Nomar, If Only . . .

Dan:

I know I’m gonna catch a lot of heat for this, but I’m gonna say it anyway: Nomar, if only you’d stayed away from the ‘roids. What might have been . . .

Don’t take this as bashing him. It’s not.

Well, maybe it is, but it isn’t meant to be mean, directly, anyway. You see, ten years ago, Nomar Garciaparra was my favorite player. Besides being arguably the game’s best hitter, and being enormously clutch in the ’98 and ’99 playoffs for the Sox, Nomar also seemed to be a great guy. He always seemed friendly on camera, had his head on straight. He seemed to appreciate the tradition of the Sox, speaking fondly of Johnny Pesky and becoming emotional when Ted Williams passed.

Heck, during his time with the Sox I showed him the ultimate respect, changing my softball uniform number from 9 to 5.

But then it all went south.

When contract negotiations rolled around prior to 2004, Nomar seemed greedy, turning down a 4-year, $60 million deal. Did he really want to stay here? Or was he just another player going for the biggest buck? He turned surly. Seeming to mope and complain all the time. Stories began to leak out about him being tired of Sox fans’ obsession with the team, and how he wanted to play elsewhere; stories about not getting along with other teammates. After the Sox stormed back from being down 0-2 to the A’s in the 2003 ALDS to tie the series 2-2, Nomar reportedly got on the bus to head to Oakland and said “Why is everyone so excited? They’re (the fans) just gonna rip us when we lose.”

And then there was that game in New York. While Derek Jeter was diving face-first into the stands, Nomar sat pouting on the bench, refusing to pinch hit.

Of course, his reported bad attitude isn’t the cause of his premature decline. That can most likely be attributed to steroids.

When Nomar was drafted by the Sox, he was described as an excellent defensive shortstop who could also hit some. When he debuted with the Sox, he was as string-bean with all the muscularity of a 10-year-old girl. In baseball, however, you don’t need huge muscles to be a great hitter. And Nomar could hit, winning consecutive batting titles in 1999 and 2000. His .372 in 2000 was the highest by a right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio. His range was excellent, and the throws he made from deep in the hole were spectacular.

But then he bulked up. We all know about the 2001 SI cover. We all know what was going on in baseball during that time. We all know as he grew bulkier, his range slowed, and he started suffering from multiple injuries. Bulky, muscular guys aren’t meant to play shortstop.

And here we are. Nomar is retiring at the young age of 36. A one-time shoe-in for Cooperstown, not to mention having his number retired in Fenway, he ended up flaming out like a shooting star, and now will likely receive neither accolade.

That kid sure could play back then. What might have been . . .

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Spring Has Sprung

Dan:

Spring has sprung. Last week, pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, and this week it’s the position players. And so begins the long, often torturous journey toward the beginning of the season.

Sure, now it’s good. After a winter of starving for baseball, we now get our fill of stories about guys like Big Papi and Victor Martinez. But this will soon dry up, like it does every spring. The stories about the main players will soon all be told, and baseball reporters desperate for more articles out of spring training will be feeding us features on any 29-year-old prospect still hoping to someday make the bigs as a mediocre, junktime-eating middle reliever. We get a brief rush when actual baseball games begin again, even though we end up watching a glorified Pawtucket game. Then that gets old fast, and we’re left waiting, desperately for the actual season to begin.

But I’ll take it. It’s baseball, and, like everyone else, I’ll devour every Sox article I can get, and look forward to those first few spring training games, when all seems right with the world and better days are right around the corner.

End of the Offseason

Dan:

Well, that was interesting.

At the beginning of this offseason — right after being swept out of the playoffs, thanks in large part to an impotent offense — the path the Sox needed to take this winter seemed clear. They needed to give their offense a boost by bringing back Jason Bay and acquiring a big bat, namely Adrian Gonzalez. Everything else — starting pitching, bullpen — seemed fine.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the Sox seemed to go in the opposite direction, surprisingly signing elite pitching free agent John Lackey, and then bringing in a collection of misfits and cast-offs mostly aimed at improving their defense.

Despite all the hype surrounding his signing, make no mistake — Marco Scutaro is no star. Before last year’s peculiar breakout season, which came as Scutaro approaches his mid-30s (ala Gary Matthews Jr.), Scutaro has always been a bit role player in the majors. I have a hard time believing — a really hard time believing — that he can suddenly be a serious contributor on an elite baseball team. His defense might be good, but I’ll believe his offense when I see it. I maintain we might have been better bringing Alex Gonzalez back.

The Sox other signings, however, are intriguing. I’ve never been an Adrian Beltre fan, as he has been a collosal underachiever his whole career. However, playing for a contract, in Fenway park, at cheap money, and with his unquestionable defensive skills, Beltre brings a ton of upside and potential to this team.

I love the Jeremy Hermidia signing, as he has always had immense potential, but has struggled after coming to the majors probably much too early. Still very young, he has a chance to fly under the radar as a backup in Fenway, and could realistically become a break-out star.

And while I hate his strikeouts, I love the athleticism that Mike Cameron brings to this team. With him in center and Ellsbury in left, that’s one talented outfield that will be fun to watch. The defense and athleticism that guys like Cameron, Beltre, and platooner Bill Hall bring to this team could be a shot of excitement, much like the addition of Orlando Cabrera gave this team in 2004.

This — plus what is easily now the best pitching staff on the planet — should make this an intriguing, fun team to watch this season . . . even though the offseason didn’t go according to MY plan.

Pitchers and catchers, I’m ready for ya.

Damon’s New York Break-Up

Dan:

It’s a beautiful morning.

According to reports, the Yankees have signed free-agent outfielder Randy Winn. And, say those reports, this almost certainly means Johnny Damon is out of New York.

I’ve been following Damon’s off-season closely, and this news has me jumping for joy. But, perhaps not for the reasons you are thinking of.

When Damon left Boston for New York after the 2005 season, he was widely villified in Red Sox Nation. The bearded idiot who embodied the historic 2004 Sox team and became a hero among Sox fans not only ditched us for the money, but he went to the friggin’ Yankees. He might as well have egged Fenway Park and kicked the Ted Williams statue in the stones as he left.

Personally, I was conflicted about it. I hated seeing Damon go, especially to the Yankees. But, on the other hand, baseball is a business. I can’t blame a player for going for the most money . . . especially when it essentially does mean that that team values you more than others. And these players are from all over the country (and world); regional rivalries have little hold on them. I pledged to always be thankful for Damon’s contributions to the Sox, and bid him farewell. No hard feelings . . .

But trouble was brewing in my home. My 2-year-old daughter was a Johnny Damon fan. She had a Johnny Damon T-shirt. And my foolish sister had given her a Red Sox Teddy Bear, which was called “Johnny Bear.” When we told her the news, she said she was going to cheer for the Yankees. Gulp.

Not a problem, I thought. She’s little. She was little more than 3 by the time Damon played Boston as a Yankee the next season. I admit, it caused me much anguish when my own daughter was cheering for the Yankees. But, I said to myself, she’s young. It’s a phase. She’ll forget.

My daughter turns 7 next month. When the Sox and Yanks play, she still openly cheers for the Yankees and taunts me. When she learned the Yankees had won the World Series last year, she let out a “YESSS!!!!” Just the other day, she mocked me by drawing a picture of me with me saying “I love the Yankees.” It needs to come to an end . . . one way or another.

So I’ve been looking forward to the day when I can tell her — with a big smile on my face — that Johhny Damon is no longer on the Yankees. That Damon is now on some other team, like the Oakland A’s or Atlanta Braves. That day is closer than ever.

Rolling The Daisuke

In a recent interview in a Japanese magazine, Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka admitted to hiding a leg injury from the Red Sox prior to last year’s World Baseball Classic. That leg injury ended up being responsible for changing Matsuzaka’s mechanics and essentially costing him most of last season.

While the idea that a pitcher they have made a huge financial investment in hid a significant injury is sure to bristle the Sox brass, I doubt this new revelation will damage the relationship between the front office and their Japanese import. That’s because their relationship hit a low point last summer, when Daisuke complained about the Sox, while the Sox questioned Daisuke’s work ethic. Once the relationship bottomed out, it seemed to then get better, with Daisuke apologizing for his remarks and then adopting the Sox training regime. When he returned at the end of the season, he was the best Daisuke Sox fans have seen.

And that’s a point that gets overlooked as we prepare for the 2010 season. Ten months from now, we might look back and say the most important acquisition for the 2010 Red Sox was the addition of . . . Daisuke Matsuzaka.

During his first two full seasons, Matsuzaka was good, but he was never the dominant pitcher Sox fans expected him to be. He had great stuff, but he nibbled too much around the corners, walked to many hitters, and always seemed to have the one-inning implosion. Then, after his terrible start to last season and his lost summer, Daisuke and the Sox finally seemed to get on the same page. And when he returned, he dominated major league hitters like never before. He was finally the Daisuke Matsuzaka Sox fans expected when we signed him.

And then the Sox got swept out of the playoffs. Season over.

As Sox fans reflect on last season, it is hard to see through the glare of the team’s disappointing playoff performance, offensive ineptitude, and Daisuke’s own injury-plagued season to remember just how good he was down the stretch.

Should Daisuke be able to carry that performance over to the 2010 season, the Sox will have a rotation for the ages.

Hall of Fame Day

Dan:

A year ago, Red Sox fans were anxiously awaiting word on whether Jim Rice would FINALLY be elected to the Hall of Fame. Thankfully, he was. Now, we wait for word on the newly elected members of the Hall. To me, there are three clear-cut choices for Cooperstown, whether or not the baseball writers in all their wisdom choose to see it that way. They are:

Jack Morris – With his devastating fork ball and Hall-of-Fame porn mustache, Morris was a dominant pitcher throughout the 80s and early 90s. He was THE MAN on World Series championship teams in Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto. (Not to mention he pitched what is arguably the greatest World Series game ever – Game 7, Minnesota-Atlanta.) He may not have the padded stats that mindless Hall voters have think for them, but anyone who followed baseball during that time knows Morris was consistently great and one of the very best pitchers of his day.

Bert Blyleven – Disregarding for a moment what I just said about mindless stats, let me say the most compelling case for Blyleven’s induction is one simple stat: The fifth most strikeouts . . . ever. Blyleven spent his career bouncing between a who’s who of the game’s worst teams . . . teams that made today’s Royals look like the Anaheim Angels. And, for them, Blyleven was great. He didn’t get a ton of wins, and because of that suffered when it came to Cy Young time, but he was great. Understand, strikeouts are not some meaningless stat. Simply, each time a guy strikes out against you, your stuff was too good for that major league hitter. It’s not like wins, where you can muddle by with mediocrity if you are on a good team. Because of a long career on several good teams, Don Sutton got wins and is in the Hall of Fame . . . somehow. He wasn’t half the pitcher Blyleven was.

Roberto Alomar – Arguably the greatest second-baseman to ever play the game. During the 90s, if a team wanted to win, they went out and got Alomar. The Blue Jays, the Orioles, the Indians, all were elite teams in large part because of Alomar. Offensively, for a second-baseman, he was great. Defensively, for a second-baseman, he was incredible. His election should be a slam dunk.