had to go through this transition after being with Boston so long.  Plus they traded me to the Rockies, on the other side of the country.  It was a tough adjustment.  A couple of years went by and now I’m back on the east coast with the Yankees.  Being born and raised in Boston, I always said I wanted to start and end my career in Boston.  I never saw myself playing with the Yankees but, here I am now trying to get back to the big leagues.  It’s a privilege and I’m excited to be here.”

     Even though he is now on the “dark side”, Manny fondly recalls the early days of his career.  “I think it’s every kids dream to play with the team he grew up  rooting for.  I made that happen, and not too many guys can say that.  We won the World Series and I got a ring.  It was pretty much, the best time of my life.”

     Manny has watched with interest as the Sox have gotten off to a poor start again in 2012.  He keeps in touch with a lot of the guys.  “I talk to Papelbon from time to time.  I stay in touch with Bard and Buchholz.  Watching the way they ended up last year was tough to watch.  Again, they’re going through a lot of stuff right now.   New management, players banged up.  They’re the Red Sox and they can spark it up at any second, win ten in a row and then you’re looking at the whole team completely differently.”

     Manny didn’t pitch in the series.  He is currently on the disabled list with an injured quad muscle.  He feels he’s about ready to get back at it soon.  “I’ve been doing everything to get healthy.  Ice, heat etc.  I’m going to start playing catch in a couple of days and hopefully, I won’t miss too much more time.”

     Manny joked about coming into the ballpark, one that he once called home.  “I almost went in the home clubhouse.  It’s great to be back here.  I wish I was playing  just to see how the fans would react and to see if they still remember who I am.”

     I suspect they’d remember.

HE’S A GOOD COOK

     The early season success of the PawSox isn’t all that hard to figure out.  Explosive offense, good defense and incredible pitching.  The man who has set the pace on the mound for Pawtucket is right hander Aaron Cook.  Cook, the Colorado Rockies all time wins leader (72) signed with the Sox as an option to be a fourth or fifth starter.  Cook seems pleased with his early season progress.  “Everything feels good right now.  My mechanics, my pitches are doing what I want them to do.  I’m really comfortable with the way things are going.”

     Aaron seems to think that good pitching, like good hitting, can be contagious.  “Guys tend to feed off each other.  We have a real positive enegy working right now.  Starting pitchers go out there now and don’t want to let anybody down.  The bullpen is doing the same thing.  It’s been fun to watch.  Really good.”

     With his 2-0 record and 1.35 ERA, Cook is certain to attract the attention of the front office in Boston.  “More than what the stats are saying, my mechanics…I’m healthy and able to throw the ball where I want.  That’s something I haven’t been able to do for two years with all the injuries I’ve had.  That’s the thing I’m most impressed with myself about.  I’m healthy, I can repeat my delivery I can throw the ball where I want, and the stats are proving that right now.”

     Cook comes from Fort Campbell, Kentucky and went to Hamilton High School in Ohio.  His biography on Wikipedia says he surrendered just one home run in high school, to a man who is beloved in the Nation.  Aaron sets us straight.  “I gave up more than one, but in my senior year I gave one up to Kevin Youkilis.  That’s something I’ll neve forget.  We played together on the same team when we were 13, 14, 15, and competed against each other all through high school.  I definitely remember that.  Cook smiled.  “I gave up more than one.  That’s for sure.”

     As a starter for the Rockies, Cook was caught by Rhode Islander, Chris Ianetta.  Aaron has a lot of respect for Ianetta.  “He’s a great catcher.  He works his butt off, day in and day out.  He receives the ball well and more than that, he studies scouting reports more intensely than anybody I know.  When he’s back there, you know he’s calling the game for the right reason.  He very rarely makes mistakes and that makes it easier for a pitcher to just go out there and worry about executing pitches.” 

      Despite being on the losing end of the 2007 World Series, Cook has fond memories.  He started game four and was opposed by Jon Lester.  “It was awesome.  Even though we didn’t win a single game in the Series.  To make the playoffs, winning 21 of 22, for me pitching in the World Series is something I’ll never forget.  I wish the results could have been different, but there are so many great players, so many Hall of Famers that never played in the World Series, and that is something that I don’t take lightly.”   

     On the bus ride home from Syracuse the other day, I was sandwiched in by National League All Stars.  Cook (2008) sat behind me, while Gerald Perry, who was recognized 20 years earlier, sat in front of me.  Aaron recalled his experience at old Yankee Stadium.  “I came in, we had extra innings.  It was 12:05 a.m.  My wife was pregnant, sitting in the stands, about to give birth to our third child.  Two minutes later, I had loaded the bases, with no outs.  Russell Martin, who catches for the Yankees, was with the Dodgers then.  He came out and said ‘well, what do you think?’  I told him I wasn’t a strikeout pitcher and that we’d have to get ground balls to third and short.  I somehow got out of that, and when all was said and done, I pitched three innings and didn’t give up a run.  Again, something I’ll never forget.”

     Cook has an “out clause” in his contract, meaning that if he isn’t promoted to Boston by May 1, he has the option to leave and look for work elsewhere.  Right now, he says that’s the furthest thing from his mind.  “I’m here in Pawtucket and I know I’ve got a couple  of starts left before May.  It’s something I’m trying not to think about.  I just want to go out and try to repeat the things I’ve been doing.”