Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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Two Contrasting Styles, But Two Lovable Characters

Yesterday was a tough one in Boston. But life will move on. The Red Sox will play another game tonight, and I have to say, the lineup could look pretty good. Maybe we’ll actually be able to score some runs these next two months. And even if the games won’t mean much, it will be fun watching the new guys for a little while. Anthony Renaudo takes the mound tonight in his major league debut and it will be interesting to see how he copes with the Yankee lineup.

But before I move on, I want to share a few final thoughts on Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. They are two of my favorite Red Sox players of all time for more than just their play on the field, and I needed to say a little bit more about the two.

At this point, everybody knows Lester’s journey. Drafted by the Red Sox back in 2002, Lester came up through the minor league system before making it to the big leagues in 2006. Then cancer struck, and he was faced with the struggle of his life. But Lester beat the cancer, and was back on the mound the next summer, even winning the clinching game of the World Series that year. After that, he quickly developed into a true ace. And last fall, he was excellent again in the World Series. All of this is leading to a big pay raise in free agency this winter, one the Red Sox seem unlikely to pay given recent change in free agent policy. So instead of letting him go for only a draft pick, they traded him for some extra value.

Lester was a Red Sox through and through. He represented everything right with player development in the Red Sox system, and his quiet style meshed well with all the various personalities that came and went. He was the model of a fighter, having beaten cancer at a young age. And we loved him for it. When he faced a setback on the mound, it was nothing he couldn’t get through. He wasn’t flashy, but he was always effective. The lowest ERA in World Series history speaks volumes about his ability to step up at the most important times. Quite simply, I don’t think the Red Sox would not have won in 2007 and 2013 without the lefty.

As I said in yesterday’s post, I grew up while Lester developed as a pitcher. Every big moment in his career, I can tell you where I was at the time. I can’t remember ever being happier than I was as a 13 year old attending Lester’s no-hitter. That night remains one of my favorite memories in my whole life. And his role in equally valuable championships created a host of other great moments for me and many other fans. And from a young age, he has been a wonderful role model.

I wish the Red Sox had signed him to a contract extension, but it doesn’t fit their new policy of not paying players long term contracts over 30. However, I think they will come to regret not locking him up. It’s incredibly difficult to find true aces, and Lester was one of those. If they aren’t successful in replacing him this offseason, it could be another long year. Ideally, he will be re-signed this winter. But I don’t think that’s as likely as many would hope.

There aren’t many athletes that have had as positive an impact on fans as Lester has. He has been a prime example of courage, strength and grace. Most athletes aren’t real role models. But Lester is one all Red Sox fans over the last ten years have been lucky to watch. I’m really going to miss him.

My relationship with Jonny Gomes is a little different. When I was a kid looking for role models, Gomes was a crazy young player on the fun-to-hate Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When the Red Sox signed him for two years and ten million dollars, I was a little skeptical. It seemed like a lot of money for a fourth outfielder. When I saw him at a dinner in Boston shortly after that, he was not friendly at all, and looked unhappy to be there. He was not off to a great start in my mind. Back then, I had no idea he would soon be my favorite player.

As the 2013 season was starting, my family heard tell that there was a Red Sox player living down the street, and it was Gomes. Sure enough, there was a giant red monster truck parked out front of a house down the street. The crazy, bearded man was my neighbor.

Then the bombings happened, and Gomes stepped up as a true leader of an entire city. He took on the role of team spokesman, and did excellently with it. The inspirational picture of Gomes flexing on second base in the “Boston” jersey on the front of Sports Illustrated was the beginning of Gomes’s role as leader of Boston Strong. And as the year went on, he endeared himself to everyone with timely hits, uncanny outfield play and incredible passion.

Whenever the Red Sox were home, I would see his red truck parked in his lawn – it was too big to fit in his driveway. And if I was lucky, I’d see Mr. Gomes himself. It was always exciting to see him in his unnatural habitat, away from the ball field. Once I saw him with his little kids, and as they waved at me, I saw Gomes in a new light as more than just a fiery ballplayer. It was always comforting to see that red truck, as I felt a connection to my team that I’d never felt before. While Gomes moved out shortly after the World Series, I will always remember the year he lived down the street.

Gomes also did a ton on the field. His pinch hit home runs provided momentum swings that kept the Red Sox streaking all throughout the year. And in the playoffs, even when he didn’t hit, good things happened when he was on the field. It was no coincidence that the Red Sox won when he was playing. He was a leader, one who inspired his teammates to do great things. Few players have the ability to lead quite like Gomes does.

I’m going to miss everything about my former neighbor. I’ll miss all he did for the city of Boston in the aftermath of terrible tragedy. I’ll miss all he did on road to a memorable championship. And I’ll miss all of those wild celebrations, be it punting the helmet or the army helmet and goggles.

Lester and Gomes were two special players. While they had entirely different styles, they both found ways to reach everyone around Boston with their stories and their play. They were two crucial pieces in the Red Sox title winning team and they will be missed. They’ll always be my favorites.

 


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When Baseball Is About More Than Just Baseball – Saying Goodbye

Today was one of the toughest days I’ve experienced as a sports fan. It wasn’t that today’s fire sale was unexpected at this point – I wasn’t blindsided by any means. And it wasn’t that I was upset with the overall return from the various trades. Today was about losing role models and people I’ve looked up to for years. It reinforced the notion that being a fan is as much about forming relationships with the players as it is about merely rooting for a group of individuals. Much like when the Celtics traded away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, I felt a tremendous personal loss seeing players that will define certain parts of my life go.

I’ll proceed chronologically with my reaction to the trades. Early this morning came the news that Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes were traded to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. From a baseball standpoint, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that Cespedes was coming to Boston. He is exactly the type of player this team was missing- a right-handed hitting outfielder with a lot of pop who can provide excitement day in and day out. There aren’t many players that are objectively exciting in baseball, but Cespedes is one of that rare breed. And while he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season, he does have a favorable contract until then. He’s not your typical Red Sox player with a high on-base percentage, but I think the fans will love him for his power bat and his rifle of a throw from the outfield.

If the Red Sox weren’t going to re-sign Jon Lester, which I think is a mistake, it was the right move trading him now, as the value of Cespedes and the conditional draft pick received surpassed the value of the compensatory pick they would have gotten had he signed elsewhere. Cespedes’s arrival also signals the intent to compete next year, rather than waiting on any prospects to develop over time. With him only committed through next year, it will force the Red Sox to reload this offseason. And I think that’s a good thing.

For the A’s, this trade puts them in a great position for October. They get one of the best postseason pitchers ever in Lester to join an already loaded rotation, and they add a veteran presence in Gomes who is simply a winner. Whether he plays five times a week or five times a month, Gomes will be ready to produce in October, and he’ll be a spark in the clubhouse.

But as much sense as this trade made given the circumstances, I am still devastated to see two of my favorite Red Sox ever traded. I’ll expand on this in another post soon, but Lester and Gomes meant a whole lot to me. I watched Lester grow on the mound as I grew up as a person, and he will always be an inspiration to me. I can tell you exactly where I was when he announced that he had cancer, and I remember being near to tears. But I can also remember where I was when he returned to the mound triumphantly the next year in Cleveland. And I will never forget being at Fenway for his no-hitter the next year. That will always be my favorite Fenway memory. He was a hero, a role model and a true champion.

And then there’s Gomes. For all of last year, Gomes lived just a few houses from me. He was a connection to the team like I hadn’t had before. And of course he also did wonders for the team and the city during last season’s April hardships. In many ways, although he just played here for a season and a half, Gomes was the ultimate Red Sox. I’ll miss his wild style dearly. I am glad these two are going to Oakland, because I will have no problem rooting for the A’s. Wherever Lester and Gomes go from here, be it a return to Boston or a move anywhere else, I will be their biggest fan.

Before I had begun to get over my sadness about the first trade, John Lackey was traded to the Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. I am not sure about this one, but I do think it could have its long term benefits. Craig would seem to have no place on the field at this particular moment, and unless Mike Napoli goes anywhere on a waiver deal, I don’t see how Craig will find his stroke this year if he’s on the bench. And even next year, where would he play? He’s a standout hitter when he’s going well, but I’m not sure how he fits into the Red Sox’s puzzle. But I like that Kelly is coming to Boston. If Lackey and Lester are gone, there needed to be someone with some level of experience and talent on the roster not named Clay Buchholz. Kelly has had a down year, but he has a great sinker and pitched quite well against us in the World Series last year. He’s one to watch in the coming years.

While I always thought Lackey would retire rather than playing for the league minimum next year, it appears he will honor that with the Cardinals. It’s incredible how quickly Lackey turned his image around in Boston. Two years ago, everyone would have given him away for nothing. That the Red Sox were able to help turn his career back around to even get this kind of deal in return is remarkable. But if he would have played next year for only 500K, I don’t quite understand why the Red Sox didn’t want to keep him around. He’s a solid number two at this point of his career, and I think he would have had a valuable place on next year’s team. But I guess this was a deal made for beyond 2015, when Kelly should be better than Lackey.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m really going to miss Lackey. He was a work horse on the mound and a true professional in his approach to pitching. He leaves a winner, and he’ll always be remembered around these parts for winning the final game of the World Series. Best wishes in St. Louis, Lack.

Then there was the Andrew Miller trade to the Orioles for 21 year old pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez. This trade didn’t feel nearly as significant as the previous two, but even so, the Red Sox lost a true star in the bullpen. I’m sure many in the organization will be disappointed they couldn’t receive a better prospect in return, but this is still a good deal considering he will be a free agent this winter. Rodriguez has struggled this year, but he’s still only 21, and quite recently the Orioles rated him very highly. I’m sure we’ll learn more about him soon, but he sounds like he could be decent in a few years.

Miller was never flashy on the mound, but he was always there to get the job done. And when things didn’t go his way, he handled everything expertly, never one to give up on himself or his teammates. He had the stuff of a top of the line starter, but never complained about having to be the 7th inning man. I met Miller at a dinner back in early 2013 and he made a positive impression on me. I hope the Red Sox make a serious effort to bring him back this winter, because he’s a real winner. The Orioles will benefit greatly from his presence in their bullpen.

And lastly, there was the news that Stephen Drew was traded to the Yankees for Kelly Johnson. I doubt Johnson will ever get much of a shot in Boston, but this trade was clearly made to get Xander Bogaerts back to shortstop. It also opens a spot back up for Will Middlebrooks, who could really use a morale boost after a tough year and a half of baseball. Giving Drew away right now makes a lot of sense baseball wise, and it’s not like we’re competing directly with the Yankees the rest of the way.

I’ve said it before on this blog, and I’ll say it again. I really liked Stephen Drew. Boston fans never gave him a chance this year, and I felt his defense never got the praise it deserved. Stephen wasn’t J.D. by any means, but fans here weren’t going to see that. Stephen cared a lot, and like it or not, he was the starting shortstop on our championship team. He wasn’t great at the plate in his time here, but he contributed elsewhere, and was a model professional. Re-signing Drew in May wasn’t the best move in hindsight, but he shouldn’t be blamed. Blame the Red Sox management. If Drew gets booed tomorrow when he plays for the Yankees, I will be extremely disappointed. Count me as one who appreciated all he did here.

I would imagine the roster movement won’t stop here. More players will be designated for assignment in the coming days, and we’ll see a dramatically different Red Sox lineup the rest of the way. It won’t be pretty, but signs point to a renewal for next season. Overall, I think we are in good shape if and only if management is willing to commit money to a front-line starter in free agency this winter (I’m still holding out the faintest of hopes that they have a plan to re-sign Lester). But for now, let’s all take a few days to appreciate what this group of players did for the team and for all of us. Lester, Gomes, Lackey, Miller and Drew all leave Boston as World Series winners. They leave behind amazing memories that I’ll cherish as long as I live. In sixty years, I’ll be telling my grandkids stories about the 2013 Sox, about my crazy neighbor and about the player who beat cancer. And while it was an incredibly sad day, it might not be all bad.


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So Long, Doubront

This is my 100th post on the blog. For a few days, I’ve thought about writing a special piece to mark the occasion, but I ultimately decided to save any fanfare for later given the Red Sox drama that is going on. I’m sure there will be a lot more to write by tomorrow afternoon, so I didn’t think I had the energy to expend on a long post about the meaning of being a fan or something like that. I’ll save that for number 200.

While all the big trade talk in Boston has been around Jon Lester, John Lackey and Andrew Miller in the last 24 hours or so, the only trade made today was a deal that sent Felix Doubront to the Chicago Cubs. Having witnessed Doubront’s worst performance in a Red Sox uniform on Monday night, I wrote some pretty negative stuff about him yesterday morning. He looked like he no longer cared on the mound, and for me, that was the final straw. No matter how much you dislike your role, you can never mail in a performance.

So when I saw the news that Doubront was heading out of town, I felt it was the right move even without knowing the return. When a player gives up on his own role, he gives up on the team. A player who has given up quickly can send the clubhouse into a negative spiral, so getting him out of there was necessary, even if the return ending up being only a low-level prospect to be named later.

Doubront was tantalizingly talented on the mound, so much so that many believed he could develop into a top of the line starter in Boston. He showed up at Spring Training this year more in shape than ever before, and it appeared he was on the verge of taking the final step toward becoming that star left hander. But instead, he struggled from the start this year, never finding his rhythm in his return to the rotation following a stint in the bullpen last postseason. Eventually he was demoted to long-reliever as a result of his poor pitching. And he sure didn’t like it.

It’s easy to recall how effective he was at times last year, both as a starter and in the pen. He could always be counted on for 6 innings and 2 or 3 runs, always pitching games that left his team in a position to win. At his best, his plus-stuff left hitters off balance at the plate, and he earned a lot of weak swings. One particular start last June that I attended stands out in my mind as the best Doubront ever pitched – 8 shutout innings on only 93 pitches, 6 strikeouts and 3 hits allowed against a good Rays team – but that game will be more likely remembered for Jonny Gomes’s first Red Sox walkoff home run (i.e. the helmet punt game). And in the World Series, Doubront was excellent as a middle reliever, particularly in Games 3 and 4.

Doubront did some good on the mound in Boston, and he earned himself a World Series ring. But he wasn’t cut out to be a long term starter for the Red Sox, and he drove himself out of town with his poor attitude. Given that he is such a talented pitcher, the Red Sox will be disappointed to be forced to give up on him for next to nothing in return. But GM Ben Cherington had no choice at this point. He had to get Doubront out of the clubhouse. It’s a shame it didn’t work out here in the long run, but I wish him luck going forward. I’ll remember him fondly for that start against the Rays and for his World Series performance. A change of scenery should do him a lot of good.

Many other players will say goodbye to Boston tomorrow, and I’ll have full coverage on all of the goings on with the Trading Deadline. Stay tuned. It could be a sad one.

 


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Arsenal’s Underappreciated Star (And a Few Other Random Thoughts)

Today’s post is the fourth in a series profiling Arsenal players as we near the start of the upcoming campaign. Previously, I have written about Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere

When talking about Arsenal’s strong lineup of attackers this summer, everybody has been referencing new signing Alexis Sanchez as the catalyst. And when it’s not him, it’s Mesut Özil, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere that take the headlines. One name that doesn’t come up nearly as much as it should is Santi Cazorla.

The diminutive Spaniard has been rumored to be a target of Athletico Madrid in recent weeks, with some reports suggesting he is currently unhappy at Arsenal. But none of what’s in the news right now about Cazorla makes any sense to me. Cazorla has been nothing less than a star at Arsenal in his two years at the club, and Wenger seems inclined to do anything possible to get him in the lineup. Even when the more heralded Özil arrived a year ago, Cazorla still was a focal point in the attack when healthy.

It’s easy to forget at this point how good Cazorla was immediately upon his arrival in London. He took off from day one, going on to win the team’s player of the season award by a landslide in his first season at Arsenal, contributing 12 goals and 14 assists from his role behind the striker. And even last year, when pushed out wide to accommodate Özil, Cazorla still managed 7 goals and 9 assists in all competitions. His memorable free-kick goal to start the comeback against Hull in the FA Cup Final won’t soon be forgotten

His best position is unequivocally the number 10 role, as his creativity and vision in the midfield rank among the best in the world, but he has to play wider because of Özil. Out wide, Cazorla is not your typical winger. He isn’t going to blaze by any defenders with sheer pace, and he won’t send in many crosses. Instead, he drifts inside to link up with his fellow midfielders and his full backs. His short-distance passes are key to unlocking defenses, as they help create space for runners in behind. His head is always up, and at the edge of the box, his ability to finish with both feet is unparalleled. His two-footedness is part of what makes him so effective in the middle of the park, because defenders can’t gamble on one side versus the other.

But what Cazorla does on the wing better than any other Arsenal player is track back. His work rate has gone relatively unnoticed because of his stellar displays in the attacking third, but Cazorla always gets back when he is needed. Much like Tomas Rosicky, Cazorla buzzes around the middle 80% of the field, always eager to pick up the ball in his own half and take it forward. And on the left, he and Kieran Gibbs seemed to develop an understanding about defensive duties on the counter.

Cazorla might not be in many Arsenal fans’ starting lineup for the upcoming campaign. Most people, I’d imagine, would line up Sanchez, Giroud, Walcott/Oxlade-Chamberlain and Özil in front of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta. But I guarantee you that Cazorla will be on the field more often than not. With Özil coming back to the squad late due to the World Cup, Cazorla will get a chance to start the year in his favorite position and I expect him to have an immediate impact alongside Sanchez. He will make it tough for Wenger to leave him out when Walcott comes back from injury. I think he’s going to have a great year.

At age 29, Cazorla will be one of the veterans in this Arsenal side. And while the young guns might steal some of the headlines, players like Cazorla will always be just as crucial to the overall success of the campaign. I’m not very worried about him leaving this summer because I think Wenger realizes how valuable his little Spaniard is. He’s the type of player you won’t notice how much he does for the team until he’s gone. And although he might be underappreciated and sometimes forgotten by Arsenal fans discussing the stars of the squad, Cazorla is just as important to this team as anyone else.

In a different Arsenal story, I am quite curious about why Calum Chambers was wearing a training shirt with number 5 on it for part of his first day at the preseason camp in Austria. Just yesterday, when Chambers was signed, he was assigned 21 to wear. And given that 5 is currently occupied by the captain Thomas Vermaelen, it seemed odd that the new signing wore that number yesterday, if only briefly. It might signal that the number will be his as soon as Vermaelen leaves on a transfer, and it could also be suggesting that a Vermaelen exit is imminent. Let’s hope nobody rushed out to buy the Chambers #21 kit.

On another completely unrelated note, I wish I lived in a place where people cared about the Commonwealth Games (does that place exist?). I know very little about the competition, but I love the concept. Were I British, I’d be all over it. For all who don’t know, it’s a competition not unlike the Olympics which involves only the nations of the former British Empire. After watching highlights of the ping-pong yesterday, I instantly wished I cared about the event. Oh well.

And lastly, today might be Jon Lester’s last day in a Red Sox uniform. He was supposed to start tonight, but I don’t think anyone was surprised to see him scratched last night. I think a trade could be in the very near future. It might be a very sad day in Boston.

Check back later for reaction to any Red Sox trades. I’m sure there will be a lot to discuss in the next 48 hours.


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A Brutal Performance at Fenway and Chambers’s Arrival at The Emirates

Good morning, all. This will be a brief post, as I didn’t get much sleep last night coming back late from the Red Sox game. The game itself was pretty horrible, as the Red Sox trailed 2-0 before registering an out, and proceeded to surrender nine runs in the 6th inning. While I had fun at the game with my friends nonetheless, it was noticeable that the mood has changed at Fenway in recent weeks.

As recently as a week ago, the players still believed in themselves. So even though they lost a lot of games, it was evident that they were frustrated because they knew they could and should have been doing better. But last night, the players seemed to acknowledge that this is a lost season. There was no energy anywhere on the field. Players were taking weak swings and heading to the dugout with their heads down. And after Clay Buchholz struggled once again, Felix Doubront came into the game and promptly allowed 6 ER on 6 hits without getting through the inning.

I don’t normally boo any Red Sox, but I booed Doubront a little bit when he came out of the game. He more than anyone else has taken the I feel sorry for myself approach to the losing. Having lost his starting spot, he should have focused on stringing together quality relief appearances in hope that he’d earn his place back. But instead, he has whined and moped. When called upon, he hasn’t been ready to do his job. And that is unacceptable. This dreadful outing may well have earned him a permanent mop-up job, as he continues to prove he isn’t cut out to be a top of the line starting pitcher. He also might have pitched his way out of any other team’s plans on the trade market.

The crowd also had a different feel than it normally does in late July. The seats were impressively full all game given the Red Sox’s poor record and the threat of inclement weather. Even when the Blue Jays were up double digits, the fans were still there. However, it was the Blue Jays fans that were the ones getting their team fired up. The Sox faithful didn’t have much to cheer about, but they were all content to stand and sing about how good things are in the 8th inning down 13 runs. Nobody was starting chants or getting into the game much at all. It’s good that crowds are coming to Fenway, but they need to be more involved in the game. And for the record, I think “Sweet Caroline” should only be played when we are winning.

Once the game got out of hand, I started thinking about how it was probably my last time seeing a bunch of these guys in a Red Sox uniform, so I made sure to give big hands to Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava when they batted in the late innings. While it’s now inevitable that drastic trades will be made, I’ll be sad to see some of my favorites go.

Now to Arsenal news. Depending on who you believe, Arsenal have either signed 19 year old Southampton right back Calum Chambers for 12 million pounds or for up to 20. His value on the market will have been driven up because he is English, but overall I think this a good signing for the future. He sure didn’t come cheap, but given his obvious talent and versatility, he should prove valuable quickly.

There is no telling when the spending will stop for Arsene Wenger this summer. Who would have thought he’d have bought four quality players before the end of July? Chambers will be labeled as a right back, but I think Wenger envisions him as a future holding midfielder or center back. For now, I assume he’ll be the backup right back, but I expect him to challenge for time in the middle by next year. I haven’t watched him play much, but I was quite impressed with his play against Arsenal last January.

He is a big guy, big enough to play center back, and I think he makes a good extra option at the position. While I still would like to hold on to Thomas Vermaelen at least until Per Mertesacker is fit again, Chambers could be an adequate option alongside Laurent Kosciely in the opener against Crystal Palace if need be. Because he’s only 19, he could still be filling out his body, and in a year or two, he could become a much more physical specimen.

This transfer also has a huge impact on current Arsenal right back Carl Jenkinson. Everybody loves Carl because of his love for his boyhood club, but he needs regular playing time in the Premier League to reach his potential. With now two other legitimate options at his position, Wenger will surely be looking to shop Jenkinson. I would love to see him loaned out with the idea of bringing him back next year if he impresses, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sold. For me, it will depend on where Wenger believes Chambers’s potential lies. Should he believe it is at right back, Jenkinson should be sold permanently. But should it be somewhere else, Jenkinson must be loaned out so he can come back a better player.

The acquisition of Chambers is very much a buy for the future, but he has a place in the squad immediately due to his versatility in the back. I am excited to see him play for Arsenal. Hopefully there’s one last signing coming, but if not, it has been a terrifically executed transfer window by the boss. And lastly, I offer my condolences to Southampton fans. It can’t have been an easy summer.