Friday, March 20, 2009

The Top 100 Red Sox: 56-60

As we near the midpoint, here's a recap of the last 10 players on this list -- and here's a link to the start of the list, just in case you're just joining us:

70. Tom Brewer, P
69. Tony Armas, OF
68. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
67. Jeff Reardon, P
66. Chick Stahl, OF
65. Rube Foster, P
64. Trot Nixon, OF
63. Marty Barrett, 2B
62. Johnny Damon, OF
61. Jonathan Papelbon, P

Hey, look, we're almost halfway there!

60. Frank Sullivan
The Red Sox went into the 1955 season without much in their starting rotation; Ellis Kinder, Joe Dobson and Mel Parnell all were getting old and on their way out, and there wasn't much coming behind them. One promising young arm, though, was attached to the right shoulder of 24-year-old Frank Sullivan, a native of Hollywood who had won 15 games with a 3.14 ERA in 1954.

In 1955, though, Sullivan blossomed into an ace. He won 18 games, and his 2.91 ERA ranked him fifth in the American League. The Red Sox, meanwhile, had won 69 games in 1954 but won 84 in 1955 and were still in contention into early September. A big reason for that was the pitching of Sullivan, who helped keep the Red Sox afloat while Ted Williams was flirting with retirement in April and May.

In 1956, Sullivan went 14-7 with a 3.42 ERA for a Red Sox team that was 10 games out of contention by mid-June; in 1957, he went 14-11 with a 2.73 ERA as the Red sox once again played their way out of the pennant race before the Fourth of July. He won 13 games and had a 3.57 ERA in 1958 before his 63 complete games in five season began to catch up with him. After a mediocre year in 1960, he was traded to Philadelphia; he was out of baseball by 1963.

His career ERA of 3.47 ranks him 30th in Red Sox history; his 90 wins rank him in a tie for 15th, just ahead of Babe Ruth, Dennis Eckersley and Bruce Hurst.

59. Jim Lonborg
If only he'd called it quits just a few minutes earlier.

Skiing at Lake Tahoe on Christmas Eve of 1967, Lonborg caught an edge and went down on his last run of the day. It was barely two months after he'd been named the American League's Cy Young Award winner. He'd gone 22-9 with a 3.16 ERA and 246 strikeouts for the Impossible Dream team; he'd even tossed complete games in Game 2 and Game 5 of the World Series, surrendering all of four hits and one earned run in those 18 innings. (Pitching on two days' rest in Game 7, he couldn't recapture the magic and gave up six earned runs in six innings.)

He was still just 25 years old, and he was the best pitcher in the American League. Then he caught and edge and tore ligaments in his left knee. He was never the same. Over the next two seasons, Lonborg would go 13-21 with an ERA of 4.41 and 173 strikeouts. A year after that, he made just four starts -- and in October of 1971, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a package that featured speedster Tommy Harper.

His career was hardly over at that point, though. Lonborg eventually was traded to Philadelphia, where he recaptured at least a hint of his past glory. The future dentist won 17 games in 1974 and 18 games in 1976 -- including a 6-0 start in 1976 that earned him this praise from Sports Illustrated:

"He is 34 now, and still very much Gentleman Jim. But his elegance has been tempered, and his pitching has become more subtle. His emphasis now is not on speed, but on location. .... In 1972, Boston traded him to Milwaukee, where the pitching coach was Wes Stock. Lonborg credits Stock with helping him develop his current style, which relies heavily on pinpointing the ball down and away and changing speeds.

"Still, when Lonborg was sent to the Phillies at the end of 1972, he had yet to gain full mastery of his breaking ball. To the rescue came Philadelphia Pitching Coach Ray Rippelmeyer, who recommended a small adjustment—that Lonborg bring his hand a little closer to his head as he made his deliveries. Lonborg's curve showed immediate and dramatic improvement, and his slider, by his own estimate, became twice as effective. In fact, Lonborg links his resurgence directly to that pitch. He feels that he could throw nothing but sliders to right-handed batters for an entire game and probably win."

Red Sox fans always will wonder what might have been for the hero of 1967. Of the first 10 American League Cy Young Award winners -- the award was separated by league starting in 1967 -- Lonborg was the only pitcher not to win 20 games at least one other time in his career. But with the way things crashed down around him, he still did awfully well for himself. He even ranks 20th all-time in Phillies history in career wins (with 75); he ranks 29th in Red Sox history (with 68). He didn't land in the Hall of Fame the way some thought he might, but his place in history will never fade.

58. Tony Conigliaro
Those of us who weren't alive in the mid-1960s, when we think about Tony C., we mostly think about that fateful Jack Hamilton pitch that ruined a promising career. Those of us who weren't alive in the mid-1960s, though, don't really understand just how promising that career was.

The Red Sox signed Conigliaro out of St. Mary's High School in Lynn in 1962; he was just 17 years old. By the time he was 18, he was hitting .363 with 24 home runs and 74 RBI in 83 minor-league games. By the time he was 19, he was in the major leagues -- and he was hitting .290 with 21 doubles and 24 home runs in 404 at-bats. He was both a heartthrob and a sure-fire future Hall of Famer. He even had an endearing personality; he overslept and arrived 45 minutes late for his first workout in 1964 and told writers, "I ought to be fined $1,000. I ought to be suspended. ... What a way to start my career. I can hear my kids asking me someday, 'What did you do your first day in the big leagues, Daddy?' And I'll say, 'I slept.'"

He even signed a recording contract with RCA and released a single entitled, appropriately, "Playing the Field." It went to No. 14 on the Boston area charts.

All that aside, though, Conigliaro was a sensational baseball player. He hit 32 home runs in 1965 and 28 home runs with 93 RBI in 1966; he'd hit 84 career home runs before his 22nd birthday. In the history of baseball, only Mel Ott ever has hit more home runs before his 22nd birthday. Ken Griffey Jr., even, hit just 60 home runs by his 22nd birthday despite 1,600 at-bats to Conigliaro's 1,483.

Conigliaro started slow in 1967 but heated up just as the weather heated up. Between June 11 and July 7, in fact, he hit .359 with 11 home runs and 29 RBI. In the 11th inning of a June 15 game against first-place Chicago, he hit a two-out, two-run home run to lift the Red Sox to a 2-1 victory -- and a day later, the phrase "Impossible Dream" appeared for the first time in a newspaper headline. During the Red Sox's 10-game winning streak from July 14-July 23, he hit .424 with four doubles, three triples, four home runs and 12 RBI.

A month later, a Hamilton fastball got away from him and hit Conigliaro in the head; that story has been told many times and doesn't need to be retold here. But there's a reason that had such an impact. It wasn't just because of how scary the incident was. It was because of who Tony C was.

57. John Valentin
Headed into the 1995 season, Johnny Val had hit a grand total of 25 big-league home runs in three seasons. In the 1995 season, he hit 27 home runs and drove in 102 runs as part of the Red Sox team that won a division title despite having finished 17 games out the year before. From Aug. 1 to Aug. 14, a span in which the Red Sox won 13 of 14 games to open up a 10-game lead in the American League East, Valentin hit .421 and drove in 17 runs.

The legacy of Valentin, though, wouldn't be cemented until 1997 -- a year in which Valentin suddenly no longer was asked to play shortstop for the Red Sox. Instead, the Red Sox brass wanted a top prospect named Nomar Garciaparra to play shortstop. Valentin revolted, walking out of spring training in protest, but he eventually relented; he would hit .306 with 18 home runs in 1997. The Red Sox, though, finished in fourth place.

It wasn't until 1998 and 1999, though, that Valentin really cemented his place in Red Sox lore. The Red Sox earned the first wild-card bid in team history in 1998; Valentin hit .467 with five runs scored in the American League Division Series against Cleveland.

A year later, the Red Sox again won the American League wild card and again drew Cleveland in the American League Division Series. Valentin, like the Red Sox, fell flat in the first two games; the third baseman went 0-for-8 as the Red Sox fell into a hole and faced quick elimination. But when Valentin came to life, so too did his team. He hit a solo home run in the sixth inning to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead, and he hit a two-run double in the seventh inning as part of an avalanche that put the game away. One night later, Valentin hit a two-run home run in the first inning, a single in the second inning and a two-run home run in the third inning as the Red Sox cruised to a 23-7 rout to tie the series.

A night later, a pair of home runs from Troy O'Leary and the unbelievable pitching of Pedro Martinez lifted the Red Sox into the American League Championship Series. It was on the shoulders of Valentin, though, that they even got to that point.

56. Rick Burleson
The Rooster hit .252 with six home runs and 62 RBI in 1975. That only tells part of the story.

We'll let Bill Lee tell the rest of the story: "I had never met a red-ass like Rick in my life. Some guys don't like to lose, but Rick got angry if the score was even tied. ... The moment he reported to camp (in his rookie year), he brought a first to the club that we had been lacking."

That didn't start when he was in Boston. Back when he was in elementary school, in fact, Burleson used to get into fights on purpose -- and with the sanction of authority,

"The principal would come and get me out of class to fight bad kids or kids who might have been picking on someone," he once said. "We'd put on boxing gloves and, after I'd beaten up the other kid a little bit, they'd stop it and break us up."

Burleson never hit more than eight home runs or drove in more than 65 runs in his Red Sox career. But he played in three All-Star Games, and his 1,114 hits in his seven seasons in Boston ranks him 21st all-time, ahead of Carlton Fisk. Most importantly, he (with Fisk) was the heart and soul of a World Series team in 1975 and a near-miss team in 1978.

It was an ankle injury suffered by Burleson on July 9, in fact, that kicked off the Red Sox's collapse. When Burleson slid into second base hard enough to sprain his ankle and stretch out his ligaments, the Red Sox were 10 game ahead of Milwaukee and 11 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees. He was expected to miss just a week; instead, he missed three weeks and didn't return until July 28. He went 3-for-5 with three RBI in a game three days after his return, but he hit just .233 in August and .248 in September despite having hit .322 in June.

Two years later, the Rooster was traded to California in a salary-dump move; he would play for the Angels for five years and even had 11 at-bats in the fateful 1986 ALCS. But he'll always be remembered as the best player to play shortstop for the Red Sox between the years of Johnny Pesky and Nomar Garciaparra.

Coming up: A perennial All-Star and MVP candidate in the 1940s and 1950s -- but not Ted Williams.

A look back: We've updated the Boo Ferriss profile (No. 80) thanks to some new research; the decline of a star isn't always quite what it seems.

No comments: