By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
WHAT I DON’T KNOW ABOUT BASEBALL AND WINE
A year or so ago Tom Werner, the chairman of the Red Sox, asked me when I thought
people would stop referring to the ownership group headed by John Henry and himself as
“the new owners”of the team; after all, they’d been running the show for fifteen years.
It wasn’t a complaint so much as a bemused observation.
Not one to be out-bemused by anyone, even the august Mr. Werner, I pointed out that in
Boston there is a buiding at the top of Beacon Hill with a golden dome that was built in
1795, and we still call it, “the new state house.” So, I continued in my most bemusing
fashion, based on that standard, “the new ownership” still has a few centuries to go.
As I remember it, Tom looked at me, shrugged, and walked away.
I was reminded of that story because I had been reminded of another story that took place
when the new owners were, in fact, new owners. In the spring of 2002, just at about the
time the baseball season was starting, there was a panel discussion on subject of baseball
at the John F. Kennedy Library. Among the panelists was Larry Lucchino, who had just
taken over as the Red Sox president and CEO. I was in attendance because – well,
because the subject under discussion was baseball – but also because I wanted to get a
look at Lucchino, whom I hadn’t yet met, and who had come to town as a famously hard-
driving and charismatic executive. In the course of the discussion he made an observation
that has stayed with me ever since. He equated liking baseball with liking wine. He said
that you can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner even if you don’t know much more than
red is supposed to go with meat, and white with fish; and that you can enjoy a baseball
game even if you don’t know much more than it’s three outs to an inning and three
strikes and you’re out. But, he went on to say, both wine and baseball are endlessly
complex; the more you know about either one, the more you realize what you don’t
know. You learn that a chardonnay from Napa Valley is not the same as a sauvnignon
blanc from New Zealand, and that a split-finger fastball at the knees is not the same as a
two-seam fastball at the letters. As sharp and sophisticated as you might be about either
wine or baseball, there is always more to learn.
This is what reminded me of that story. (Aha! He’s finally getting to the point!) About
ten evenings go I was watching on TV as the Red Sox played in Toronto. Chris Sale was
on the mound, and he was getting roughed up a bit – okay, by his standards he was
getting roughed up a lot. The immortal Teoscar Hernandez had led off the bottom of the
first with a long double to left-center, and the next hitter, Josh Donaldson, had followed
with a sharply-hit single, scoring Hernandez. In the second inning a ground rule lead-off
double and another hard-hit single produced a second run for the Blue Jays, at which
point the Sox pitching coach, Dana LeVangie, made a trip to the mound. I recall idly
wondering why LeVangie was making such an early visit because trips to the pitcher’s
mound, by either a coach, the catcher, or other players, are now limited to six per game.
LeVangie seemed to be doing a lot of talking before heading back to the dugout. Sale
threw the next pitch to the batter, and Jerry Remy, up in the booth, exclaimed, “Oh! Now
we know why LeVangie came out to the mound.”
We do? I wondered. Then Remy explained. “They’ve changed the signs,” he said.
“Watch the catcher. He’s putting down a series of signs, the same way he does when a
man’s on second. They must think that somebody is stealing their signs.”
Sure enough, Sandy Leon was putting down a whole series of signals on every pitch, and
Sale, who had been on the ropes, suddenly became unhittable. He retired 15 in a row
before, in the seventh inning, Luke Maile ran into one and sent it into the stands in left
field to tie the game. Sale didn’t get the win (the bullpen lost it in extra innings), but he
tied a career high with 15 strikeouts over nine innings. He had given up four hits in the
first inning and a third and only two over the next seven and two thirds.
Had the Blue Jays been stealing the Red Sox signs prior to LeVangie’s visit to the mound
in the second inning? Who’s to say, except that the circumstantial evidence seems pretty
compelling. But that’s not the point.
The point is that it took Jerry Remy only one pitch to pick up that the Red Sox had
changed their strategy. I’ve been watching baseball for seven decades and I like to think
I’m pretty smart about it, but I’m not nearly as smart as Remy, who played big league
baseball for ten years and has been analyzing it for thirty. I sometimes look to see what
pitches the catcher is calling, but as often as not I’m watching the batter wiggling his bat
as he takes his stance, or how the pitcher stands to receive signals, or, when the team is
home, to see if Joe Aboud has driven up from New York to take in the game (his seats are
over the right-handed hitter’s shoulder in close-up shots). Jerry sees all that stuff too, plus
a whole lot more. That’s why he’s such an invaluable part of Red Sox telecasts. And as
much as he knows and sees, I bet you that he’d be the first to say that he’s still learning
about the game.
I wonder if he knows what wine to order when you’re having pork chops.