The Leader of the Free World bent forward, reached his right hand through the backstop screen at the Estadio Latinamericano, and extended it to Luis Tiant. What President Barack Obama said next startled the Red Sox legend.
“He said, ‘What’s happening?’ Tiant said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘OK. I’m good, Mr. President, how you doing?’ He’s funny.’’
From where he was standing on the field, Tiant did not immediately see who was to Obama’s left, because the man was a little behind the U.S. president.
It was Raul Castro, the president of Cuba, brother of Fidel Castro, the dictator whose government had precipitated Tiant‘s exile from his homeland, an exile that lasted 46 years.
Raul Castro, like Obama, leaned forward and extended his hand.
“I didn’t know Castro was there,’’ Tiant said. “What am I going to do? What am I going to do, pull my hand away from him and say, ‘What the hell, I don’t want to talk to you.’
“No matter who he is, whatever he is, he is the president of the country. You don’t do that to any president, no matter if he’s your enemy or your friend. It makes you look bad. No class, no education, no respect. My father and mother didn’t teach me to act like that.’’
Luis Tiant, 75 years old and arguably the greatest Cuban-born pitcher, wants you to understand this: “I am a baseball player, not a politician.’’
He was in Cuba last week at the invitation of Major League Baseball, which had arranged an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. It was the first time since 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played a home-and-home series against the Cuban national team, that a major league team had visited the island. The visit dovetailed with President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. was seeking to normalize relations with Cuba.
“Joe Torre called me and said, ‘Do you want to go?’ Tiant said. “I said, ‘OK.’ Later on he called me and said they wanted me to throw the first pitch. I said, ‘All right.’ I didn’t want to do it, but then I was thinking, ‘That’s something that’s going to be history, not just for me, but for everybody in both countries.’’
The Orioles’ trip, and Obama’s intentions of trying to find common ground with the Castro regime, was not embraced by everyone. In the Cuban-American community, scarred by the suffering inflicted at the hands of the Castro regime, there are some who resist any weakening of the U.S. embargo against Cuba until the Castros are no longer in power.
Last Saturday night, a man of Cuban descent attending Saturday night’s Rays-Pirates game in Bradenton was arrested after vaulting onto the field and throwing an aluminum beer bottle and soda container into the Rays’ dugout in an apparent protest of the team’s trip to Cuba.
“I know there’s a lot of people who don’t agree,’’ Tiant said. “I understand them. I went through a lot of stuff in my life, too. I didn’t go to my country for 46 years. I went almost 17 years without seeing my mom and dad. It’s a drama for everybody.
“I told my countrymen, I respect their feelings, but I have my feelings, too.’’
Tiant went back to Cuba for the first time in 2007, ostensibly as a coach for an amateur team. He went this time, he said, “because that’s what my heart told me to do.’’
For Tiant, the chance that a baseball game might play a part, however small, in improving the chances that Cuba and the U.S. might begin a new era, one that would lead to more freedom and prosperity for his homeland, and allow Cuban players in the U.S. to travel freely back and forth, justified his decision to go to Havana.
It is why he was in Estadio Latinamericano, a place he last had pitched in 1961, in Cuban winter ball, and was named rookie of the year. He was pitching that summer in Mexico when his father wrote him, shortly after Luis was married, advising him not to come back, Castro’s government having banned all outside travel.
“The first five years forget it I thought I was going to go crazy,’’ he said. “I went to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico to play winter ball.
“The people who lived around us would invite me and my wife and kid for Christmas dinner and New Year’s. I would be there a little while, everyone was dancing and laughing and drinking, and boom, it would hit me. Here I am, having fun, but how are my parents doing? Do they have something to eat?
“I had to get outside and go cry like a baby. My wife came to find me, and she cried, too. That happened for five years.’’
Tiant was reunited with his parents in 1975, when he pitched the Red Sox to the World Series. But it would be over three more decades before he was allowed to return, tearfully reuniting with members of his extended family. On that visit, he said, his family was not allowed to come to the hotel where he was staying. Last week, he was joined at his hotel by several cousins, who shared a celebratory breakfast with him.
A small sign of progress? Perhaps. In the two days he was there, Tiant said, he was kept too busy to take the pulse of his country, to see how much conditions may have improved. He has no illusions. “Whatever happens,’’ he said, “it is going to take time.’’
Tiant shared the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitches with Pedro Lazo, the winningest pitcher in the history of the Cuban National Series with 249 victories. Lazo won two gold medals in the Olympics and starred in the World Baseball Classic.
“He was the best pitcher in Cuba after I left,’’ Tiant said. “It’s a shame. If he had been allowed to come here, he mighthave been better than me.’’
When Tiant, wearing a Red Sox cap, was introduced, without any recitation of his accomplishments, there was polite applause from the crowd of 55,000. Lazo drew roars. “A lot of people there, they don’t know me,’’ Tiant said.
Wearing a sport shirt, black slacks and dress shoes, Tiant considered going into his signature windup, turning his back to the plate, but thought better about it. “Too easy to slip,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
“But I threw a strike, a ball that sank. It was a good pitch.’’
And then he was standing in front of two presidents. He will never forget, he said, the men who died or were imprisoned in the futile attempt to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion. “They are my heroes,’’ he said. He will never forget the untold souls who drowned trying to cross the Straits of Florida on anything that would float. He will never forget the hunger or deprivation suffered by those he left behind, the agony of those forced from their homes and never being allowed to return. He will never forget the struggles of those who came here, many of them professionals in Cuba, forced to take the most menial of jobs to survive. He will never forget what it has meant for so many to live without being free.
But when Raul Castro extended his hand, Luis Tiant said, he had no choice but to take it. He had come, he said, because that is what his heart had told him to do.
“There has been a lot of hate,’’ he said. “But the bottom line is, we have to understand what’s going on. The world changes, everybody changes. This is a different world than 40 years ago. I respect the people who went through hell. You don’t forget.
“But we have to do something. Major League Baseball asked me to go there as an ambassador. If something happens, good. I am trying to do what is best for my people, my country.
“If not, what are you going to do?’’
While the Red Sox players continued to prepare for the coming season in Florida—and it was exhilarating for Sox fans to see newcomer David Price strike out six Yankees in four innings last Tuesday night in what he expects to be the “most intense” rivalry he’s ever been a part of?—another team was being put through its paces on Yawkey Way last week.
Under the direction of Pete Nesbit, the Vice President of Ballpark Operations, Stephanie Maneikis, Senior Director of Fan Services, and VP Amy Waryas, Mike Danubio, and Kara Buckley of the team’s Human Resources Department, 175 new employees for the 2016 season went through two days of orientation. These are the folks who play a vital part in game-day operations, in a variety of roles.
These are the people without which no team could function: ushers and ticket takers, greeters and mobility assistance, quality control and security, raffle-ticket sellers and ambassadors and tour guides, folks who work in video productions and premium and group sales and for Team Wally. It takes a village to work a ballgame.
In addition to schooling them on the particulars of their jobs and the Red Sox Way, Pete arranged for Dr. Charles Steinberg and the team’s new historian—yours truly—to speak to the new hires. Dr. Charles took the first night, I had the second.
Steinberg , the man who appropriated the term “the Yes Business” to describe the Sox philosophy, eloquently laid out the essence of what it means to be a part of Team Fenway.
Me? I told a few stories. One was about a college student who as long as he could remember had nurtured the ambition of becoming a baseball general manager. For his senior honors program in college, he made it the subject of his thesis: “The Man in the Middle,” addressing the “contemporary purpose and function of the general manager’s place on a baseball team.’’
As part of his project, the student sent questionnaires to all of the GM’s working at that time. To his surprise, nearly half responded. One, Roland Hemond of the Chicago White Sox, noting that the student was from suburban Chicago, invited him to meet.
During the course of their meeting, the student asked what would be the best way for him to get a job in baseball. Hemond suggested he come to baseball’s winter meetings, which at the time had not yet become a magnet for job hunters that it is today.
The student saved his money, which in this case meant more than a few bucks, since the winter meetings that year were in Hawaii. With a buddy who accompanied him as a vacationer, the student went to Hawaii, and ran into Hemond in the lobby of the luxurious hotel where baseball’s power brokers were meeting. Hemond suggested they meet later that afternoon, and set a time.
In the interim, the student went to the beach, had lunch, then returned to his room, well before the scheduled hour. The phone rang. It was Hemond, inviting the student to come see him immediately. The student said, “But I’m still in my swimsuit.” No matter, Hemond said. Come on up.
So it was in his swimsuit that Dave Dombrowski, now president of baseball operations for the Red Sox, interviewed for his first job in the game. In a followup meeting, he was offered a sales position for $7,000. His father said to him, “Look, I know how much you want to work in baseball, but I can’t see how we can let you take a job for that salary.’’ Dombrowski, an accounting major, sat down and calculated his expenses. He came up with a figure of $8,000. He went back to Mike Veeck, who at the time headed the sales operation, and told him he couldn’t take a penny less.
“Well,’’ said Veeck, the son of legendary owner Bill Veeck, “we don’t normally start people out at that salary, but we’ll make an exception for you.’’
That’s how it began for Dave Dombrowski. “To work in baseball,’’ he said, “you really have to have a passion for the game. It can’t be your family’s passion, or your friends’ passion, it has to be yours.’’
One other story: This one was about an Arkansas farmboy, a rather introverted soul, who loved baseball and communed with the game through the short-wave radio that brought the St. Louis Cardinals intos his farmhouse.
The boy, who lived hours away from the nearest ballpark, attended his first major-league game when he was 8 or 9, under circumstances less than ideal. His father, who worked long hours growing soybeans, was lying in a St. Louis hospital room, suffering from a brain tumor. A Cardinals coach, Johnny Keane, somehow became aware of his plight and came up with his tickets for the boy to go see his heroes.
The boy, bedazzled, went to the ballpark. It was an oppressively hot day. The boy remembered drinking Cokes, many of them, but they did not keep him from succumbing to heat exhaustion. He wound up spending the night in the same hospital as his father.
The boy gave voice to a modest ambition. Someday, he said, he hoped to have a job that paid him enough that he could afford baseball season tickets.
That boy’s name? John W. Henry. I repeated something he once said, and is printed in the team’s media guide, to the new hires.
“I love to listen to and interact with fans,’’ he said. “Perhaps not every fan can identify with me, but I think I can identify with most of them because I’ve been a passionate baseball fan all my life. I know that even the best baseball team cannot win every night, but I want to make sure our fans win every night—that they enjoy as many aspects of our game, our tradition and the Fenway experience as they can.’’
You can help the Red Sox be winners, I told them. And I am confident you will.
Trades for Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett in the last 20 years have all led to World Series titles for the Red Sox, Martinez and Schilling winning in 2004, Beckett in 2007. Will the free-agent signing of David Price lead to another?
That’s one of the questions worth contemplating on a day that Price, signed to a seven-year, $217 million deal last winter, made his first start of the spring for the Red Sox Thursday afternoon against the Twins in JetBlue Park.
Dan Duquette made the deal with Montreal for Martinez. Theo Epstein acquired Schilling from Arizona, and Craig Shipley and the late Bill Lajoie did much of the work for Larry Lucchino that led to Beckett’s acquisition from the Florida Marlins.
Now it’s David Dombrowski, as Sox president of baseball operations, signing Price to the most lucrative deal in Sox history, one designed to carry Price through his age 36 season (He’ll be 37 at the end of the deal).
There are 11 pitchers in Red Sox history who have won 100 or more games in a Boston uniform, a list topped by Cy Young and Roger Clemens with 192 apiece.
Of the pitchers on that list, six came from other clubs. Young jumped from the St. Louis Cardinals to a new American League franchise, the Boston Americans, in 1901. Lefty Grove was purchased from the Philadelphia Athletics for $125,000 in 1934. Joe Dobson was 23 years old when he came from Cleveland in a three-team deal in 1940. Luis Tiant was signed in 1971 after being released by the Braves. Tim Wakefield was signed in 1995 after his release by the Pirates, and Martinez was acquired from Montreal prior to the 1998 season.
The only left-hander imported from another club on that list was Grove, who was well on his way to enshrinement in Cooperstown when the Sox acquired him at age 34. He had gone 195-79 in nine seasons with the Athletics, winning 20 or more games in seven straight seasons and leading the American League in strikeouts in five straight. He also led the league in ERA five times for the Athletics, including four straight seasons.
But Athletics owner Connie Mack, looking for financial relief in the middle of the Depression, dealt Grove and pitcher Rube Walberg and infielder Max Bishop to the Sox, the $125,000 price equivalent to $2.2 million-plus today.
Grove’s transition to the Red Sox did not go smoothly. He developed a sore arm in March and went just 8-8 with a 6.50 ERA in his first season with the Sox. The deal was labeled a bust.
But it turns out that Grove, while acknowledging that his fastball was no longer the weapon it once was, still had enough to fashion an audacious second act. “A pitcher has time enough to get smarter after he loses his speed,” Grove’s biographer Jim Kaplan quoted the pitcher as saying, while explaining that the drop in velocity had actually helped his breaking pitches.
Grove would win ERA titles in four of his next five seasons with the Sox, a stretch that included his only 20-win season with the Sox, 1935. While the 1941 season will be forever remembered as the year Ted Williams was the last .400 hitter and Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak, it was also the season in which Grove won his 300th game, a 10-6, complete-game win over the Indians on July 25 in Fenway Park. It would be his last victory in big-league baseball.
He remains the only pitcher to win his 300th game in a Red Sox uniform, and the only time Fenway Park has witnessed a 300th win.
Price, 30, enters this season with a 104-56 record and 3.09 ERA in eight seasons in the big leagues. He has led the league in ERA twice, strikeouts once and innings pitched once. Grove is the only left-hander ever imported here with greater credentials. Mel Parnell (123), Jon Lester (110) and Grove (105) are the only lefties to win 100 or more games in a Sox uniform. Price would have to average close to 15 wins a season to join their number, a tall order and one, of course, not entirely in his hands. How the team plays behind him is a determining factor as well.
But there is little question that No. 24 will have every chance to carve his own niche in club history.
They are convenient magnets for our attention, heavyset baseball players whose physiques don’t adhere to our preconception of what a ballplayer should look like. Sometimes, we love ‘em, which was the case with Rich Garces, the reliever from Maracay, Venezuela who never met a waistband he couldn’t expand. “He’s one of those guys,’’ said Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, “who puts on weight just by looking at food.’’
A pleasant disposition, split-fingered fastball and catchy nickname [“El Guapo”–The Handsome One] combined to make Garces a popular figure in the Fens, at least for as long as he could get people out.
“His mechanics are good for a big man,’’ Kerrigan said of Garces, who came out of the bullpen and over a span of three seasons posted a 19-3 record, appearing in 156 games. But arm troubles caught up with him, and at the age of 31 his big-league career was over.
Of more recent vintage was John Lackey, who used the year after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow to come back in phenomenal shape, which led to a late-career renaissance. Manager John Farrell made no secret of his conviction that Lackey’s dedication to his overall conditioning had made him a better pitcher. Lackey was loath to admit as much, but the results spoke for themselves.
Then there was the Boomer, George Scott, arguably the finest fielding first baseman the Red Sox have ever had. Scott, an all-star at age 22 in 1966, his rookie season, won eight Gold Gloves at first base, the first three with the Red Sox. Originally a third baseman, he had leonine quickness around the bag, a hoofer’s footwork, pillow-soft hands, and could range far afield to flag down a grounder.
On 18, 1966, Scott hit a home run in Yankee Stadium off Whitey Ford that the great Yankee lefty said was the longest home run he ever surrendered. Asked how far it would have gone if it hadn’t hit the seats, Mickey Mantle said: “Well, to pick a round number you could say 550 feet and not be exaggerating.’’
Scott hit 18 home runs and batted .303 for the ’67 Impossible Dreamers, and 10 years later, after being reacquired by the Sox following a five-year hiatus in Milwaukee, Scott hit 33 home runs at age 33 for Boston. He loved what he called “his taters.”
“I love my taters, my sweet potatoes,’’ he said, “and I love my home runs just like taters,’’ he’d say.
But the Boomer had a weight problem, one that dogged him on both of his tours with the Sox. He quickly ran afoul of Dick Williams, the crewcut manager who took over in ’67 and had little tolerance for those who didn’t play by his rules. On more than one occasion, he benched Scott for failing to make weight.
“Dick was very hard on him,’’ remembers Rico Petrocelli, the shortstop on that ’67 team. “When he’d bench him, all the infielders were sad, because Boomer saved us all so many errors. But we were all pretty sure it was for his own good.
“George was a big eater, and he ate a lot of stuff that was pretty fattening. It was tough to keep him away from eating. And when he wasn’t doing well, and people were trying to find out what was going on with him, it seemed like it always went back to his weight.
“He was just a big-boned guy who had trouble taking the weight off, and the fans would get on him. ‘Have another burger,’ stuff like that.’’
Scott took to wearing a batting helmet in the field. “I’m pretty sure that started in Detroit,’’ Petrocelli said. “People were throwing stuff at Hawk (Ken Harrelson) in right field, and Boomer said, ‘I’d better wear one, just in case.’’’
Scott’s weight remained an issue for Williams’s successor as manager. Eddie Kasko. Brian Mullen, Boston’s spring training pressbox attendant in Fort Myers, remembers Scott jogging through the streets of Winter Haven in a rubber sweatsuit, then, soaked in sweat, ducking his head inside the ice-vending machine in the team’s hotel.
If anything, Scott’s weight became even more problematic on his second go-round with the club, which began in ’77. Full-throated critics on sports talk radio were relentless, one regularly calling Scott “Chicken Wings” after claiming a supermarket employee told him Scott used to order wings in bulk, even while ostensibly trying to drop pounds.
The nonstop darts thrown his way finally caused the normally loquacious Scott to go silent for a time, but not before telling one reporter that he thought some of the attacks were racial in nature.
“Absolutely, it hurt him,’’ Petrocelli said of the flak Scott took over his weight. “But he wouldn’t let it bother him on the field. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t want to play. He loved to play. He was meant to play.’’
Scott acknowledged the following spring he’d been overweight. “I was heavy last season, yes,’’ Scott told Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald, “but I played 158 games, I hit 33 home runs and drove in 95 runs. No way a man can do that if he’s out of shape.’’
Scott fractured a finger in 1978 and hit just 12 home runs. His marriage began to fall apart in 1979, and the Sox traded him again, this time to the Kansas City Royals. Released by the Royals, Scott signed as a free agent in August with the Yankees, hitting .318 the rest of the way. That, however, didn’t keep the Yankees from releasing him in November, the end of his big-league career. He played a few years in Mexico before calling it quits for good in 1984.
George Scott died in 2013 in Greenville, Miss., in the home he had built for his mother in that magical 1967. He was 69. A diabetic, Scott fought a losing battle with his weight until the end of his life. “He carried too much weight, we all know that,’’ said his biographer, Ron Anderson, who estimated that Scott weighed in excess of 400 pounds. “He was eating himself to death.’’
Scott was a very proud man, one who would have turned away from pity. He loved Boston, called it his “garden city.’’ And mostly, Boston loved him back. Better for the man, and for the city, if they could have offered some more of that love when he needed it most.
The first time the Red Sox played Boston College in an exhibition was April 11, 1916, in Fenway Park. The Sox were coming off a World Series championship.
“The final score was nine to one,’’ the BC Stylus reported, “but is scarcely indicative of the snappy game the Maroon and Gold played against the Champs.’’
Nearly one hundred years later, under the bright sun of JetBlue Park on Monday afternoon, the 2016 Red Sox made their spring debut and beat a previously undefeated BC team, 6-0. The Sox and BC have now played 26 times, including every year in Fort Myers since 1994. The Sox have won all 26 games.
But it has never been about the winning, which also holds true for Northeastern University, which lost later the same afternoon, 8-3, to the Sox.
“Just look at their faces,’’ said Boston College coach Mike Gambino, gesturing to the line of Eagles players standing in front of the visitors’ dugout, watching raptly, before Sox third-base coach Brian Butterfield invited them to cluster around the batting cage while the big leaguers took their swings.
“My guys grow up loving and idolizing these guys, and now they get a chance to be out here, be around them. Being the head coach for me is a little bit like being a parent, to be able to watch them do this,’’ Gambino said. “My favorite part is to sit in the dugout, stay out of the way and just watch my boys.’’
Gambino brings an unusual perspective to the game. He played against the Sox as an All-Big East second baseman for BC, collecting two hits against the major leaguers as a fifth-year senior in 2000. Undrafted, Gambino was planning to play baseball in Sweden, of all places, when the Sox called. They needed an extra infielder, knew of Gambino, and signed him to a minor-league deal.
Gambino played two seasons in the minor leagues for the Sox, then returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach, bringing him back to Fort Myers with the Eagles.
“Nomar [Garciaparra] was still there,’’ Gambino said. “I’m throwing BP, and all of a sudden I hear someone scream “Bino!’ It was Nomar. He didn’t have to do that, but he’s a really good person.’’
In those early years, to make a little extra cash, Gambino worked as a waiter and bartender at the Stockyard, the Brighton steakhouse. That continued even after he was hired as an area scout for the Detroit Tigers, where his boss was former Sox scouting director David Chadd and GM Dave Dombrowski, now Boston’s president of baseball operations.
“A lot of things I learned directly or indirectly from Dave,’’ Gambino said. “One of the big things David Chadd hammered on us as area scouts was, ‘Get the makeup right, get the makeup right.’ Everything else is projection, but no reason ever to miss on the makeup.
“As a young scout, learning from those guys was like trying to get a Master’s in scouting, and at that point I was in kindergarten. On top of that, they were unbelievable people. I ran into Dave Dombrowski in Fenway once. I see him walking down the stands. He says, ‘Hey, Mike, what’s going on, how’s the move going?’ I was just moving to Alabama. Then he asked me about a report I’d written on a shortstop for the Rome Braves. I’m like, ‘What?’ Unbelievable memory, and just so good to everybody.’’
Gambino joined his old college coach, Pete Hughes, at Virginia Tech as an assistant coach, then became BC’s head coach in 2010. He was here last spring, when players on both teams all wore jerseys with the number 3 and the name “Frates” stitched on the back, in honor of Pete Frates, the former BC captain who had been stricken with ALS and had launched the “Ice Bucket Challenge” which raised over $200 million for ALS.
“What they did with those jerseys was the coolest baseball experience I’ve ever been around,’’ he said. “I had a lump in my throat the entire day.
“I had sent an e-mail to Sam Kennedy, asking him what he thought about the idea. I checked my computer about an hour and a half later, and there were like 15 e-mails in a chain. He’d reached out to everyone, and the next thing I know he has MLB approval and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’’’
The effort on behalf of Frates and ALS continues. The Frates family, with the help of Gambino and others, has launched a new initiative, called “Band Together to Strike Out ALS.’’ On Monday, players on both the Sox and BC wore special wristbands with a “PF3/Strikeout ALS” ribbon embroidered on them. Next month is “ALS Awareness Month,” and many college teams have pledged to wear the wristbands to draw attention to the effort.
“It’s one of the things Pete said: ‘Like it or not, this is our disease,’’’ Gambino said. “Our sport, baseball. It’s called Lou Gehrig’s disease. We may not have asked for it, but it’s our disease, our disease to get rid of.’’’
There’s another former BC player that is close to the heart of Mike Gambino. His name is Sonny Nictakis, and he was Gambino’s teammate. He had a hit in his last at-bat for BC, even though he already was dealing with the cancer that claimed his life only months later.
Every season, Gambino singles out a player to wear Nictakis’s No. 8, a tribute to that player’s ability to deal with adversity. This year, it’s junior shortstop Johnny Adams.
Oh, and one other thing: This past year, Mike Gambino and his wife, Jill, had their first child, a boy. His name? Sonny Lawrence Gambino.
You see? It’s never been just about the winning.