Tagged: Mike Napoli

Life after Never: The 2017 Chicago Cubs

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It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.

The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco. 

As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.

In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.

The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.

Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.

As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.

This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians  in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.

I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.

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In Boston, David Ortiz Only Had One Peer

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The Boston Red Sox formally closed the door on the David Ortiz Era this weekend by retiring. No Red Sox player will ever again wear #34. Maybe JetBlue overdid it by dedicating Gate 34 at Terminal C of Logan Airport for him, and maybe the City of Boston overdid it by also renaming part of Yawkey Way “David Ortiz Drive,” and maybe they rushed into things by waiting less than a year after Big Papi played his last game before retiring his number–they waited until induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame to honor Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez in this way–but there is no one like David Ortiz in Red Sox history. The team’s and the city’s reaction was to be expected.

From a numbers standpoint, David Ortiz was not the best player in Red Sox history. For position players, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, and Carlton Fisk all had more career WAR by the Baseball Reference calculation (Ortiz is #231 all time, which is still impressive for a guy who was mostly a designated hitter and could not contribute in the field), and Williams and Yaz racked up all their Major League numbers with the Red Sox. But before David Ortiz, every great Red Sox player post-Babe Ruth was defined, fairly or unfairly, by not getting it done in October. Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever, but only made the postseason once in his career. The signature moment of Carlton Fisk’s career was his walk-off home run off Fenway’s left field foul pole in the 1975 World Series… but that was in Game 6, and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine won Game 7.

David Ortiz was one of many stars on the 2004 team, but it always seemed like he was in the batter’s box when it mattered most. Cast off by the Minnesota Twins, it’s almost as if David Ortiz’ MLB career did not really begin until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, one of the first of many moves that gave Theo Epstein the baseball genius reputation he enjoys today. Ortiz was the only member of the 2004 World Series Champions who was also on the team when they won it all in 2013, and he was the World Series MVP.

Ortiz had too many clutch moments for their to be a singular career defining moment. I keep going back and forth between his walk-off against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and his grand slam that turned the Fenway Park bullpen cop into a folk hero in the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. Then again, there is also his “This is our f*cking city” moment after the Boston Marathon bombing. On and off the field, no player meant more to Boston than David Ortiz.

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Ortiz’ accomplishments in Boston sports this century are matched only by Tom Brady. Like Ortiz, Brady turned the fortunes of a long-downtrodden franchise almost as soon as he arrived. Together, they transformed the Boston teams from ones devoid of titles to ones defined by them. The success of the Red Sox and Patriots was so infectious that even the post-Larry Bird Celtics and Jeremy Jacobs-owned Bruins followed suit.

Like Ortiz, Brady is as good as ever as he enters his 40s. He was already firmly in the Greatest Of All Time discussion before he won two of the last three Super Bowls. The comeback he orchestrated against the Falcons this February is one I still stop and think about in semi-disbelief that it really happened, and may be the best game he’s ever played. Both Ortiz and Brady proved themselves time and again after most had written them off. Obviously–purely based on the impact of an NFL quarterback compared to that of a MLB designated hitter–Brady is the more important player in the overall history of his sport, but given the historical importance of the Red Sox in Boston (their World Series drought predated the Patriots’ inaugural season by 42 years) makes the Ortiz vs. Brady discussion a debate.

As crazy as the David Ortiz farewell tour of 2016 that spilled into 2017 may have been, don’t be surprised if it’s even crazier if Brady ever retires. Then again, Brady’s end might come in another Super Bowl, which was the only thing missing from the end of the Ortiz Era. The 2016 World Series was the Series That Boston Built. It validated so much of what I have believed about baseball for years. If I wanted to build a title contender from scratch, I would want Theo Epstein running my front office. Even though his team lost, Terry Francona out-managed Joe Maddon, and Tito is the guy I would want managing my team. I would want Jon Lester starting the biggest game of the year, and Andrew Miller pitching the innings of highest leverage. The Red Sox had all of those guys on the payroll as recently as 2011. If that wasn’t enough, former Boston World Series champions John Lackey, David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp also played in the World Series.

David Ortiz went into his last postseason with a cast that was not good enough, and got swept in the ALDS Francona’s Cleveland Indians. The only thing missing from the Series That Boston Built was Boston, and by extension, David Ortiz. David Ortiz was Boston baseball. Boston celebrated him the way they did because he was the best we ever had when the games mattered most.

Boston Is the Place to Be

Jacoby Ellsbury may have left Boston for New York, Kevin Garnett may have gone to Brooklyn, Wes Wekler may have departed for Denver, Nathan Horton may have sought greener pastures in Columbus (seriously,what’s he thinking?), Doc Rivers might have left for Los Angeles, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ray Allen may have taken their talents to South Beach, but Boston is still the center of the sports world, and Mike Napoli knows it.

Napoli, the 32 year old catcher-turned-first-baseman, has re-signed with the Red Sox for two years at $16 million per year. He’s played the Anaheim Angels (I think Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is a stupid name) and the Texas Rangers before, and even got to a World Series Game 7 with Texas, but Boston is where he won the World Series. Boston is where he partied for about four straight days combining a World Series championship, Halloween, and his birthday. The Red Sox came into the year with low expectations from fans and media alike, and Napoli was key in setting the tone and making the team likable again. He’s an everyman ballplayer with a lumberjack beard and a softball swing that can send the ball a mile. The dinger he hit to dead center in Detroit back in October is probably still up there. He crushed that thing. That’s what he does. He crushes baseballs. He may strike out a lot, and he may have a hip condition that caused the Red Sox to be concerned last winter, but he’s a ballplayer, and he is a great fit for that roster and for this city.

Being the first baseman for the Red Sox means being relevant. He probably could have made more money on a nothing team in a mediocre market, but Mike Napoli gets it. He’s been seen in recent weeks at Bruins and Celtics games and he realizes that this is a city in the midst of a ridiculous run of relevance in professional sports. When the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, it was Boston’s eighth championship since 2002, and its 12th appearance in the championship game or series in that time. This weekend, Napoli’s signing was overshadowed by dramatic wins by the Bruins and Patriots, as well as a blowout win for the overachieving Celtics, who demolished the Knicks and appear too good to tank as they sit atop the Atlantic Division thanks to wunderkind first year head coach Brad Stevens. Every team is making headlines. Every team is an interesting story within their sport. Even the teams we expect little from seem to do incredible things. Mike Napoli’s 2013 Red Sox are he purest example of that.

I’m glad the Sox were able to come to terms with Nap, and I’m thrilled he’ll be back in the Sox lineup this spring. After the amazing run they went on together, it would be disappointing to see it end so soon. After what happened in 2013, Mike Napoli simply belongs in Boston. I could see them going year to year with him in the future, as well. At some point, David Ortiz might not be the force he’s been at the plate, and if that day ever comes, Napoli would be a great candidate to become the Red Sox’ new designated hitter. By then, he might be able to tuck his beard into his belt!

What a Difference a Year Makes

This time last year, the Boston Red Sox were pathetic. The was absolutely nothing to like about the team. From their clown manager to their entitled, funeral-skipping players to their out-of-touch owners, the BoSox were failing in every aspect of the game. It seemed that we, as Red Sox fans, had been spoiled by winning the World Series in 2004, and we got cocky after winning so soon after in 2007. This week, the nightmare of 2012 feels a million miles away as the Sox clinched their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first American League East Division title since 2007. With just a few days left in the regular season, they are fighting for the best record in the American League. On top of that, the team is genuinely likable for the first time in years. These Red Sox get it. It’s not about punching the clock and collecting paychecks for these guys. This is a baseball team, and not just a collection of baseball players wearing the same uniform.

A lot of factors can be credited for the change in culture at Fenway, but who has made the biggest contributions to the 2013 turnaround?

John Farrell and Ben Cherington.

Ben Cherington. After a first miserable season as the Red Sox general manager under his belt, Cherington had more power to make the team his own. He got to choose his own manager in Farrell this time around, and the two have proven to be an effective team. Building this team really started when Cherington dealt the expensive contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford (as well as the more affordable contract of Nick Punto) to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Getting rid of those overpaid malcontents was just the restart the franchise needed. After that, Cherington went out and signed established veterans of high character to short term deals, which put the team in contention in the short term and gave the young players in the system positive role models to emulate.

John Farrell. It’s refreshing to see a manager who isn’t a complete buffoon like Bobby Valentine was. Valentine was by far the most famous candidate for the Red Sox skipper position after the team decided to part ways with Terry Francona, but he hadn’t managed a big league game in a decade, had gotten comfortable in front of the cameras at ESPN, and was overrated even when his teams were winning. In 2012, it was clear that the game had passed him by, and the Sox now had a stubborn old man who wouldn’t listen to the GM or communicate effectively with his players and coaches. Farrell might not be a great manager–we will find out in time–but he’s at the very least a competent manager who has been able to set a good tone in the clubhouse. Yogi Berra was the one who said the good players make a good manager, and so the list continues…

Koji Uehara. As I’ve written before, Uehara has been the biggest story for the Red Sox this summer. The way he has locked down the back of the bullpen is amazing. Since assuming the closer role in late June, the only way to fairly describe his performance is “dominant.” Signing Keith Foulke after the Red Sox 2003 playoff debacle was one of the biggest reasons they reversed the Curse in 2004, and Koji makes John Farrell’s job easier every time he steps on the mound. As long as he keeps throwing strikes, Red Sox fans will have little to be worried about late in the game. When the games come to an end, Koji will be the first to celebrate.

Shane Victorino: The Flyin’ Hawaiian

Shane Victorino. A guy like Victorino, on paper, strikes me as the type of veteran player who would mail it in and focus on getting paid, but Shane is not your typical veteran outfielder who already has a World Series ring. After being a key contributor to the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series victory, and National League Pennant the following year, Victorino established himself as a household name in Major League Baseball, but he does not play as if he’s satisfied with his past accomplishments. Victorino runs around the vast expanses of Fenway’s right field with little regard for his own safety, like a wide receiver running over the middle of the field just to grab a ball no one would blame him for not catching. That mentality is what separates the okay from the pretty good, and the pretty good from the great. I get nervous that he’s going to get himself killed out there, but he needs to play that way to be as effective as he is. I love seeing guys play hard all the time. It’s a lot to ask over the course of a 162 game regular season, but Shane Victorino is a shining example of a gritty, winning ballplayer.

John Lackey. I’m not going to lie. Before this season, I didn’t like Lackey at all. I thought he was lazy, overpaid, and untalented. I thought he, along with Beckett, was the face of Fried-Chicken-and-Beer-Gate. This year, he’s slimmed down, pitched well, and has started to earn the money the Red Sox pay him. It reminds me a lot of Barry Zito, who signed with the Giants for a lot of money and a lot of years, and was the target of a lot of scrutiny as a result, but Barry was a major part of two World Series championship teams in San Francisco, which made his bad contract worth it. This is Lackey’s chance to redeem himself.

Jonny Gomes knows how to party.

Jonny Gomes. Last decade, the Red Sox had Kevin Millar. Now they have Jonny Gomes. Where ballplayers like that lack in polish, they compensate with a combination of intensity and swagger. Gomes was on the Cincinnati Reds when the won the National League Central Division in 2010, and on the Oakland Athletics when they won the American League West in 2012. Now he’s won a third division title in four years and is looking for an illusive World Series ring. The way Gomes and Millar helped develop the personality of their respective Red Sox teams has had an even bigger impact on the team’s success than their actual play on the field. Millar was was the guy behind Cowboy Up in 2003, and the Idiots in 2004. He was a loud, trash talker who dared the Yankees to close them out in Game 4 of the ALCS because he knew winning one game would make the Yankees that much more nervous. Gomes’ love for punting things like batting helmets and beer cans should put him in the running for the Ray Guy Award, but maybe it will translate to other team awards this fall.

Mike Napoli. He either strikes out or crushes the baseball. There’s no in between with this guy, but that’s why we like him. He swings for the fences every time he’s up there like a cleanup hitter in an adult softball league, which is refreshing to see out of a guy who gets paid millions to play baseball. I guess the theme of the season has been going back to basics, being scrappy, and finding a way to win no matter what. Mike Napoli is a good example of that mentality.

The Red Sox have also gotten big contributions from guys who have already established themselves in Boston. David Ortiz still hits the ball well. Dustin Pedroia has committed to being on the Red Sox for a long time, and remains one of the two or three best second baseman in the game. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (I hope I spelled that right) has been steady behind the plate, and is no slouch in the batters box, either. Jon Lester has returned to form after Bad Influence Beckett left town. Clay Bucholz is often injured, but when he’s healthy, he’s really good. Jacoby Ellsbury is in a contract year, and will probably be playing for the Mets, Cubs, Astros, or Mariners this time next year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t produce for the Red Sox this October. Hopefully, there is still a lot of Red Sox baseball to be played in 2013, but for now, it’s good to look back at how bad it was and see how far they’ve come.