Musings: A Not-So-Good Year For The Sox

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

A NOT-SO-GOOD YEAR FOR THE SOX

Question: What’s the difference between the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Red

Sox earned run average?

Answer: The Dow Jones is going down.

It is true that the Dow Jones is somewhere around 26,000 and the Sox’ ERA is hovering

at about 4.75, but doesn’t it seem on some days like they should be reversed? This is a

trend that was briefly interrupted the other night, when Chris Sale’s evil twin failed to

show up for a game against the Los Angeles Angels, causing Sale himself to make an

emergency start. The result: 8 innings pitched; 13 strike outs; and 0 runs allowed.

Overall, though, this is just one of those years when nothing seems to go right for the Red

Sox. Second guessing is something that Sox fans do best, and we’re getting plenty of

practice this summer. It’s easy to point the finger of blame, but how can the same people

who were geniuses just a year ago suddenly morph into incompetent doofuses one short

season later?

When Sale (not the evil twin) put his signature on a new contract last March, the news

was greeted with applause and pom poms. The team had locked him up for the

foreseeable future. There were bows and handshakes all around. His record record in two

seasons with Red Sox was 29 wins against only 12 losses, and he had compiled an earned

run average of just 2.56. He had made the American League all-star team for seven years

in a row. But that was then. This now. He and his dastardly brother have compiled a

record this season of just 6-11 with an ERA of 4.41, and that includes last Thursday’s

gem. He has shown flashes of his former brilliance, but little or no consistency. His

brother keeps sneaking into the clubhouse ahead of him and stealing his uniform. And the

new deal doesn’t even kick in until next season when the annual salary balloons from

fifteen to thirty million dollars. And the Sox have him, and hopefully not his brother,

through 2024.

Who’s to blame for what’s gone wrong? Who’s to say? It’s certainly not a lack of effort

or commitment on Sale’s part. His coaches can’t suddenly be feeding him misinformation

about the opposition. It’s true that in the past two years he has worn down late in the year,

but that’s not been an issue thus far this season.

The fact is that in baseball at its highest level there is a fine line between excellence and

mediocrity. And the Red Sox, for some unfathomable reason, have lost their edge.

They’re just mediocre so far this year.

Take, for example, the case of Rick Porcello, the former Cy Young winner was coming

off an excellent year in 2018 when he went 17-7. Thus far this season he’s a so-so 10-9

with an ugly ERA north of 5.55. It’s not because he isn’t trying. He takes good care of

himself. Plus, this is his free-agent year, when there is serious money on the table. At the

rate he is going, one can envision Porcello sitting home by the telephone as next season

opens, hoping for someone to offer him something in the vicinity of the twenty one

million dollars he’s being paid this year.

The Red Sox tried mightily to sign Mookie Betts to a long term deal last winter when he

was coming off a monster year. He was MVP and won the batting title with an average of

.346. Mookie, however, preferred to test the free agent market in 2020. That decision

could cost him millions of dollars. He heated up for awhile, but his average is still more

than sixty points lower than a year ago and his power numbers, despite a three home run

game not long ago, are down.

Xander Bogaerts, on the other hand, signed up for a deal beginning next year that will

pay him an average salary of twenty million dollars a year for six years. So far, at least, it

looks like a bargain. Bogaerts has been hitting the cover off the ball all year long, his

defense has been, as usual, excellent, and he has emerged as a real leader.

Collectively, though, this just ain’t the Red Sox’s year. Even if they right the ship in time

to squeeze into a playoff spot, they just don’t smell like a post-season contender. They

have undeniable talent and there have been no reports of clubhouse dissension or of late

night carousing (although, given that they are a group of young guys in their twenties and

early thirties, one can assume that there is always an element of that). 2018 seems like a

long, long time ago, doesn’t it?

It has been said that in baseball, as in all walks of life, true greatness is what happens

when not many people are watching. When Edison was spending long days and evenings

in his lab, unlocking the secrets of the incandescent light bulb, when Michelangelo was

lying on his back on the scaffolding, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, when Ted

Williams was taking those hours and hours of extra batting practice, not many people

were watching. Based on those criteria the Red Sox, as well as they did in 2018, are not a

truly great team. They are not nearly on a par with the Yankees of the twenties, the

Celtics of the sixties, or the present-day Patriots. That said, they are young and talented,

and they’ve won it all it once. They’re stumbling this year, though, and we’ll find out

soon enough if they have it in them to, in the words of a pretty good song, pick

themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.

Meanwhile, as the Sox search for answers to their problems, they seem to think they’ll

find them by looking into their caps. There has been a sudden rash of players checking

their caps for information. Infielders check their caps before positioning themselves

defensively. Outfielders, in contrast, pull index cards from their hip pockets. It’s the

pitchers, especially the relievers, who are most dependent on the inside of their hats.

Apparently the team has developed a new system of changing the catchers’ signals when

there are runners on second base (which seems to be a lot of the time), and the secret to

that system is apparently found inside the pitchers’ caps. Has it helped any? Well, I have

a baseball cap, and I looked at the inside it the other day. All it said was seven and an

eighth, which seems to be a good set up line for another earned run gag.

Musings: A Walk's As Good As A Hit

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

A WALK’S AS GOOD AS A HIT

“A walk’s as good as a hit.”

That’s a baseball axiom with which I became very familiar as a kid, having heard it

called out to me by my teammates virtually every time I stepped into the batter’s box.

They knew that if I kept the bat on my shoulder there would be at least be a chance that

I’d reach base safely with a base on balls. Whereas, if I swung away, I’d run the risk of

actually making contact with the pitch resulting in, at best, a weak ground out to an

infielder. More likely, I’d simply swing and miss, and three such futile attempts would

guarantee my return to the bench in disgrace (so what else was new?). Thus in my case

waiting and hoping for a walk wasn’t just a good strategy; it was the only strategy.

And guess what? My teammates were right - a walk is as good as a hit. That is why,

according to modern day baseball numbers-crunchers, on base percentage is a better

gauge of a batter’s effectiveness than the old-fashioned batting average. A guy who hits

for a .275 average and has a .350 OBP is of more value to his team than someone who

hits .290 but has an OBP of only .315.

On base percentage is easy to calculate; simply add up the number of times a batter

reaches base via a hit, walk, or hit by a pitch and divide that by the number of plate

appearances he makes and voila! You’ve figured out his OBP. It just doesn’t have the

cache of a batting average, though, much less that of a batting streak.

That explains why Joe DiMaggio’s streak of getting a base hit in 56 consecutive games is

one of the most iconic in all of baseball while the record of reaching base safely is hardly

even known to the average fan. But it is at least as impressive. In 1949 Ted Williams

reached base safely in every game from July 1 st through September 27 th - that’s 84

consecutive games. There are only two times in baseball history that record has even

been approached, and one of those times it was by Williams himself, in 1941, when he

reached safely in 73 consecutive games. No one was paying much attention, though,

because it was done in the shadow of DiMaggio’s hitting streak, which was preceded by a

game in which he drew a walk; he also drew a walk in the game in which his hitting

streak ended, and then went on another hitting streak of 16 games, making it a grand total

of 74 games in a row reaching base. It was an unbelievable streak, but still 10 games shy

of what Williams accomplished in 1949.

No one other than DiMaggio and Williams himself in ‘41 has ever come within twenty

games of challenging the 84 game record. The best any active player has done is 48

consecutive games, a mark reached by Joey Votto of the Reds in 2013 and matched by

Mike Trout of the Angels in 2015.

Streaks are one thing, but the true measure of effectiveness is how one performs over the

long haul, so let’s take a look at the lifetime on base percentage records.

Whaddayaknow? There at the top of the list is Ted Williams with an average of .482.

That means he was on base almost half the time he came up to hit, not just when he was

having good years but over the course of his entire career which spanned parts of four

decades, 1939-1960. That’s a record for the ages , one which will probably never be

broken.

Trailing Williams, with an OBP of .474, is Babe Ruth, who was also a pretty good hitter.

Behind them at .466 is John McGraw, who played the vast majority of his games in the

nineteenth century. To put Williams’ record into perspective, the active player with the

highest OBP is Votto at .422, sixty points lower than that of Ted. Trout (.418) is the only

other current player who exceeds .400.

The other great measuring stick of a batter’s effectiveness is slugging percentage, which

measures the total bases a player accumulates. The leader in slugging is, no surprise,

Babe Ruth, who had a slugging percentage of .690. Following him at a respectful

distance with a SLG of .634 is – you guessed it – Ted Williams. He edges out Lou

Gehrig, who finished at .632. Williams always said his ambition was to be the greatest

hitter of all time. Were it not for the imposing figure of Ruth, he would have achieved it,

hands down.

The elephant in the room with all these numbers is, of course, Barry Bonds, whose on

base and slugging percentages exploded by almost as much as his hat size with the

dawning of the steroids era. Between 1991 and 2001 his OBP jumped by over 100 points

and his SLG by more than 200 points. And in 2001 he was thirty seven years old, an age

where most players, if they haven’t already retired, are planning to do so. Bonds was just

starting on a four year binge during which he would shatter practically every hitting

record extant and win almost no friends in the process. The steroids era was an unhappy

time for baseball and its disfigurement of the record books looks more and more gross

with the passage of time. Former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, in his recently-

published memoir, devoted the entire first chapter to how unhappy he was as Bonds

broke record after record, forever tainting the sacred annals of the grand old game.

All that being said, none of my teammates had Barry Bonds, Ted Williams or Babe Ruth

in mind when they’d call out to me, “A hit’s as good as a walk.” They were just trying to

save me from myself. Alas, they seldom succeeded.

Musings: Computers; The Death Of Me And Maybe Baseball

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

COMPUTERS; THE DEATH OF ME AND MAYBE BASEBALL

Baseball has been through gambling scandals, strikes, and steroids, and still it has

survived as the best of all games. But can baseball survive computers? The explosion of

information we now have at our fingertips has led to launch angles, spin rates, and wins

above replacement. But it’s taken a lot of fun out of the game. For spectators, it’s fast

becoming a game of strikeouts and home runs and not much more. Sophisticated statistics

extracted from computers now rule baseball; in fact they rule everything.

My smart phone, you know, that tiny computer I carry in my pocket – I’m sure you have

one just like it in your pocket or purse – was supposed to be a great tool, something that

would make life easier for me and for all of us. The truth is that the darn things have

become our masters. They control our thinking and much of our lives. We are enslaved

by them.

The reality of that was brought home to me on a recent Friday when I was scheduled to

appear at a senior citizen’s center in Franklin, Massachusetts to recite some Red Sox

poems, to tell some stories, and to interact with former Red Sox first baseman Sam Horn.

Sam is particularly good at such events because he is so garrulous and is such an

engaging story-teller. I make eight or ten such appearances a month, about half of them at

senior citizen’s centers, and I love doing them, especially when Red Sox alumni are

involved.

That morning in checking my phone messages I had a voice mail from Sam asking me for

the address of the Franklin Senior Citizens Center. I tried to call him back, but the call

didn’t go through. I tried him several more times without success. Then I discovered that

for some reason I couldn’t make any outgoing calls at all on my cell phone. A few years

ago, when I moved into the apartment where I now live, I decided not to bother getting a

land-line since I never used the darn thing anyhow, but now I couldn’t get in touch with

Sam or anyone else. I shrugged it off and headed to my car, hoping that Sam Horn could

somehow find his way to the venue.

When I got into the car and tried to fire up the GPS system, which works through my

cellphone, I discovered that the phone wasn’t connected to the internet, so not only

couldn’t I call anyone, but also I couldn’t get the directions I needed. I had no idea where

the Franklin Senior Citizens Center was; heck, I wasn’t even sure where Franklin was. It

was then that I realized how totally dependent on that cursed cell phone I was. I hadn’t

bothered to ask for directions to the venue I was due at because I had become so used to

just plugging the address into the GPS system.

Come to think of it, I hardly know the directions to anyplace anymore, because I don’t

have to think about them. I just enter the address of the place I’m going and then do as

I’m told. I don’t know anyone’s phone number anymore, either. I just punch in the speed

dial and that’s it. There was a time that I had dozens of numbers committed to memory,

now I barely know my own number.

But back to the problem at hand. I was due in Franklin shortly and had no idea how to get

there. I knew generally that is was southwest of Boston, somewhere off of Route 495. So

off I went in the direction of God-only-knows-where. I took a guess and headed to

Taunton. I got there at around 10:30 AM, just about the time I was due in Franklin, only

to discover that I had misjudged my targeted location by about twenty miles. I jumped

back into the car and headed back up 495, my anxiety level and my miles-per-hour both

way too high. Eventually I came to the Franklin exit and took it. Now I had to find the

senior citizen’s center. I pulled into a combination gas station/convenience store and

rushed inside the store to ask directions. Luckily the woman behind the counter knew

exactly where the senior citizen’s center was. She gave me directions in the old fashioned

way. “When you pull out of here, take a right and follow that all the way until you come

to St. Mary’s Church. It’s just beyond the church on your left.”

I got back in the car filled with a feeling of both relief and increased angst. It was now 11

o’clock, I was already half an hour late and hadn’t been able to call ahead to tell the

people running the program that I was on the way. They had no way of knowing if I was

going to show up at all. Not only that, but also I had to assume that Sam Horn hadn’t

shown up either. After all, the last I’d heard was that he didn’t even have the address of

the place.

I came to St. Mary’s and, sure enough, the venue was just ahead on the left. As I turned

into the driveway I saw a big sign that said “Dick Flavin appearing today at 10:30 AM.”

“Good Lord,” I wondered, “What if they’ve sent everybody home, thinking that I stiffed

them?” I raced inside expecting to encounter staff people in various stages of distress.

Instead, everyone was relaxed and happy to see me. Everything was just hunky-dory. I

was led to the room where the program was to be held. It was filled with contented

seniors, and at the head of the room, regaling them with stories of his days with the Red

Sox, was good old Sam Horn, bless him. He had called the Red Sox office to get the

proper address and had arrived right on time. Nobody even noticed that I was late.

Neither did they notice – I don’t think they did, anyhow – what an emotional wreck I was

after the ordeal I’d just beem through. I vowed that never again would I be held captive

by that infernal device, my slave-master, the cellphone.

It was a vow that I kept until, on the way home from Franklin, my telephone and internet

connection magically returned to service and now I’m hooked again, right back where I

was before Sam Horn called asking for directions.