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.