November 2006

Many, Manny trade rumors

We’ve all played this game for how many years now? Every winter, Manny is getting traded. Every spring, he reports to Fort Myers with a new hairstyle and the same goofy look on his face.

Guess what — the game is over. I really think Manny is getting traded this time around. All signs are pointing toward it.

All the big bats (Soriano, Lee, Sheffield) have been signed or traded for big dollars, and there is Manny, a big bat — a monster bat — and readily available.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com — a writer and blogger who has taken his game to another level over the last couple of years — cites MLB sources who think Manny could be gone by Saturday. But alas, these things always drag out a little longer than we expect.

I’m thinking that all the proposals get done this week, and the final package is produced during the Winter Meetings next week in Orlando. How fitting that Goofy Manny could get traded right in the heart of Disney World.

Isn’t it amazing how much different public reaction is on this matter now than a year ago at this time? Remember that Keep Manny website that thousands of people posted on last winter? Where are those people now?

Manny’s time has finally run its course in Boston it seems. He played his butt off for the first four months of last season but basically shut it down once his team began to fall out of the race. I know for a fact that he lost some respect in the clubhouse during that time. Even a former teammate and close friend such as Kevin Millar openly mocked Manny to his face in late September, making fun of his knee injury. I’m thinking Millar might have been a little more sensitive if Manny had a real serious injury, but that’s just a theory.

Even Big Papi David Ortiz no longer rushes to Manny’s defense. I saw a great TV interview with Dan Roche the other night when he told Ortiz he had a tough question for him. Ortiz said, "Bring it on."

Roche said, and I paraphrase, "Are the Red Sox better off with or without Manny?"

That was all it took for Papi to retract the "Bring it on."

With a pained look on his face, Ortiz said, "Can you ask me another tough question?" Papi wanted no part of answering this question. Then Ortiz said that fans should never forget what Manny has done for the Red Sox. In other words, David was saying that Manny’s legacy in Boston should be secure, but he certainly didn’t beg for the Red Sox to keep Manny as he’s done in years past.

Quite frankly, this is a baseball marriage that seems to be coming to an end. Manny won a World Series in Boston. He drove in countless big runs. He hit jaw-dropping home runs. But there was always the unpredictability and the change in moods and the chance that Manny just might hit the off button for a few days in the middle of a pennant race.

So now the Red Sox will stack up the offers against each other. In this market, Manny’s salary no longer looks daunting. So they get maybe a shutdown reliever and some prospects and either keep that package or ship it off somewhere else for, say, Andruw Jones?

The next few days are going to be high drama as the Manny being Manny act might finally be writing its final few chapters in Boston.

.

Giving Thanks

OK, so you’re a Red Sox fan, and it’s the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Let’s go around the diamond and point out nine things you can be thankful for.

No. 1: David Ortiz. There isn’t a more lovable slugger in baseball. The guy swings for the fences and has a smile that lights up New England. I don’t think the Red Sox have ever had a more popular player.

No. 2: Jonathan Papelbon. Starter, reliever, it doesn’t matter. The guy has a terrific young arm and should be an elite pitcher for the next decade-plus.

No. 3: Fenway Park: The place remains a shrine and new ownership has spruced it up beyond belief. Do I believe that fans would enjoy a new, state of the art park more? Sure I do. But until then, you have a beautiful antique with an atmosphere for the ages.

No. 4: The rivalry. Outside of college sports, it’s hard to find any rivalry that even closely resembles Red Sox-Yankees. Just check out this blog on a daily  basis. A good portion of the comments are Red Sox and Yankees fans sniping back and forth, and as long as it’s clean, I love it. Matsuzaka vs. Matsui is going to provide yet another dimension as the best rivalry in pro sports extends to Japan.

No. 5: The fans. That’s right, Sox fans care. The Patriots have put together one of the great runs in the history of the NFL, and even during football season, they remain the second team in town. Instead, everyone obsessesses on who will play shorstop for the Red Sox next year, whether J.D. Drew is worth the money and when Matsuzaka might sign.

No. 6: Ownership and front office. Theo and the Trio didn’t have a good year in ’06, but they remain a driven group willing to do whatever it takes to get the Sox back to prominence. They just showed $51.1 million reasons why.

No. 7: The manager. Managing the Boston Red Sox has been a thankless job over the years. Even the best get second guessed for the entirety of the 162-game schedule. But Terry Francona has handled his position with class the last three years, being loyal to his players and his bosses and putting in as much prep work as any manager in the game. Francona is wrong from time to time. Every manager is. But it’s not from a lack of preparation.

No. 8: 2004. Because of those four numerals, Red Sox fans have no excuse to be bitter anymore. They saw the autumn of a lifetime, and it’s going to live on forever. I’m thinking there won’t be another 86-year drought before the taste of another championship at Fenway.

No. 9: Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers are less than three months away. For a baseball fan, spring doesn’t start a day earlier or later than that.

Ian.

Most Valuable Papi

Ortiz didn’t win the MVP, he fell short again. He has now finished in every spot in the top five but first (fifth in ’03; fourth in ’04; second in ’05; and now the bronze this year).

Unlike last year, when every Red Sox fan had the right to feel as if their man had been robbed, there wasn’t much of an argument for Papi this year. That’s because his team cost him any chance of competing for the award by an implosion of epic proportions in late August.

MVP Awards are won in September and that’s exactly what Morneau did. He stole the award with a brilliant finish to the season, helping his team to the playoffs in the process.

The Red Sox took the bat out of Papi’s hands in September by playing meaningless games for the entire month. it’s too bad. These are prime years for Papi and he was by far the front runner for the MVP on Aug. 1. But as we know, things changed drastically after that.

I was somewhat surprised Jeter didn’t win. I thought he had a terrific year. But there’s probably some East Coast bias to begin with that led many of us to think that Jeter would win

Morneau had an awesome year and did it when it mattered most, and I’m glad the voters rewarded him for that.

In my mind, Jeter is Tom Brady, and both players are yet to win an MVP. The great thing about both Jeter and Brady is that they aren’t driven by individual awards.

Neiter is Papi. He just wants to win. And because his team didn’t do nearly enough of that this year, he didn’t win his MVP.

I’m thinking that ’07 is Papi’s year for MVP, without a doubt. He just needs his team to stay in the race until the end.

Billy Ballgame calls it a career

Figured I could take a break from all the Matsuzaka mania for a moment and acknowledge one of my all-time favorite Red Sox players — Bill Mueller, a.k.a. Billy Ballgame as Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek used to call him.

As many of you might have heard right now, Mueller was forced into retirement at the age of 35 on Friday because of  right knee cartilage that, in his words, was "Crumbled. I’ll have to live with this the rest of my life."

Mueller finished with the Dodgers, not the Red Sox, playing 32 games last year with the Dodgers for former manager Grady Little and alongside other Sox like Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Lowe. He’ll now go to the front office of the Dodgers, serving, as my esteemed colleague Ken Gurnick put it, "the highest paid special assistant to the general manager" in team history. Mueller is still on the books for $4 million next season.

Though he played a mere three years in Boston, this guy is going to go down as  a Red Sox player through and through.

For many of the reasons Dan Shaughnessy chronicled last year in one of his most underrated columns ever http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/articles/2005/12/16/mueller_leaves_an_enduring_mark_with_sox/
you had to like Bill Mueller.

Watching him from the press box for three years, I can’t recall a single mental mistake that Bill Mueller ever made on the baseball field — on offense or defense. How many players can you say that about?

Also, I’m scratching my brain trying to remember if Mueller ever exited a game with a clean uniform. I don’t believe he did. Mueller didn’t say much to the media, he was never about the glamour. But he did always like to say that he took pride in playing a certain part of his anatomy off.

Perhaps Mueller’s knees gave out so soon because he had to push so hard to make it as a solid everyday player with such an underwhelming physique.

Remember when he came aboard in 2003 as Shea Hillenbrand’s backup and many of us wondered why Theo made that move when he already had a good third baseman? You looked at Mueller’s career numbers and didn’t see much of anything special.

Then you watched him play, and felt it was a complete no-brainer when Theo traded Hillenbrand to the Diamondbacks for Byung-Hyun Kim at the end of May of 2003.

That trade was a master stroke for Epstein for two reasons. It made Mueller an everyday player and it made David Ortiz an everyday player. Both players took it to another level from that day forward.

Bill Mueller won a batting title that first year in Boston, making Major League history by becoming the first player to hit grand slams from both sides of the plate in Texas. I covered that game, and was actually on a conference call with Theo Epstein when the second granny left the yard. Epstein was announcing the trade for Scott Williamson from Boston and watching the game on TV. When the ball soared toward the wall, Epstein took a brief break from his evaluation of Williamson and yelled, "get out, get out."

That will go down as the most spectacular individual night of Bill Mueller’s career. But there are a couple of other moments that Red Sox fans will hold closer to their hearts.

The first was July 24, 2004. The Red Sox, their playoff hopes fading, had spent the day in a knockdown, dragout fight with the Yankees, both literally (A-Rod and Varitek) and figuratively (a roller coaster game). Mueller stepped to the plate with one out and one on in the bottom of the ninth and the Sox down by a run at 10-9. Mariano Rivera was on the mound, and up to that point, was considered all but invincible in the minds of the Red Sox and their fans. But one easy swing by Bill Mueller sent the ball into the bullpen for a two-run, walkoff homer. Euphoria all around Fenway.

Usually the press box doesn’t make a sound in moments like this. But I distinctly remember that when Mueller’s ball left the yard, there was a loud noise — I don’t even know how to describe it. It was almost like a noise of disbelief of the moment and the game that everyone had just seen.

As you may remember, it wasn’t the last time Bill Mueller would get Mariano Rivera in 2004. Game 4 of the ALCS. The Red Sox were three outs from extinction, three outs from getting swept. Millar led off with a walk. Dave Roberts got up off the bench and pinch-ran and produced the most electrifying steal in Red Sox history, perhaps in baseball history. But it wouldn’t have mattered if someone didn’t  come up with a big hit.

That someone was Bill Mueller. He bashed a single through the box that Rivera tried to make a kick save on, but to no avail. Tie ballgame. At least until David Ortiz hit that walkoff against Quantrill in the 12th. It’s funny that you always hear about the Roberts steal and the Ortiz homer, but not as much about the Bill Mueller single which was every bit as vital to the survival that night which eventually led to a World Championship.

That was Bill Mueller. He didn’t want to be noticed. He just wanted to do his job. And he did that job  with uncanny execution until his body simply wouldn’t let him anymore.

One step closer to Matsuzaka

Some $51.1 million later, Matsuzaka’s bidding rights are exclusive property of the Red Sox. An enormous bid, really, and it just shows you what a premium talented young pitching is.

I love the move by the Sox. They had no clue what the Yankees would bid, so they came up with an enormous offer, and obviously they feel they can make a good deal of the money back in marketing and merchandising, etc.

Theo and Boras will bunker down for a few days and hopefully get a deal done. A rotation of Schilling-Papelbon-Beckett-Matsuzaka-Wakefield could be one of the best in the game.

Just like that, the disappointment of 2006 has faded, and the Red Sox have a potential new star on the horizon. It will be nice to have a little spice once Spring Training begins. It seems like something was missing last year. The whole season had kind of a flat feel to it.

But assuming the Matsuzaka negotiatons are successful, ’07 will have an electric feel to it from the start.

Schilling is entering his final season, Papelbon is going to the rotation, Beckett is trying to bounce back, Wakefield is coming off an injury, and Matsuzaka has lethal stuff. This could be a fun team to watch. I’m looking forward already to the atmosphere of Matsuzaka’s first Fenway start.

Also love how it adds yet another dimension to the Sox-Yankees rivalry. Each team now has a Japanese superstar. Hey, it was Bobby Valentine who referred to Matsuzaka as the Matsui of pitchers.

It cracks me up to hear people worry about the $51 million. Hey, it’s not our money, right? If John Henry laid down the money, obviously he thinks he can afford it. Just sit back and enjoy.

It’s fun to have a hotbutton baseball topic like this in November, especially with the Patriots looking blah and the Celtics producing their worst start since the Wicks-Rowe era.

How many days until pitchers and catchers?

Sayonara,

Ian.

Will Matsuzaka be fitted for Sox?

Did the Red Sox win the bidding on Daisuke Matsuzaka? There’s no real way to know until MLB is given clearance to announce it. Once the Seibu Lions officially accept the winning bid, whomever it may be from, MLB will follow quickly with an announcement. Then the winning bidder would have 30 days to strike a deal with Scott Boras.

Even Buster Olney, the fine ESPN reporter and blogger extraordinaire who came out with today’s report, can’t say for certain if it was the Red Sox who won the bidding. This is a top secret story with the officials involved, and for understandible reasons. Heck, the Lions themselves don’t even know who made the top bid, as all the bids were blind.

If the Red Sox do get Matsuzaka, it would surely send a jolt through New England not felt since Schilling came on board in Thanksgiving of 2003. I just got back from Japan, and heard nothing but glowing things about Matsuzaka’s ability. Bobby Valentine calls him the Hideki Matsui of pitchers. This guy has a collection of pitches, including 95-MPH heat, a wicked slider, a forktball and a curve.

Say the Red Sox get Matsuzaka. They will suddenly have a pipeline in Japan. And the way Japan is coming on as a baseball country, that would be a very, very good thing.

Also, keeping Matsuzaka away from the Yankees could be huge in the AL East. Would the Yankees then break the bank for Zito?

Imagine for a second a rotation of Schilling-Matsuzaka-Papelbon-Beckett-Wakefield with Lester ready to step in at some point.

That will warm any Sox fan up on a cold winter day. So buckle up, and wait for the official word.

Ian.

Greetings from far, Far East

Here I am, talking to you Sox addicts live from Tokyo, where it is 6:25 p.m. on Thursday; You guys and gals are all sleeping I presume as it is 4:25 a.m. back East.Scoreboardoftoky

It’s been a fascinating experience out here. The people are so nice and respectful, everything is very nice.

Tokyo actually resembles New York City quite a bit with its bright lights and big city feel, although it is much quieter and less stressful.

I went to see the Prime Minister today along with some of the players. That was really cool. Who would have thought i’d get to the Prime Minister of Japan’s office before the White House? It’s a crazy path that sportswriting can take you on, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Sounds like nothing major has happened with the Red Sox since I’ve been gone. I think everyone should be prepared for the Yankees to make an insane offer that can’t be matched for Matsuzaka. Why else would the Mariners have backed out before the bidding even started.

Anyway, please join me on the Japan blog. I’ll be way more frequent over there until my return to the States on Nov. 9.

http://insidejapantour.mlblogs.com/

Sayonara.

P.S. — Anyone who likes sushi as much as I do needs to come over here. Sushi in the United States absolutely does not touch the sushi here. It’s unbelievable.Thatssushi

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