January 2016

An officer and a gentleman

We’re straying a little outside of the family with this week’s tale. Mitch Harris pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals. But he was in Boston last week to receive the Tony Conigliaro award, given by the Red Sox at the Boston baseball writers dinner to someone who exemplified the determination, grace and will with which Tony C. dealt with adversity in his all-too-short life. We think after you hear about Mitch Harris, you’ll be glad we shared his story, and you’ll perhaps understand why Richie Conigliaro, Tony’s brother, was in tears when he presented Harris with his award, and a banquet hall full of people were moved to rise to their feet.

Unlike most recipients of the Tony C. award, Harris did not face a physical challenge he had to overcome. His test was of another sort, one that he elected to take on voluntarily, despite an awareness of the near-impossible odds he was facing. Mitch Harris burned with the desire to play big-league baseball, and had the talent to do so. But as a member of the Naval Academy, he had embraced another calling, one he renewed after his sophomore year. Midshipman Harris had the option after two years at the Academy to walk away. Instead, he signed a 2-7 commitment: two more years in the academy, five years of service as an office in the Navy.

“When you get to the academy, you start to understand what the importance is of being there, what it really means to serve,’’ he said. “Once you’re instilled with that, you realize that this is about more than yourself.

“I made a commitment to serve my country. But I also had a dream of mine I wanted to fulfill, a dream of playing baseball. I decided to pursue both. It was just having to figure out how to do it, because no one had done it.’’

Only one Naval Academy graduate had ever played major league baseball. That was Nemo Gaines, a left-hander who pitched 4 2/3 innings for the Washington Senators in 1921. And the Academy gave Gaines a break that Harris did not receive after the Cardinals drafted him on the 13th round in 2008. Gaines was allowed to play the summer after he graduated, then began his tour of duty. Unlike the NBA’s David Robinson, whom the Navy gave permission to leave two years into his service commitment, the Navy had a different message for Harris: The country was at war. There would be no shortcuts, and no baseball, until after he fulfilled his commitment.

Harris did two deployments in the Persian Gulf on the multi-mission USS Ponce. Harris would occasionally throw on board to Victor Nunez, a cook who grew up playing baseball in the Dominican Republic. Harris’ father, Cy, a minister in the Church of God, used to send him bags of baseballs.

“We would throw on the flight deck when we had time off,’’ Harris said, “and only when the ship wasn’t rocking. We went through numerous balls. Drop it on the flight deck, it’s 10 times rougher than if you’re standing on concrete. The ball hits it, it’s done.’’

His third deployment took him to the Baltic, off the Russian coast, and then to South America, where they assisted in intercepting drug-smuggling operations off the coast of Colombia. The USS Carr was a smaller ship than the Ponce, and Nunez was no longer with him, so the chances to throw grew even smaller.

It wasn’t until 2012, four years after he’d been drafted, that Harris went to spring training for the first time. “I’d saved up my leave—30 days,’’ he said, “and went to spring training.

“It was awful. My body was in great shape, but I was tight as could be. I couldn’t throw. My velo was 82, 84. It was just embarrassing. Here I was 6-4, 225, 230, and I had nothing on it.’’

Discouraged? Of course. The frustration became even greater the following spring, when he’d finally gotten released from active duty and transitioning to reserve duty. All the power Harris had displayed in his right arm while pitching for the Academy still did not surface. Barry Weinberg, the Cardinals’ senior medical advisor, could sense something was not right.

“Barry worked on me, stretched me out, did everything he could think of, on his own time,days off, after hours,’’ Harris said. “He did a lot of stuff for me mentally, too. ‘It’s going to be fine, it’s going to come, stick with it.’

“That meant a lot. Let’s be honest: A lot of people didn’t think this would be a possibility.’’

Harris reported to short-season A-ball. At 26, he was not only five or six years older than his teammates, he also was older than his manager. But while others may have had their doubts, Harris insists he was undeterred.

“Quite the opposite,’’ he said.  “If I allowed myself to have doubts, then I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I told myself it was going to happen. It was a matter of opportunity and making the best of it.’’

The breakthrough came the following season, in Double A. Harris threw a bullpen, and could feel the surge of power in his fastball. He turned to look at his pitching coach, Randy Niemann, the former big-leaguer, who had a big smile on his face. “Things just kind of clicked,’’ Harris said.

On April 25, 2015, in Milwaukee, Mitch Harris was summoned from the Cardinals bullpen in the fifth inning to make his major league debut at age 29. He struck out the first batter he faced, Adam Lind, on four pitches. He appeared in 26 games for the Cardinals, all in relief, compiling a 2-1 record with a 3.67 ERA. In 27.0 innings, the 6-4, 240-pound right-hander struck out 15 batters and walked 13.

And last week in Boston, he stood on a podium, watching Richie Conigliaro fight back tears while struggling to keep his own composure.

“Twenty-six years I’ve done this,’’ Richie Conigliaro said. “We’ve had some great recipients–Bo Jackson, Jim Abbott. But I’ve never really felt like I feel tonight. I’ve never seen anyone so deserving. For Mitch, man, it’s amazing. I’m so proud for you to receive this.’’

Mitch Harris thanked his mother, Cindy, and father, Cy. A newlywed, he thanked his wife, Mandi, and Barry Weinberg, who had come to share the moment. He saluted the cook who caught him, Victor Nunez, and the men and women with whom he’d served. And he paid homage to Tony C.

“Reading up on Tony Conigliaro. I learned so much about what he accomplished, but more of who he was,’’ Harris said. “He was a man of spirit, determination and courage. He could have given up on the sport he loved, but he didn’t.

“I want to say, ‘Thank you, Tony Conigliaro, not only showing us how to play, but how to live.’’

And so, too, has Mitch Harris. An officer. A gentleman. A big-league pitcher.

 

 

Frank Sullivan, and an artist’s touch

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Former Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan (right) and Sherman Safford pose with the famous Norman Rockwell painting, “The Rookie.” That’s Sullivan, sitting on the bench and wearing No. 18. Safford is the “rookie” getting the once-over from Ted Williams. (NPR.org photo)

Unless you are a Red Sox fan of a certain age, the name “Frank Sullivan” might not mean a great deal to you. But chances are that you’ve seen the face, even though you don’t know the name.

Sullivan pitched for the Sox in the ‘50s and had a nice run, winning 13 games or more in five consecutive seasons (1954-58). He was an All-Star in back-to-back seasons (1955-56), taking the loss in the ’55 game when he gave up a walkoff home run to Stan Musial in the 12th inning in Milwaukee’s County Stadium.

At 6-foot-7, Sullivan was the tallest pitcher the Sox had ever had. Boston writers dubbed him the “Boston Skyscraper,” and with 90 career wins, he had more wins than any of the nine Sox pitchers 6-foot-7 or taller that followed him. In 2008, he was elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

But Sullivan made a far greater impact in the art world than he did on the ballfield. He served as one of the models for the iconic Norman Rockwell magazine cover, “The Rookie,” that graced the Saturday Evening Post on March 2, 1957.

On an off-day the previous August, the club had asked Sullivan and teammates Jackie Jensen and Sammy White, Sullivan’s roommate and close friend, to drive to Stockbridge, Mass., in the western part of the state.

“Jackie drove both ways, it took about three hours on both ends because there was no turnpike,” Sullivan told writer Brian Sullivan in a story published by the Berkshire Eagle in 2014. “Sammy and I both sat in the back seat and we bugged Jackie the entire way about the fact we had no beer for the ride. To this day I have no idea how the three of us were selected. In those days you just did what the organization told you to do.’’

Sullivan thought he was just taking part in a photo shoot.

“When we got there we were greeted warmly by a small, slim man, whose name meant nothing to me,’’ he told his biographer and friend, Herb Crehan. “He posed us and took a number of pictures, explaining that the background would be the locker room we used in Sarasota, Florida, for spring training.

“I remember ragging on Jackie Jensen on the way back, saying the trip was all his idea, and the photographer didn’t seem to know what he was doing.

“The following March, I pick up The Saturday Evening Post, and there we were on the cover. The man was an illustrator, not a photographer, and if you look closely, you’ll see we are wearing street shoes, not spikes. The cover was titled ‘The Rookie’ and the man’s name turned out to be Norman Rockwell.”

Sullivan recalled Rockwell as being almost “too nice.’’

“Rockwell was very polite,’’ he told the Eagle. “He bought us lunch somewhere in downtown Stockbridge. We went back to the studio and he started moving us around. Finally, it was Sammy who said to him to please stop saying ‘please’ every time he asked us to do something.

“Sammy told him that we were just ballplayers and it was fine to simply tell us what he wanted and we would do it. I think [Sammy] just wanted to do what we had to do and get back home.”

The “rookie” in the painting was Sherman Safford, a local kid from Pittsfield that Rockwell found in a high school cafeteria and satisfied the artist’s quest for a fresh-faced innocent walking into his first big-league camp.

Five Sox players in all are depicted in the painting. Ted Williams and Billy Goodman are included, but did not model for Rockwell. Sullivan posed as Williams, with Rockwell painting the face of the Hall of Famer on Sullivan’s body.

In 2005, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibited the original painting; Sullivan and his wife, Marilyn, flew from their home in Kauai to take part in festivities at the museum.

Nine years later, the private collector who owned the painting put it up for auction; it sold for $22.5 million. In 1986, it had sold for just over $600,000.

On Tuesday, Frank Sullivan died in Lihue, Hawaii, due to complications from pneumonia. He was four days shy of his 86th birthday.

“I guess as long as that painting is around,’’ the ballplayer said in that 2014 interview, “Frank Sullivan will never die. I don’t have an ego that needs that kind of support, but I appreciate the publicity that’s come with it.”

 

Malzie’s chair

 

 

 

JMalzie's chair

 

 

It’s upstairs now. Much of what was in the family room has been moved or is being packed up, including the trophies and gloves that surrounded Frank Malzone when he sat in this chair, watching “Criminal Minds,” his favorite show, or the Sox or Bruins.

“I keep looking over there,’’ said Jim Malzone, “expecting to see him there.’’

It is a Sunday afternoon in Needham. A football game is on the living-room TV. Jim Malzone is sitting on the sofa, the remnants of half-smoked cigars on the coffee table. His brother, John, who scouts for the Washington Nationals, is sitting on the other side of the room. He calls his brother “Jimbo.”

Jim Malzone works for Coca-Cola. When he was a kid, he and his father and mother, Amy, and another ballplayer and his wife, had appeared in an ad. They were all at the beach. “Have a Coke with Frank Malzone,’’ the ad said.

Six days earlier, in St. Bartholomew’s, the neighborhood parish, Jim and John and brothers Paul and Frank Jr. had served as pallbearers for their father, who had died in this house, the split-level white, ‘60’s-style Colonial with the red trim that had been his home for nearly 50 years. John, who is divorced and the father of two daughters, and Jim share this house. Their mother, Amy, died in 2006. They cared for their father after he fractured his hip and never truly recovered, his mind slowly slipping away.

Red Sox fans of a certain age remember Frank Malzone as the six-time All-Star third baseman who won three Gold Gloves in  11 seasons, 1955-65. His Sox tenure was bookended by the last six seasons of Hall of Famer Ted Williams’ career, and the first five seasons of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski’s career.

Malzone was friends with both men. “I used to terrorize Ted in the clubhouse when I was a little kid,’’ Jimmy Malzone said.

John Malzone, born in 1967, the year after Frank ended his career with the Los Angeles Angels, never saw his father play, But he remembers Ted’s voice booming over the telephone while speaking with his dad, and got to know Yaz even better, especially as a minor-league hitting instructor, when Yaz would come to spring training for a couple of weeks and would enlist John’s help in rounding up some kids to work with in the batting cages.

“A wonderful man,’’ said John Malzone, a Division 3 All-American outfielder at North Adams State who signed with the Sox and made it as high as Triple-A before retiring as an active player.

Before being hired by the Nationals, John was a hitting instructor for the Sox for the Lowell Spinners and Augusta Greenjackets. He and Victor Rodriguez were among the first to work with Hanley Ramirez.

Frank Malzone was a very good player on very mediocre Red Sox teams. He played in 475 consecutive games, which ranks third all-time among Sox players, but never came close to appearing in the postseason. The biggest thrill of his career, he often said, was hitting a home run off Don Drysdale, the Dodgers’ ace, in the 1959 All-Star Game on Drysdale’s home turf, the Los Angeles Coliseum. In another All-Star Game, Jim said, Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle hit a home run with a bat borrowed from Malzone.

“He liked to joke,’’ John Malzone said, “that he may have been the only big-leaguer to get picked off right after getting his first hit. The first-base coach told him, ‘This guy has a good move.’ He takes two steps, and bang, he gets picked off.’ My father said, ‘He doesn’t have a good move. He has a great move.’

When Malzone died, his old roommate, catcher Pete Daley, called and spoke with Jim for nearly an hour. Dick Berardino, a Sox player development consultant beginning his 49th season with the organization, spoke at the funeral. Former players John Tudor and Rich Gedman and Jim Lonborg and Luis Tiant were among those who paid their condolences at the wake. Bob Ryan, the great Boston Globe columnist, occupied a pew at the funeral. So did Sox president Sam Kennedy and general manager Mike Hazen, and club vice-president Pam Kenn, a long-time Malzone friend.

“Pam loved my father,’’ Jim Malzone said. “She called him ‘Malzie.’’’

Malzone was hired as a Sox scout by Dick O’Connell and Neil Mahoney in 1967. He remained in that role for decades, before returning to the club in 2008 as a consultant. In his years with the Sox, he helped Rico Petrocelli make his transition from shortstop to third base, assisted Wade Boggs in honing his defensive skills, offered encouragement to Kevin Youkilis.

In his years on Aletha Road in Needham, Frank Malzone spent countless hours in his chair in the family room, watching TV and playing cards, which was a favorite pastime as a player, too. “They played a lot of pinochle,’’ Jim Malzone said. “There were pinochle decks all over the house.’’

But when one of his five children needed him—in addition to his four sons, there was a daughter, Anne—John Malzone remembers how the card game would stop and Frank would turn away from the TV and devote his attention to his kids.

And his granddaughters? Forget it.

“I have two girls, Julia and Amanda,’’ John Malzone said. “They’d come over, and he played ‘school’ with Julia. Whatever Papa was doing, he stopped.

“Jennifer, my brother Frankie’s daughter, she’d go down with her,’’ Jim Malzone said.

Funny thing is, the sons said, Frank Malzone was not one to talk much about his playing days. He was always faithful about answering his fan mail and requests for autographs, a dozen or more a week still sent his way, and would go to the ballpark a couple of times a year to appear in the Legends suite or Autograph Alley, but that did not occupy the center of his life.

His family did. He met Amy while playing ball in Class A Oneonta, N.Y. He invited her to share a burger and a shake at a local malt shop, then frequently walked her home after games. “They were walking one night,’’ John Malzone said, “and Eddie Popowski, who was the manager, saw them. ‘Hey, young lady,’ he said to my mother,  ‘If you’re serious about this guy, you’d better stay with him. Don’t mess with this guy. He has a chance to be a pretty good ballplayer.’’’

They married in 1951, and remained together for almost 55 years. In the backyard, Frank would line up his five kids, including daughter Anne, and play pepper with them, the rapidly moving game in which he’d take half swings and hit the ball to each child. “He loved playing pepper,’’ John Malzone said.

On the press level at Fenway Park, there is a picture of Frank Malzone, being presented with a new car on a day held in his honor. In the background, there is a sign that proclaims him “The Nicest Guy in Baseball.”

There is a framed copy of that picture on Aletha Road, and it is a prized possession.“To me, that is the greatest honor anyone could get–nicest guy in baseball,’’ John Malzone. “That’s my dad? That hits me pretty hard. Not only a great baseball player, a great dad, a great husband—my mom loved him to death—but the nicest guy in baseball.’’

Ira Flagstead, Sox Hall of Famer

 

It was Ira Flagstead’s misfortune to have played for the Red Sox in the ‘20s. He played parts of seven seasons for the Sox; in that time, they finished last six times, next-to-last once, and trailed the pennant winners in those seasons by an average of nearly 44 games. But Flagstead’s play in center field was one of the few reasons for fans to go to Fenway in those bleak years, and the reason he is being inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Even with memories of the great Tris Speaker in a Sox uniform still fresh, Flagstead was hailed for his outstanding defense in center field. One of his most remarkable achievements came on Patriots Day, 1926, when Flagstead started three double plays from center field, the only time that’s ever been done by an American League outfielder and tied for the big-league record.

Playing against the mighty Philadelphia Athletics, who had runners on second and third with one out in the second, Flagstead “caught the ball while on the dead run and made a wonderfully quick and accurate throw to the plate.’’ [Boston Daily Globe, April 20, 1926).

In the next inning, Flagstead threw to third on a base hit by Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, who tried to take second on the play. Cochrane was gunned down, and so was the runner at third, Hall of Famer Al Simmons, as he attempted to score.

Then, in the eighth, Flagstead caught a flyball by Cochrane and threw out Bill Lamar attempting to score.

Flagstead’s defense saved a 2-1 Red Sox win; in the morning game, he had tripled off Hall of Famer Lefty Grove and scored the only run in a 3-1 loss.

“A good day for Flagstead, and the fans cheered him all the way to the bench.” [Daily Globe]

Born in Montague, Mich., in 1893, Flagstead launched his baseball career relatively late, dabbling in boxing while working in Washington state at various jobs, including in a lumber yard and as a steamfitter at the Marlin Hardware Company in Olympia, Wash. A catcher on his foundry team, he signed his first professional contract at age 24 with a Class B team in Tacoma and two months later was in the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers, appearing in four games in 1917. He was returned to Tacoma, where he finished the season playing the outfield, advanced to Chattanooga the following year, and after a brief stint in the military (World War I ended before he was sent overseas), returned to the Tigers in 1919.

Detroit traded him in 1923 for outfielder Ed Goebel, and hit a home run in his Sox debut on May 10, and led the AL in outfield assists with 31.

In all, he played seven seasons for the Sox, batting .300 or better in his first three, and finished with a .295/.374/.411/.785 slash line while with the Sox. In 1928, Sox fans held a day for Flagstead, presenting him with a car and $1,000 in gold.

A feature story that appeared in the Washingon Post noted that Flagstead did not read during the summer because it might affect his batting eye. He loved to sightsee, however, making trips to the Smithsonian and the Bronx Zoo when the team was on the road, and also enjoyed fishing and raising game roosters and call ducks.

Flagstead died of an illness in 1939 at the age of 46. In a 1930 article comparing him favorably to Hall of Famer Speaker as a defender, Gene Mack wrote in the Daily Globe: “Playing for all that was in him for a last-place team, making sensational catches and throws, hitting around the .300 mark and giving his best years without a protest, Flaggy deserves a high spot in the Red Sox Hall of Fame.’’

 

He has one now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be, or not to be, a “Red Sock”

The question arose, as these things have been known to do, as a result of a spirited discussion in the Red Sox Sales Academy, and came to my attention in an e-mail from sales associate Eric Finley.

“Myself and a few of my colleagues in the Red Sox Sales Academy,’’ Eric wrote, “have been debating the semantics of the proper way to make Sox a singular when talking.

“…This debate has stemmed from when David Price said that he was a “Red Sock” and has been going on ever since.’’

If only David knew what he started. I was reminded this was not just an idle conversation when I went to my first Sox Christmas party, and Gennifer Davidson demanded to know where I stood on the issue.

I told her that generally I wasn’t a fan of “Red Sock” and had avoided using it during my years as a reporter, although in reviewing my work I noticed I’d quoted Mike Napoli, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek, among others, as saying “Red Sock.”

Clearly, someone with expertise needed to be summoned to address the matter, which is how I came to reach out to Steven Pinker, author of “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century’’ a book I’ve been reading. Pinker, it turns out, has taught at both MIT and Harvard, is considered one of America’s leading intellectuals, and, as he would tell me in an e-mail, also is a member of Sox Nation. Perfect.

So I reached out to him., sending an e-mail with the subject heading, “A challenge for only the boldest of linguists.”
“While reading “The Sense of Style,” I wrote, “an outrageous thought intruded. How would Steven Pinker address an issue that has confounded generations of sports writers, baseball players and their fans, not to mention a newly hired team historian: What is the singular of “Red Sox?”

“David Price, the left-handed pitcher with a Vanderbilt education and a J.P. Morgan bank account, declared, “I am a Red Sock,” as if he was something to be found at the bottom of a hamper, and one day almost certainly lost.

“Others who have worn the same uniform have said, “I am a Red Sox,” a grammatical construction that defies logic much like the unchartable course of a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. Does a game that allows for the one–a pitch that floats according to its own rules–allow for the other, a made-up word that flouts the conventional boundaries of grammar?

“You, good sir, are consumed with contemplations of a deeper order–I cannot visualize you and your philosopher wife, over a cup of coffee, discussing “Sox or Sock” without a large serving of silliness on the side. But should you, in a fit of whimsy, decide to offer an opinion, I would be most grateful.”

To my astonishment, Pinker responded almost immediately. Turns out that he’d given some thought to the matter, even before I reached out.

Here’s what Pinker wrote:

“First, it’s not up to me, or any linguist or lexicographer, to legislate the correct singular of Red Sox – we can only track usage and try to explain it. Here the people have spoken: As best I can tell, the more common expression is “I am a Red Sox,” though as you note, it’s just a statistical preference across the population, and one occasionally hears “Red Sock.”

“Here’s what’s going on: teams can be named in either of two ways. The original coiner could have a player in mind, and use some metaphor, metonym, or symbol to name him (as in the Lions, Tigers, or Bears). The team as a whole is then referred to by the plural of the name. We see this most clearly in the Toronto Maple Leafs – they are not the Maple Leaves, because the team as a whole is not conceived as a mass of foliage; each player is referred to by the proudly singular symbol of Canada, the Maple Leaf. Ditto for the Marlins, even though the usual plural of marlin is marlin.

“Alternatively, the original coiner could have the entire team in mind, and use a metaphor, metonym, or symbol to name the team. Thus we have the the Minnesota Timberwolves (not Timberwolfs, analogous to Maple Leafs), presumably because it’s easy to imagine the entire team as a pack of fast-breaking wolves. We see this even more clearly in those tacky mass-noun team names like the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. Then, when it’s time to identify an individual player, a speaker has to struggle to identify the singular of a word that was never plural in the first place – “He was a Heat from 1990 to 1994, when he became a Magic.” That sounds awkward, but there is no alternative.

“Red Sox (and other X-rated teams such as the White Sox, Everett Aquasox, and West Tenn Diamond Jaxx) behave more like the Timberwolves and Heat than like the Lions, Tigers, or Bears. That is, way back in the mists of time the first coiner identified the entire team with either a pair of socks or with the entire mass of socks characteristically worn by the team. He did not start by identifying a player with a single sock. And like the long-suffering Heat and Magic fans, members of Red Sox nation then had to struggle with how to refer to one player. A red sox was the least-bad option. Of course the spelling of the team name with an “x” further discouraged thinking of the name for the team as the plural of the name for one of its players; the word looks like it could be a mass noun like Heat or Magic.

“Hope this helps,
“Steve (a member of Red Sox nation).’’

So, my fellow Sox (not Socks), we have some guidance. Not the final word, to be sure. Neither Pinker, nor Edes, would be so presumptuous. But hope this helps.