Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Top 100 Red Sox: 31-35

Let's keep cruising, shall we? Here's where we've just been:

45. Tex Hughson, P
44. Mike Greenwell, LF
43. Duffy Lewis, LF
42. George Scott, 1B/3B
41. Frank Malzone, 3B
40. Buck Freeman, 1B/OF
39. Bruce Hurst, P
38. Ellis Kinder, P
37. Bill Dinneen, P
36. Jimmy Collins, 3B

And here's where we're going:

35. Derek Lowe
34. Jason Varitek
In hindsight, the trade looks as ridiculous as ridiculous gets. Lowe won 21 games for the Red Sox in 2002 and pitched the Red Sox to a World Series title in 2004; Varitek, Captain Intangibles, has been the backbone of the Red Sox for the last decade.

The Mariners, on the other hand, got a relief pitcher who had a 4.13 ERA down the stretch in 1997 and a 5.32 ERA in 1998 before departing as a free agent.

But here's what the Mariners (and Red Sox) were looking at in July of 1997:
Pitcher A: 24 years old. Had a 4.95 ERA in Double-A in 1994 and a 6.11 ERA in Double-A in 1995 but had put it together in 1996, earning a promotion to Triple-A and compiling a 3.97 ERA in a season split between two levels. Earned a cup of coffee in 1997 and was hit hard (to the tune of a 6.13 ERA).
Pitcher B: 22 years old. Had a 2.77 ERA in Double-A in 1994 and, after a down year, had a 4.74 ERA in Double-A in 1996. Promoted to Triple-A, where he pitched mostly out of the bullpen, and then briefly to the big leagues for a brief taste.
Pitcher C: 23 years old. Rocketed through the system, winning 14 games with a 2.83 ERA at Single-A in 1994, 13 games with a 3.11 ERA in Double-A and Triple-A in 1995. Pitched in the playoffs in the big leagues. Spent almost the entire 1996 season in the big leagues, but hit a roadblock, compiling a 5.73 ERA.
Pitcher D: 24 years old. Finished two Single-A stints with a sub-3.15 ERA in 1994. Had a 4.32 ERA in Double-A in 1995 and a 4.01 ERA in Double-A in 1996. Started 1997 in Double-A before a 3.05 ERA and a 40-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio forced a promotion to Triple-A.

Needing bullpen help the way the first-place Mariners did, who would you have traded? Who would you have insisted on keeping?

Pitcher D was Ryan Franklin. Pitcher C was Bob Wolcott. Pitcher B was Mac Suzuki.

Pitcher A was the Mariners traded to the Red Sox: Derek Lowe.

To sweeten the pot, they also offered a catcher who was to them what Kelly Shoppach was to the Red Sox just a couple of years ago -- a talent, to be sure, but a talent blocked by a franchise catcher who wasn't going anywhere. Heck, while Varitek was about to turn 34 years old when Shoppach was dealt to Cleveland, Dan Wilson was just 28 in July of 1997.

It remains the best trade ever pulled off by the Red Sox. But to suggest it was thanks to some sort of incredible incompetence on the part of the Mariners is to miss the context just a little bit.

33. Jackie Jensen
Speaking of great trades: Anyone heard from Mickey McDermott or Tom Umphlett lately?

That was the price the Red Sox paid to acquire Jackie Jensen, whose 170 home runs in a Red Sox uniform ranks him 12th in franchise history, just ahead of Tony Conigliaro and Carlton Fisk and just behind Nomar Garciaparra.

Jensen was as spectacular an athlete as the Red Sox ever had -- he rushed for 1,010 yards and six touchdowns as a fullback at Cal in 1948, leading the Golden Bears to a 10-0 record and a spot in the Rose Bowl. "The Golden Boy" even earned himself a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Two years later, he was in the major leagues. Six years later, he was hitting 25 home runs and stealing 22 bases for the Red Sox. His was the type of complementary power bat that Ted Williams hadn't had in the lineup with him since Jimmie Foxx -- and he even beat out Williams for Most Valuable Player honors in 1958 thanks to his 35 home runs and 122 RBI, both career bests.

32. Rico Petrocelli
By 1965, the Red Sox were in utter disarray; they'd failed to finish even close to .500 since 1958 and had all but lost their identity since the retirement of Ted Williams. Slugging first baseman Dick Stuart, who cared more about his home runs than his team's wins, epitomized the country-club atmosphere that was landing the Red Sox in sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth place every year.

In 1965 and 1966, the Red Sox again finished ninth. But a new generation of players gradually was being worked in. Carl Yastrzemski was 25 and a bona fide superstar. Tony Conigliaro was 20 and 21 but hitting 30 home runs a year. George Scott was showing off his slick glove at first base, and Jim Lonborg and Jose Santiago were working their way toward the top of the pitching rotation. The heart and soul of that generation, though, might have been their shortstop.

Rico Petrocelli hit just .232 in 1965 and .238 in 1966. But he showed an impressive power stroke, particularly for a shotstop; he hit 18 home runs in 1966, more even than Yastrzemski. And while he made 28 errors in the field in 1966, that number was about to come tumbling down as well.

Petrocelli came out of the gate on fire in 1967, hitting .333 in April and .320 in May. On Opening Day against Chicago, he singled home a run in the second inning and hit a three-run home run in the third to lift the Red Sox to a 5-4 win; in the first half of a May 14 doubleheader against Detroit, he hit a two-run home run in the second and a solo home run in the eighth to spark a Red Sox sweep. By July, he was starting for the American League in the All-Star Game. And on Oct. 1, he was the one to squeeze the popup that clinched a trip to the World Series.

While several Red Sox had career years in 1967, the then-24-year-old Petrocelli was just getting started. He hit a career-best 40 home runs in 1969 and drove in a career-best 103 runners in 1970. By 1975, he'd moved to third base and his role had started to diminish thanks to age and injuries, but he still went 8-for-26 with a double in four RBIs while playing every inning of the World Series.

31. Johnny Pesky
So Johnny Pesky, one of the greatest shortstops in Red Sox history, once was at a football game in Oregon with his wife; the two teams were playing in the pouring rain and neither could avoid fumbling the ball.

One fan piped up, "Give the ball to Pesky! He knows how to hold onto it!"

And that, for better or for worse, is the reputation of Johnny Pesky. He's not the guy who has the seventh-best batting average in franchise history; he's not the guy who became the second player ever to collect 200 hits in a season for the Red Sox, let alone three years in a row. He's the guy that held the ball as Enos Slaughter scored the winning run of the 1946 World Series. He even said so himself: "If I was alert, I'd have had him," he told reporters after the game. "When I finally woke up and saw him running for home, I couldn't have gotten him with a .22."

The writers took him at his word -- and that was that.

But researchers going back over the video have discovered something those writers never knew: Pesky didn't hold the ball. Pesky caught the ball and threw it home, and Slaughter scored.

From Red Sox Century by Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson, a resource that has been invaluable in compiling many of these capsules:
"As the grainy film shows, Pesky took the throw with his back to the plate, spun toward third, spotted Slaughter, took a quick half-windup, and threw home. Catch to throw takes less than a second. He does not pause or freeze with the ball, although his body language exhibits surprise. ...
"The run scored because Slaughter made a great play and a series of small miscalculations and slight misplays by several Red Sox players built exponentially, costing the Red Sox the World Series and one man his reputation. Pesky, who got all the blame, simply made an average play in a situation that was already lost. Had he eyes in the back of his head and an arm like Bob Feller's, by the time he got the ball, Slaughter already would have scored."

In recent years, and as generations have passed, the play has become part of distant history. Pesky's seven decades with the Red Sox -- and the pole that bears his name -- has became far more a part of his legacy than the split-second he had the ball in his glove on the decisive play of the 1946 World Series.

Still, though, it's nice to know it wasn't really his fault.

Coming up: Hey, Mr. Spaceman.

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