Weighty issues

Headshot of George Scott

The Boomer, George Scott, won eight Gold Gloves at first base even as he was dogged by weight problems (Courtesy, Boston Red Sox)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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