Dwight Evans, who coached Red Sox outfielders this spring, got the 1986 championship season off to an electrifying start (Photo courtesy of MLB.com)
The first person he told, Dwight Evans said, was his wife, Susan.
“I had a dream,’’ he said, “probably two weeks before the end of spring training. I don’t usually remember my dreams. This one I did. I told her, ‘I dreamed I hit the first pitch for a home run. I don’t know where it went, but it was a home run.’’’
This was 1986. Dwight Evans was 34 years old, a player entering his 15th season in the major leagues. The previous season, manager John McNamara had turned to Evans as his leadoff hitter for much of the season’s second half. Evans had homered five times leading off a game in 1985, but never on the first pitch of a season. That had happened just once in his life.
“In Little League,’’ he said. “I was 12 years old. I didn’t start playing baseball until I was 10. I hit it batting left-handed. I was a switch-hitter at the time. That didn’t last.’’
The Sox were scheduled to open the 1986 season in Detroit against the Tigers and their ace, Jack Morris, a 16-game winner the previous season. Morris was arguably the American League’s toughest right-hander in the ‘80’s, and Evans, like so many hitters, had his hands full against Black Jack. He had 52 previous at-bats against Morris, and had 10 hits, a .193 average. But he had taken Morris deep three times, the last time in 1984.
April 7, 1986. A Monday afternoon. First pitch for the Red Sox and Tigers was scheduled for 1:37 p.m. Cincinnati, which traditionally played the first game of the major league season, wasn’t scheduled until 2:05. The Tigers called it a “quirk” in the schedule. ‘There was no intention on the part of the commissioner, the American League or the Tigers to steal the thunder away from the Reds,” said Tigers spokesman Robert Miller.
The good folk of Cincinnati, especially deputy mayor J. Kenneth Blackwell, weren’t buying it. Blackwell blamed Sparky Anderson, the former Reds skipper now managing the Tigers.
”This is a Sparky Anderson-led offensive on a Cincinnati tradition,” he said, ”and we’re not going to stand by idly and let it happen.”
The fuss made the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Blackwell urged the City Council to pass a resolution upbraiding the commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, for allowing the Tigers to start first. He also urged Cincinnati fans to turn their watches back an hour before the start of the game, supposedly to confuse people about which game started first. He was kidding, we think. Considering he also urged a ban on all flights from Detroit to Cincinnati, we’re pretty sure he was.
Evans was aware of none of this. Even today, he thought the Sox and Tigers played first because there was a rain delay in Detroit.
What he was absolutely certain of that day, however, as he looked at a stadium packed with over 51,000 fans, is that Jack Morris was not going to start him off with an off-speed pitch. He was going to bring heat, Evans remembered thinking as he ducked under the low overhang of the runway leading to the dugout.
As the national anthem ended, someone grabbed Evans’ arm. It was Walt Hriniak, the Red Sox hitting coach. “He didn’t like me thinking about hitting home runs,’’ Evans said. “He thought it made my swing get a little bit bigger.’’
“What are you going to do?’’ Hriniak demanded of Dewey. “What are you going to do?’’
Evans didn’t hesitate. “I’m going to line a base hit to right-center,’’ he said.
Hriniak beamed. “Dynamite,’’ the hitting coach said.
Then Evans walked out to the on-deck circle. Marty Barrett, who would be batting second, was already there. Evans banged the knob of his bat on the ground, loosening the weighted doughnut wrapped around the barrel. “I look right at Marty,’’ Evans said, “and I say, ‘I’m going to take him deep on the first pitch.’’’
Evans stepped into the batter’s box. Morris went into his windup and sent the baseball plateward. First pitch of the 1986 season. Fastball, just as Evans had expected. Letter high, middle away, allowing Evans full extension on his swing. He sent the ball soaring, over the left-center field fence, to the left of the flagpole, more than 400 feet away.
“Mercy,’’ Ned Martin said on Boston TV.
The most surprised person in Tiger Stadium? He was, Dwight Evans said.
“I’m a man of faith,’’ he said, “and as I circled the bases, I looked up and said, ‘Thank you, God.’’’
The Red Sox hit four home runs that day off Morris. They still lost, 6-5, as Kirk Gibson drove in five runs and Black Jack went the distance. But Evans’ home run may have augured better things to come. It was the opening act of a season that ended with a trip to the World Series.
“It’s something I won’t forget,’’ said Evans, who spent spring training working with the Sox outfielders. “It’s neat. It was a neat season.’’
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.
A Spanish-speaking friend once told me that the reason some adults are so good with kids is because they have “sangre dulce,” which translates to “sweet blood.” Their affection for kids is genuine and unaffected, and they easily make connections because the children are so comfortable in their presence. The kids can sense the “sangre dulce.’’
I was reminded of this the other day while watching Red Sox players Blake Swihart, Deven Marrero, Chris Dominguez and Sean Coyle during a visit to Valerie’s House, a place dedicated to mending broken hearts.
Like the one belonging to a little girl who was wearing purple shorts over a leotard. Her name was Serenity, and no sooner had she said hello that this tumbled out.
“My mommy died,’’ she said matter-of-factly.
She was not alone. All the kids there had lost a mom or dad, brother or sister. One young teen, Kaitlyn, wore a necklace with a silver baseball charm. Inside, she said, were the ashes of her brother, Timothy.
Valerie’s House is meant to be a place where kids like Serenity and Kaitlyn and other family members can share and grieve and grow. On this afternoon, Katie Haas, the team’s vice president of Florida business operations, had organized a field trip whose purpose was a simple one: Coax a few smiles in a place that has known more than its share of tears.
The basketball hoop in the driveway proved an instant ice-breaker, the players engaging the kids in a game of H-O-R-S-E. One rambunctious boy showed no fear, choosing to take shots farther and farther away from the basket. Swihart and Marrero took to calling him “Steph Curry.’’ When Red Sox intern Savanna Wood, who had played more than a little basketball in her day, matched one of his long-range shots, “Steph” called her out. “I shot from here, not there,’’ he said.
A young girl with long brown hair named Samantha held back while the others played. Taylor Workman, who recently married Sox pitcher Brandon Workman, took notice. “Want to be on my team?’’ she said. Soon, Samantha was shooting baskets, too.
Valerie’s House typically makes time for the kids to take part in an activity designed to help them express their grief. This day would be no exception. Only this time, they had friends named Blake and Deven and Chris and Sean to help. A nonroster infielder in his first camp with the Red Sox, Chris Dominguez is a big man, listed at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds. But soon, Dominguez was bending over the shoulder of Lily, a little girl wearing a pink tie around her hair, as she designed and painted a ceramic tile in memory of her older sister. The tile would be placed in a garden out back. Savanna Wood helped a young girl named Shea who wrote “Maisy,” on her tile, which is what she called her mother. Another little girl took the hand of Adam Grossman, the team’s chief marketing officer, as she chose a tile to paint.
Later, Lily sat on the steps, surrounded by a circle of players, chattering away. Her mom choked back tears. “You have no idea how much this means to her,’’ she said.
A boy named Joshua strode around proudly in his catcher’s gear while his new friend, Sean Coyle, looked on approvingly. Joshua had lost his mother a year ago.
Valerie’s House has adopted a motto: “Where Children Learn Loss Does Not Limit Their Dreams.’’
The morning after the Sox visit, Katie Haas received an e-mail from Angela Melvin, the director of Valerie’s House. Angela had heard the night before from Joshua’s care-giver. He had gone to bed, she said, talking about “the best day of his life.”
David Ortiz arrived Monday at Fenway South in Fort Myers for what he says will be the final spring training of his big-league career, the last 13 with the Red Sox. We thought we’d take you on a tour of his previous camps.
Ortiz arrives for his first spring with the Sox, having signed with Boston when Minnesota non-tendered him a contract after he’d spent the previous six seasons with the Twins. Boston’s expectations are modest, to say the least, especially after the Sox succeed in springing Kevin Millar from the contract he had signed with Japan’s Chunichi Dragons. Ortiz will be competing for playing time with Millar, Jeremy Giambi, and Shea Hillenbrand. The idea, general manager Theo Epstein said, is for Ortiz to play some first base and DH against some right-handed batters, getting somewhere between 200 and 300 at-bats. The Sox didn’t sign him until they sent Dave Jauss to watch him play first base in the Dominican Republic.
“He looks great,’’ Epstein said after watching him work out at the bag. “He’s just what the scouting report said. He’s got really good hands and foot work around the bag. He’s not going to have plus range, but he’s going to catch what he gets to, and he handles throws real well.’’
With his former team also training in Fort Myers, reporters delight in hearing stories about how Ortiz was pranked by the Twins. Like the time they distracted him by wrapping his clothes in ice, while they filled his underwear with peanut batter.
“We still love him as one of our own,’’ Torii Hunter said.
But new teammate Manny Ramirez already has shown Ortiz some love, giving him a Cadillac Escalade even before they became teammates. “He got it customized and gave it to me,’’ Ortiz said. “We love each other.’’
It took just a single season for Ortiz to morph from part-time player to Big Papi, the slugger having smashed 27 home runs and knocked in 65 runs in just 75 games after June 30.
“I’m not going to lie to you,’’ he says entering camp. “Everything has changed, crazy than before. Everywhere you go, people just want to get to know you better.’’
Ortiz lets it be known he hopes to play more at first base, “At 28, I don’t want to be a full-time DH,’’ he says. “Everybody knows it’s tough being just a DH at my age.’’
The Sox played Ortiz at first base in 34 games in 2004. It will be the last time in his career he plays more than 10 games in a season in the field.
This was Ortiz’s first spring in which his contract was a topic of discussion. The Sox signed him to a one-year, $4.6 million deal to avoid arbitration; in May, they tore that deal up and signed him to a two-year, $12.5 million deal.
Ortiz came into camp after the transformative experience of winning the World Series the year before, ending 86 years of franchise frustration.
“I was in Disney a couple of days ago with my family and I saw this 14-year-old girl,” he said. “She came to me and she was crying and I was like, `Hey, what happened?’ and she was like, `No, I’m just happy to meet you. You made my family’s life great. You, Big Papi, you played well and we won and my family was expecting that for a long time. My grandpa, he passed away and my grand, grand, grandfather he passed away expecting the Red Sox to win and you came in and helped us out and we won it.’
“It’s a great feeling when people come to you like that.”
The mini-controversy revolved around the order in which Ortiz and Ramirez would hit in the lineup. The previous October, Ortiz had batted cleanup behind Ramirez, but made it clear his preference was to have Manny hitting in the 4-hole. Manager Terry Francona acceded to Ramirez’s wishes to hit third, but that lasted only until mid-May, when he flipped Ortiz back into the 3-hole.
Otherwise, Ortiz had never sounded happier.
“Man, I don’t know, but we’re having so much fun here,” he said, “Like, when I go to Fenway, never in my life have I ever felt like that. It’s like, damn, I’m at home. This is where I want to be.’’
Ortiz’s contract status dominated his spring. He’d proclaimed in January that he’d like a contract extension, and while the Red Sox held an $8.4 million contract option for 2007, they obliged, in April signing Ortiz to a four-year, $52 million extension.
“I can’t think of a player who contributes in so many ways,” Epstein said. “David embodies what we want a Red Sox player to be. It was just an easy decision for us that David as a player and David as a person is someone we want to commit to and commit to for a long time.”
There was one void in Ortiz’s life, though. That winter, Johnny Damon had signed with the Yankees as a free agent.
“He’s my boy, man,’’ Ortiz said. “I talked to him a lot before and after he went to the other side. I wish him the best.
“Hopefully, people understand that this is a business. Players pretty much go for their future. I think that’s what happened with Johnny.”
There was a gift awaiting Ortiz when he arrived in camp in 2007:
a new black Toyota Tundra TRD truck. Owner John W. Henry personally handed him the keys.
“It’s my first truck ever,” Ortiz said. “Pickup truck. That’s what I got for my new year.
“That was my breakfast. I get a little something every year. That’s why I keep on going, man. I like presents.”
The gift was Henry’s way of saying thanks for arguably the greatest season ever by a Red Sox slugger, one in which Ortiz shattered Jimmie Foxx’s club record 54 home runs.
His idea of an encore? “What I always do,” he said. “Kill the ball!”
Ortiz made a point of taking a newcomer under his wing: Dustin Pedroia, the rookie second baseman.
“He talks to me about when he came up,” Pedroia said. “He said it’s going to be tough at first, you’ve got to get used to it. Don’t read the papers, don’t listen to this or that, just play hard and people will love you for it.
“I think he expresses that every day he walks in here with a smile on his face. That’s why everybody loves him. I’ve never heard one bad thing said about David Ortiz, and I don’t think I ever will.”
Ortiz’s joy over the team’s second World Series title in four seasons was tempered by the off-season surgery he had in November for a torn meniscus in his right knee. Ortiz is confident that the knee will not be a hindrance, but Francona said Ortiz will need to be more mindful of his conditioning.
“We talk to David about that,” Francona said. “I can tell David anything, and we do. Take care of yourself because you get to an age, and he’s a big boy. We don’t want to hold our breath every time he slides. He’s had a couple of knee issues. He understands he has to take care of himself.”
Ortiz expresses his hope that the Red Sox don’t lose Ramirez, who has two club options left on his contract but wants a new deal from the club..
“At one point, this team is going to have to do something about it because there’s not a hitter like Manny out there,” said Ortiz. “Manny is the kind of guy that you definitely want to have on your team, because of all the success he’s had in his career and what he’s done and what you expect from him. Manny is the type of guy that when he’s healthy, you know what you’re going to get from Manny.”
[Ramirez was traded at the July 31 deadline to the Dodgers in a three-team deal.]
For the first time in his tenure with the Sox, Ortiz was coming off a season in which he hit fewer than 30 home runs, a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist limiting him to 109 games in which he hit just 23 home runs and drove in 89 runs. Ortiz-watchers were all looking for signs that his right wrist was fully healed. So was Big Papi.
“I think he swings the bat now knowing if he doesn’t hit a ball it’s not because of his wrist,” Francona said. “Hitters are always dealing with issues, timing, things like that, swinging at strikes, getting pitches they can handle. Last year, there’s also the issue of swinging knowing that you’re going to have some clicking. I think it’s human nature to not be at full strength. We knew that and he dealt with it and we dealt with it.’’
Ortiz, 34, came into camp in the final year of his contract, with the Sox holding a $12.5 million option for 2011. He also was coming off the worst season of his big-league career, one in which he hit just .196 with 3 home runs through June 10 and finished with a .238 average and 28 home runs. A slow start in camp made him a major talking point.
“This is my 14th spring training and nobody ever talked about my numbers in spring training before,” he said.
“Oh, you guys are going to get some results, believe me,” he said. “It ain’t over yet.”
Ortiz said he had no doubt he would have a bounce-back season.
“Last season was an experience for me,’’ he said. “At the end of the season, when I sat down at my house, I was proud of myself. It was because there’s not too many people that know how to bounce back from that hole that I walked into the first two months. I asked myself how did I bounce back? I had an answer for that, I just stayed strong and didn’t pay attention to all the negativity that sometimes people bring around. I just stuck with what I have and thanks to God, I had a whole lot of teammates that had my back when I was really struggling.’’
Ortiz tried not to make it an issue, but he had made it known that he would have preferred another contract extension. Instead, the Sox exercised a $12.5 million option. His negotiating position had not been helped by another slow start.
“Obviously those types of slumps are hard for the players and for everybody around the player,” Epstein said. “We never thought he was done.
“There’s always some concern when you’re going through stretches like that, but he deserves all the credit in the world for working his way out of it and not getting consumed by the storm that was starting to surround him.”
Ortiz was bombarded with questions about fried chicken and beer, the symbols of last September’s collapse that led to the dismissal of manager Terry Francona. The Sox also had a new general manager, Ben Cherington succeeding Epstein after he left to become the Cubs’ president of baseball operations.
“The deal with the clubhouse, people made it into a bigger deal than it was,’’ he said, later adding: “One thing I’m not worried about with this club is leadership.’’
Ortiz said there was a point that winter he thought the Sox were not going to keep him.
“I’m not going to lie to you — at one point I thought I was done here,’’ he said.
“The front office was caught up in a lot of things … and at one point I guess I thought I wasn’t a priority here. That’s the way it looked to me.’’
The Sox ultimately made Ortiz a two-year, $18 million offer which he rejected, accepting a one-year, $14.75 million deal just hours before an arbitration hearing. Ortiz arrived in camp saying he’d dropped 20 pounds in the previous two months and was noticeably slimmer. He attributed the loss to an unusual diet he had embraced.
The beauty of his diet, he said, is that it was all natural, involving no supplements. The parameters were determined in a clinic in the Dominican Republic, where he underwent something called bioelectrical impedance, which is a procedure that its proponents say can assess body composition, measuring body fat, lean muscle mass and intra- and extracellular fluids.
This was followed by what its inventors call the ALCAT test, an acronym for something called antigen leukocyte cellular antibody test. It is a blood test said to measure the body’s response to various food and chemical substances at the cellular level. It claims to be able to tell what food “intolerances” or “sensitivities” an individual’s body has, and from the results, a personal diet can be drawn.
“If I stop hitting bombs,” he says, “I give up the diet.”
The Sox took a calculated gamble on Ortiz, signing him in November to a two-year, $26 million deal [plus an additional $4 million in incentives] even though he was limited to just 90 games in 2012 after straining his right Achilles tendon. By the spring, he was experiencing inflammation in both heels, and did not appear in a single exhibition game. At age 37, many raised the question of how much he had left.
Ortiz did indeed begin the season on the disabled list, but then hit .500 (18 for 36) with 3 homers and 15 RBIs in his first nine games after being activated.
He insisted, later, however, that while he didn’t play in any games, he worked extensively under the direction of Dan Dyrek, the team’s coordinator of sports medicine. “The bald guy, he’s a genius,’’ Ortiz said of Dyrek.
Ortiz also made no secret of his pleasure that the Sox had fired Bobby Valentine and replaced him with John Farrell.
“A lot of players had a lot of issues with our manager last year,’’ Ortiz said.
“A team is like a human body. If the head is right, the body is going to function right, but if the head is messed up, then the body is going to be all over the place.
“…I think the first move our organization did was go out there and try to fix that. I’m pretty sure everybody is looking at that as a positive move, and now it’s like a fresh start. I’m pretty sure a lot of guys are comfortable … we’re going back to the basics with a manager like John.’’
After his epic performance in the 2013 postseason that resulted in a third World Series title, the Sox took a major step to ensure that Ortiz would end his career in a Sox uniform, tacking on a $16 million extension for 2015 with options built in for the subsequent two seasons.
“I don’t think you can apply a single policy to every player,’’ Cherington said. “You have a guy like David who has meant so much to the team, on and off the field, for so long he sort of goes beyond a typical player relationship. I think we owe him our time, a conversation when he wants it. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to find a way to resolve something or find agreement on something.
“He’s sort of passed in our eyes a typical player in the context of contract negotiations. His importance to the team, on and off the field, is significant. We just felt like, you know what, let’s sit down and make something work that makes sense for you, makes sense for the team, and we think we’ve done that.’’
In an essay he wrote for the Players Tribune, Ortiz made a passionate case for why he should be a Hall of Famer.
“People ask me all the time how I turned into such a monster in my early 30s,” he wrote. “‘How are you doing this? You must be cheating.’ You know how? Physically, I was always a bull. But I learned to play the game with my head and my heart and my b—-. I got smarter. I got mentally tougher.
“… I became a great hitter because of my mental preparation. This is a thinking man’s game. You can be the strongest dude alive and you’re not going to be able to hit a sinker with 40,000 people screaming at you. That’s what really makes me mad when I think about the way I will be remembered. They’re only going to remember my power. They’re not going to remember the hours and hours and hours of work in the film room. They’re not going to remember the BP. They’re not going to remember me for my intelligence. Despite all I’ve done in this game, I’m just the big DH from the Dominican. They turn you into a character, man.”
He said that since his name was linked to steroids, he has been asked “a million times” whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
“Hell yes I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” he wrote. “I’ve won three World Series since MLB introduced comprehensive drug testing. I’ve performed year after year after year. But if a bunch of writers who have never swung a bat want to tell me it’s all for nothing, OK. Why do they write my legacy?’’
Before there was Truck Day, there was this:
“While most of you guys and gals will be plowing through snow this morning, the advance guard of the Boston Red Sox will be shoving off from the South Station aboard the Seaboard Orange Blossom Special heading for Sarasota and the 1938 training season.’’
That was Hy Hurwitz, writing in the Boston Globe on March 1, 1938. Fans of the late Johnny Cash may recognize the name of the train that took the Sox south for the spring. He immortalized it in song.
Hey talk about a-ramblin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
Talk about a-travellin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
It’s that Orange Blossom Special
Rollin’ down the seaboard line
Hurwitz’s story made no mention of the bats, balls and gloves being hauled to Sarasota, but noted the presence of the one player on board at the start of the trip—“”the elongated Ted Olsen, the former Dartmouth captain and a sophomore pitcher of the Red Sox.” But Olson wouldn’t be alone for long. In Providence, the train stopped to pick up catcher Gene Desautels and by 6 that evening, when the train pulled into Washington, D.C., “the party will be increased considerably. It will even be possible to have a few kibbitzers around the bridge table.’’
The passengers who jumped aboard in D.C. included player-manager Joe Cronin, Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove, and coach Herb Pennock, another Hall of Fame pitcher.
From the beginning, in 1901, when the Boston Americans boarded a train to the team’s first spring training site, Charlottesville, Va., many ballplayers took to the rails to go south. In 1908, team president John I. Taylor led the Sox contingent on its trek to Little Rock, Ark., a journey that also included a ferry ride from New York City to Jersey City.
Listen to the words of manager Rough Bill Carrigan, the Holy Cross man, before he embarked south in 1929, and you can hear echoes in John Farrell’s spring forecast:
“I am predicting nothing, but I am hopeful,’’ Carrigan said. “Our players this year are more seasoned than any group which I have had with me. The newcomers have had more experience than the lads we have brought up in other years, and the holdovers from last year are more settled, with a year more of playing in the big show behind them.’’
Things didn’t work out as well as Carrigan had hoped: the club, which had won back-to-back World Series titles when he was player-manager in 1915 and ’16, finished last for a third successive season, and Carrigan retired from baseball to become a banker.
During World War II, wartime travel restrictions kept the team pretty close to home; the Sox trained at Tufts University in Medford in 1943, in Baltimore in 1944, and in Pleasantville, N.J., in 1945.
By 1953, Hurwitz was lamenting the passing of an era. The Boston Braves, in their last season in Boston, took a train to Washington, then boarded a National Airlines flight for Tampa. The Red Sox, meanwhile, rode the rails all the way to Sarasota, but it wasn’t the same.
“There was a time when ball groups leaving the city were well-stocked with players,’’ Hurwitz wrote. “This season is entirely different, for the modern player likes to make his own way to camp.’’
Soon, most everyone would be making the trip by plane, or by driving their own cars to camp. And no one paid much attention to how ballclubs shipped their equipment.
“People asked us for years and years if we drove the truck down,’’ said Billy Broadbent, a former Sox clubhouse man who now serves as the team’s video coordinator. “We didn’t. We always used a moving company. But this is a big-time operation now.’’
The day the truck left for spring training might draw a mention or a photo in the papers, and the occasional stray TV camera. That all changed with the arrival of the team’s new owners, maestro Charles Steinberg in tow. It was Steinberg’s idea to give Groundhog Day a rival as harbinger of spring; suddenly, Truck Day had gone uptown. Fans were invited, TV cameras jockeyed for position, marching bands were enlisted, and “Big Al” Hartz, the man behind the wheel for the 1,400- mile trip, had his 15 minutes of fame—like the groundhog, every year, same time, same place.
“Al needs an agent,’’ said Kevin Carson, operations manager for New England Household Moving and Storage.
“It has turned from simply a moving job into a moving event.’’
With Fenway Park South and JetBlue Park a year-round operation, much of the essential equipment is shipped directly by the manufacturers to Fort Myers. And with Fenway Park used by football teams this fall—Notre Dame and Boston College, and eight high school teams—home clubhouse manager Tom McLaughlin, equipment manager Edward “Pookie” Jackson, and clubhouse men John Coyne and Steve Murphy packed up a truck in November that took the gear the players had left behind to the Fort. Medical equipment, clubhouse trunks, pitching machines, all made the trek south.
“It used to be there might be a couple of players who may have lived in the area who reported early,’’ McLaughlin said. “It’s completely different now. We have close to 20 guys here already. We need to get stuff here early. It helps us to get these guys set up and ready to go.’’
There will be some baseball equipment hauled on Wednesday, but much of the shipment will be personal items belonging to players, uniformed personnel and team staff.
“Bikes and kids’ stuff, golf clubs and fishing poles,’’ McLaughlin said. “Some years, there’s a lot of kids’ stuff. Depends on the age of the team, really. Young teams don’t have all that much stuff.’’
The inventory of materials the Sox use in spring training remains impressive, regardless of how it arrived here. McLaughlin, who is in his 31st spring-training camp, went down the list.
–A couple dozen bats per player. Figure around 32 position players, that’s 64 dozen bats.
–1600 dozen baseballs. “And we don’t plan to have any left at the end of camp,’’ McLaughlin said.
He explained the progression. Balls used in games and in live batting practice end up being used for pitchers’ fielding practice drills, and batting cage work. Eventually, they make their way to the minor league teams, who use them in batting practice. “They get so beat up,’’ McLaughlin said, “they’re almost like tennis balls.’’
–Close to 50 dozen hats. Hats for practice, hats for games, hats for St. Patrick’s Day, hats for Opening Day.
–Undergarments and other accessories provided by Nike: 3 or 4 different varieties of short-sleeved shirts, about 12 dozen shorts, cold weather gear, anticipating the April 4 opener in Cleveland.
–a palette of Double Bubble gum. 8 containers in a box, 25 boxes.
–30 to 40 boxes of sunflower seeds, all flavors.
— Around 8 five-gallon buckets of powdered laundry detergent, plus lots of specialty products to take out the grass stains and pine tar. How do you remove pine tar?
“Elbow grease,’’ McLaughlin said. “You can’t buy that by the pound.’’
–Jocks and cups and shower slides, towels and washcloths and toiletries, and on and on it goes.
The Sox clubhouse men will assist in the loading and unloading of the truck. Big Al plans to pull out around noon, lay up for the night in south Jersey, make his way to Florence, S.C., by Thursday night before completing the bell lap by Saturday morning. In Florida, he’ll be met by another driver, Rob Russo, who is already in Fort Myers, having already delivered on another job.
Billy Broadbent will take care of his video equipment, but his days of heavy lifting are over. He didn’t mind any of it. For Broadbent, Truck Day, even before it became an event, meant something.
“You spend the whole winter anticipating what the team is going to be like,’’ he said. “Then you go to spring training when the truck goes, and you’re among the first to see it.
“There are a lot of hours, a lot of work, but that’s still a major benefit. And it’s something I’ve never taken for granted.’’
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.