Musings: Cats, Dogs, And Sports Heroes

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author


Who is the greatest sports hero in Boston history?

Beats me.

The question, an age-old one, has flared up recently as Tom Brady has climbed

relentlessly up the heights of the Mount Olympus of sports gods, now with six super

bowl titles hanging from his belt. How does that compare to to the eleven NBA

championships won by Bill Russell? Or the two Stanley Cups in the abbreviated career of

Bobby Orr? Or the zero World Series titles that Ted Williams’ teams took home? And

what about Brockton’s Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight champion in

history? He reigned in the days when the holder of the title was by definition a huge

international celebrity.

Comparing them is like like comparing apples and oranges, or, perhaps more to the point,

cats and dogs. Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey are all different games and they

require different specific skills. One needs extraordinary athletic ability to just to compete

in each of them at the highest level, let alone be truly great. But getting around on a

fastball is not the same as catching a pass in traffic, or hitting a three-pointer with the

clock running down; and none of them can be compared to blasting a slapshot from the

blue line, much less making the save on it. To be sure, they all require a combination of

strength and grace, almost super-human hand-to-eye coordination, and razor-sharp

reflexes, but they are not the same.

Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey players are not just different breeds of athletes;

they are different species.

Let’s say that football players are the dogs of the athletic world. They all play the same

game, but their roles in it call for different breeds of dogs. For example, mastiffs and

Saint Bernards play in the line, positions requiring great bulk and strength to go along

with athletic ability. The linebackers are German shepherds, with the size to plug up

holes in the line and the speed to drop back into pass coverage. Defensive backs are made

up of Dalmations; sleek, fast, and fierce defenders of their territory, just as their canine

counterparts were bred to protect at all costs the horses who drew the fire wagons. On

offense, greyhounds are wide receivers for obvious reasons. The tight ends are somewhat

the same, but they are wolfhounds, possessed of not quite the speed of their greyhound

counterparts but with the size to play in the line to help pave the way for the terriers, or

running backs. Terriers are a breed known for their determination and fearlessness, able

to use their quickness to race around opponents; or, in the case of pit bulls, straight at

them. Finally, there are the poodles, or quarterbacks; they are the glamordogs of the

sport, perhaps the most intelligent of all the breeds. They get all the attention when things

go well and all the scrutiny when they don’t.

To carry the species analogy a step farther, let’s say that baseball players are the cats of

the sports world. Cats come in all sizes and breeds, as do baseball players. Pitchers alone

could be any number of breeds; Roger Clemens was a lion, deadly and intimidating to all

who faced him; Pedro Martinez was a panther, more graceful but no less lethal. David

Ortiz was a Bengal tiger (as opposed to the Detroit kind), capable of striking with a

suddenness (swing of the bat?) that was frightening in its efficiency. Mookie Betts is a

cheetah, slightly smaller but a killer with breath-taking speed.

How much basketball do you suppose Bobby Orr, who played hockey full-time from his

early teens, ever played? Do you think that Bill Russell ever laced on a pair of ice skates?

One was known for his mesmerizing skating ability and his passing and shot making

expertise – all with a stick and at break-neck speed; the other was prized for his

otherworldly shot blocking and rebounding skills. How can you compare them as

players? You can’t. At least, that’s what I think.

That’s not to say that great athletes can’t and don’t excel at multiple sports. They can, and

the examples are many. John Havlicek, who grew up in tiny Lansing, Ohio (population

approximately 500), was an all-state quarterback in high school; so good, in fact, that

Woody Hayes, the legendary football coach at Ohio State, wooed him earnestly to

become a Buckeye. Havlicek did go to Ohio State, but on a basketball scholarship,

leaving Hayes to lament for the next four years that the school had the best quarterback in

the Big Ten, but he wasn’t on the team. Havlicek’s reputation was such that, although he

never played a minute of football in college, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns,

then one of the elite teams in the NFL. He tried out for the Browns, but at wide receiver,

not quarterback. He was the last man cut when Coach Paul Brown decided to keep Gary

Collins, who turned out to be a perennial all-star. Still, Brown was impressed enough

with Havlicek to invite him back to pre-season camp for six consecutive years, but by

then he was a superstar with the Celtics and possessor of five NBA championship rings

(the number would eventually swell to eight).

Havlicek for more than thirty years ran a celebrity fishing tournament off the shores of

Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. At one of the early ones I found myself paired in the

same boat with Bob Cousy. Cooz had never cast a fishing line and had to be shown how

by the boat’s captain, an experienced fisherman. Within minutes of learning the technique

Cousy was casting his line well beyond that of the captain. As for my casts, they were

well suited for stray fish who happened to swim too close to the side of the boat.

Marciano once had a tryout as a catcher with the Chicago Cubs, but his throwing arm was

deemed too weak for him to be a prospect. That’s the same arm that threw some of the

most devastating punches in all the annals of boxing.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great athletes are different from you and me; well,

different from me, anyhow.

Musings: Mookie Betts And Baseball Nicknames

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author


Mookie Betts has it all. He hits for average (.346 in 2018); hits for power (32 home runs);

runs like the wind (30 stolen bases); and is a defensive wizard (3 Gold Glove awards). He

also has a great nickname.

He is universally known by the name Mookie and not by his given first name of Markus.

Of course, he’s not the first baseball player with that moniker. Three decades ago Mookie

Wilson (real name, Bill) of the New York Mets became famous (or infamous, depending

on your point of view) by hitting a routine ground ball that somehow found its way

through the legs Bill Buckner and into the annals of unforgettable Red Sox disasters of

the twentieth century. But Mookie Wilson’s nickname has nothing to do with that of

Mookie Betts.

When little Markus Betts was just an infant in Nashville, Tennessee, his parents used to

watch Atlanta Hawks basketball games on television. The Hawks had an estimable point

guard named Mookie Blaylock (whose given first name was Daron); that’s when they

began calling their baby Mookie. The rest is history.

A side note: Blaylock was a very good NBA player (he made an all-star team and several

all-defensive teams), but he fell victim to alcohol addiction in his post-playing days. He is

currently serving time in prison for manslaughter as the result of his involvement in a

fatal automobile collision.

Nicknames have always been a big part of all sports; baseball and the Red Sox are no

exceptions. The names fall into different categories. For the purposes of this piece we are

not counting commonly used variants of more formal names, such as Tom, Dick, or

Harry. There are nicknames that are shortened versions of players surnames, such as Yaz.

Pesky was another such nickname given to Johnny Paveskovitch for the simple reason

that it fit more easily into box scores; it took hold to the extent that he had his name

legally changed in 1947. Then there are those nicknames that were the creation of sports

writers and headline writers; the Splendid Splinter comes to mind. There are also names

that only seem to be nicknames; Spike, for example, is the actual given name of Spike

Owen, the Red Sox shortstop of three decades ago. Sometimes a nickname will come

about because of a player’s ethnicity. When David Ortiz first came to the Red Sox he

didn’t know everyone’s name so he started calling teammates “Papi,” a Spanish

colloquialism for “Buddy.” They called him the same, adding the “Big” because of his

size. There are some nicknames that, though they become widely used, never really

supplant given names; Rick “Rooster” Burleson and Dave “Boo” Ferriss are two

examples. Then, of course, there are nicknames that actually take over from the given

names of players; they in fact become part of a player’s persona to the point where we

don’t know or even care what his given name is. Everyone loves Mookie, but most of us

aren’t aware that he is really Markus Lynn Betts.

A decade and a half ago the Red Sox had an outfielder who, when he was a little kid,

used to be teased by his sister that he looked like one of the characters pictured on the

box of Cocoa Krispies cereal. Her nickname for him never really took hold until, as a

young player in the low minor leagues, he was asked to fill out a questionnaire used to

help familiarize players with one another. Next to “nickname” he filled in “Coco.” His

teammates thought it was funny, had the name put up on the scoreboard, and from then

on he was Coco Crisp. Never again would he use his given first name of Covelli; in fact,

like Johhny Pesky, he had his name legally changed in 2013.

Young Elijah Green had no idea why his mother always called him Pumpsie, but she did

– and so did everyone else.

Birdie Tebbetts (George) was the Red Sox catcher in the late nineteen-forties. He got his

nickname from his high-pitched voice that, when he’d yell out encouragement to the

pitcher, sounded like a bird chirping. He was regarded as a smart baseball man and a

great field general (he went on to manage the Reds, Braves, and Indians), but he also had

the reputation as the slowest runner in baseball. One day late in the 1949 season, when

looking over the Red Sox team statistics, Dom DiMaggio noticed that Tebbetts was

leading the team in stolen bases. DiMaggio and Pesky, both terrific base runners, were

under orders not to steal when Ted Williams was batting or due up (Dom hit lead-off,

Johnny second, and Ted third) because the opposing pitcher would walk Williams, taking

the bat out of his hands. Dom approached Tebbetts, explaining what an embarrassment it

would be if the slowest runner in the league finished the year leading the team in stolen

bases, and asked if Birdie would mind it if he, Dom, stole a few. Tebbetts said not at all,

that the only reason he ever stole was that pitchers never bothered to hold him on base

and that he would occasionally run down to second because no one was paying attention.

Dom stole a few bases in the next couple of games and reported back to Birdie, “I think

I’ve got enough now; besides, Ted is starting to get really teed off.”

You could look it up. In 1949 Dom DiMaggio led the Red Sox in stolen bases with 9; just

behind him with 8 stolen bases was Birdie Tebbetts.

Colorful nicknames were more prominent years ago than they are nowadays. My favorite

Red Sox nickname of all time was Baby Doll Jacobson (given name, William), who was

an outfielder with the Sox and several other teams from 1915-1927. He was a big,

muscular guy (6’3”, 215 lb) who looked not at all like a baby doll. The story is that on

Opening Day of 1912, while playing for the Mobile Seagulls of the Southern Association,

Jacobson, batting lead-off, came up to hit as the band in the stands (a common occurrence

in the pre-loudspeaker days) played “Oh You Beautiful Doll.” Jacobson homered, and a

woman sitting behind home plated yelled out, “You must be that beautiful doll they’re

playing about.”

Memorable monikers add greatly to the enjoyment of all sports. Let’s hope that we’ll

rooting for Mookie for years to come.

Musings: The Long Road To Cooperstown

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author


Which current Red Sox player do you think has the best chance of being enshrined

someday in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown?

I imagine that most people would say Mookie Betts, and certainly he’s playing like a Hall

of Famer right now. In his five full seasons in the big leagues he has compiled a batting

average of .303, he’s hit 110 home runs, and he’s driven in 390. And that doesn’t tell the

whole story, not by a long shot; he’s won a Most Valuable Player award, a batting

championship, and three Gold Gloves. He’s on the right track to Cooperstown, but it’s a

long and winding road, and he’s got to stay on it for at least another decade.

A generation ago the Red Sox had another great player who seemed to be on that same

road, but he never did make it to Cooperstown. After five seasons in the majors Nomar

Garciaparra had compiled a stunning batting average of .335; he was the first right-

handed hitter in sixty years to win American League back-to-back batting championships,

hitting .357 in 1999 and .372 in 2000 (Joe DiMaggio had done it in 1939 and 1940). At

shortstop, Nomar was a wonder, with great range and a buggy-whip arm.

Cooperstown, here we come!

Not so fast. We didn’t know it then, but after five years, and at only 27 years of age, his

career had already begun its downward spiral. During the winter of 2000/2001 he hurt his

wrist while working out, the same wrist that had been hit by a pitch back in 1999. He

appeared in only 29 games the next season, and his batting average fell from .372 to .289.

The damaged wrist slowed down his lightning-quick bat, and he was never the same

hitter again. Added to that was an achilles tendon problem that slowed him down in the

field. He fell out of favor with the Red Sox and with some of the fan base and was traded

to the Chicago Cubs in mid-season of 2004. He finished his career in 2010 as a very good

but but not great player and lasted only two years on the Hall of Fame ballot before

falling below the 5% required number of votes to remain in consideration. But let the

record show that for those few years at the beginning of his career he was the greatest

shortstop in Red Sox history.

Before Nomar there was Fred Lynn. He looked like he had ticket to Cooperstown, too,

but got side-tracked along the way. After his first five years he had an average of .308,

five points higher than Mookie; he hit the same number of homers, 110; and he had 450

runs batted in, 60 more than Mookie has. And he matched Mookie with three Gold

Gloves and one batting championship in his first five seasons. Not only that, but in 1975

he became the first player in baseball history to win both Rookie of the Year and Most

Valuable Player awards in the same season (a feat since matched by Ichiro Suzuki).

Lynn had the perfect swing for a left-handed hitter at Fenway Park; he could pull the ball

with power to right, and he could tattoo the wall in left.

Unfortunately for him – and for us – he got into a contract dispute with the team, and,

following the 1980 season, he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. He no longer had

that left field wall to tattoo, and he seemed to be injured a lot of the time. As a result, he

never again batted as high as .300. Like Nomar, he finished his career as a good but not

great player; and, like Nomar, he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after just two years.

So we can only hope that Mookie stays healthy and stays consistent - and stays in a Red

Sox uniform – for the long run.

Who else on the Red Sox might merit Hall of Fame consideration? Well, there is Dustin

Pedroia, who has batted an even .300 hundred for his career, been terrific on defense, and

provided real leadership from the very beginning. But some Hall of Fame voters tend to

weigh statistics rather than measure them, and Pedroia probably needs another three years

of productivity to punch his ticket to Cooperstown. If his bad knee prevents him from

doing that, we will have Manny Machado to thank for injuring him with that dirty slide

back in 2017.

What about pitchers David Price and Chris Sale? It’s too early to tell; they have 143 and

101 wins respectively, and that’s still a long way from Hall of Fame territory.

J.D. Martinez did not develop into a real power hitter until 2015. He has 195 homers

now, and he’s thiry-one years old. He’ll have to average 40 or so homers a year until his

late thirties.

Andrew Benintendi hasn’t yet fully developed yet, but he always looks like he’s right on

the verge of breaking out. Xander Bogaerts is really good, but is he great? There is still

time for him, though. The Red Sox once had a player who was very good but not great in

the first five years of his career. He had compiled an average of .298 and had shown only

fair power. He was nowhere near the road Cooperstown at that point. But in 1967, his

seventh with the Red Sox, Carl Yastrzemski got himself into terrific condition, changed

his swing, won the Triple Crown, and hopped on the express train to the Hall of Fame.

The Red Sox and their fans have been blessed in that for more than eighty years they

almost always have had at least one Hall of Fame player in their lineup. The only dry

spell was in the 1990s, but in those pre-sterioid years they had Roger Clemens, and we all

knew that he was Hall of Fame worthy. He just fell into a ditch by the side of the road

after he left the Sox.

Still, Clemens had a great run while he was here, and so have Red Sox fans - for more

than eight decades.