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Rick Porcello’s Rapid Rise Gives Red Sox Postseason Ace They Need

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello loves to fly fish whenever work doesn’t get in the way. This year, he may reel in the American League Cy Young Award or baseball’s ultimate catch—a World Series ring.

Porcello’s semi-secret New England fishing spot is nearby a home he has in Vermont, located close to the Massachusetts border. He also fly fishes in both salt and fresh water near the Red Sox spring training home in Fort Myers, Florida.

Porcello (22-4) sees a real-life connection between casting for rainbow trout in his native New Jersey and pitching to Mike Trout at Fenway Park.

“The fishing carries over to baseball,” Porcello told B/R. “If I’m mentally drained and need my escape, that’s usually what I go to. It helps me clear my head. If I have an off day, or a morning where I don’t have a lot going on that day. It’s not very often. I try to mix it in.”

The daily catch varies by season and location; just as successful pitches in baseball vary based on opponent and location. Thursday, Porcello starts for the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS at Cleveland

Any mention of Red Sox and fishing allows for no more than two questions before Ted Williams enters the conversation. Williams is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Fishing Hall Fame and the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’m aware of the three Hall of Fames he’s in,” Porcello said.

The Marine Corps Hall of Fame is probably out of the question, but is Porcello gunning for either a spot in Cooperstown or Springfield, Missouri—where the Fishing Hall of Fame will soon be located.

“I’m gunning for a World Series, and maybe down the line, some kind of award.”

Monday, Porcello was named American League Pitcher of the Month for September. The “Comeback Player of the Year” is a strong possibility, but the honor bearing the name of the once-upon-a-time Red Sox pitcher Young would be his top individual prize in 2016.

Porcello said he’s “simply honored” to be in the Cy Young conversation. He led the American League with 22 wins, becoming the first Red Sox pitcher to reach that number in a season since Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez won 23 in 1999.

Porcello finished second in the American League with a 1.01 WHIP. Detroit’s Justin Verlander’s was lower by .01. His 3.15 ERA was fifth league-wide. Aaron Sanchez of the Blue Jays captured the ERA title (3.00), helped by his dominant performance against Boston (7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER) on Sunday

Porcello’s consistency in delivering quality starts in 2016 was pivotal in Boston’s AL East title run. The Red Sox were coming off back-to-back last place finishes this year. Starting on July 29 this year, Porcello strung together 11 consecutive starts of seven innings or more in which he allowed three runs .

“He’s a model of consistency. He’s been so strong. He’s been so consistent. It’s a combination of multiple things: a talented guy, a well-prepared pitcher and an extremely competitive one,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

Porcello was traded to the Red Sox from Detroit before the 2015 season in a deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers. Porcello, a lean 6-foot-5, 205-pound righty, finished 2015 at 9-15 with a portly 4.92 ERA and 1.360 WHIP in only 172 innings. He landed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right triceps muscle on July 31. 

His keys to finding success in 2016 were mental and mechanical. 

“A lot of [my offseason] was spent working on my delivery. Something I’ve always battled in my career is trying to find the check points in my delivery, and being able to maintain that over the course of a season. That was my major focus. That was one of the big things that was off last season. That was in addition to my normal workouts and conditioning,” he said.

Porcello spoke to B/R at length in a one-on-one before the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot with a 6-4 victory here on Sept. 24.

Then Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington signed Porcello to a four-year, $82.5 million contract extension in April of 2015 that kicked in this season. That contract extension, Porcello said, brought up a lot in conversation as to why he struggled.

The contract wasn’t an added pressure point for Porcello. 

“I went back and forth in my head trying to figure out why I was putting so much pressure on myself. It wasn’t the contract that was doing it. I was coming into a new environment. New coaching staff. New organization. New teammates. New city. I wanted to show them all what I could do. I ended up being my own worst enemy,” he said.

Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski told B/R he believed Porcello had “No. 1 starter” potential when he drafted Porcello out of high school in 2007 as GM of the Detroit Tigers. Drombrowski was hired by the Red Sox on Aug. 18 of last year after the team fired Cherington.

Porcello’s contract, along the $183 million combined committed to Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, fueled much acrimony last season among citizens of Red Sox Nation and media types who report on the team. 

“He was probably doing things he normally wouldn’t do,” Dombrowski said. “Rick is more of a two-seam, sinker-ball type of guy, with command of his pitches. It’s a better position than where he’s constantly using the four-seamer trying to overpower hitters. That’s what he was trying to do [last year]. A lot of time, people put those expectations on themselves because they think they need to do that in order to live up to big-dollar situations.“

Dombrowski’s hiring to command the Red Sox front office coincided with Porcello’s return off the disabled list. 

“He (then) looked like the Rick Porcello that I had always seen. He lived with the two-seamer and really commanded the strike zone. The other difference, this year, is that he’s in a much more comfortable situation coming back in the second year. You can also just see the maturity in pitching, the mix of pitches and the command of the strike zone,” Dombrowski said. “But all of sudden you see him elevate the fastball a little bit more than he used to, and pitch in and out more than he used to. So I just think you see the normal, natural development and maturity of a young pitcher who is a quality pitcher, not overpowering, but has learned to pitch with his stuff and get people out.”

Porcello’s regular scouting regimen is simple yet effective. The day before each start, he breaks his opposing lineup into two parts. He will spend about an hour watching 60 to 70 pitches each batter has faced in the past week. He will scout five batters on the first day and four on the day he starts.

“I’ll be looking at what hitters have done in the past week, because they can change. Some guys have been hitting the fastball in the past couple of weeks, then they transition and start hitting a breaking ball. Or they’re covering different areas of the strike zone. So I want to be aware of what they’re feeling now. And it’s what I see in the game. So if I’m establishing my fastball, and I see that’s beating hitters or getting on guys, I’m more apt to be aggressive and stay hard with them. And vice versa,” he said. “I see what they’re doing. If they’re aggressive in the count. What counts they don’t want to be in. Take that, try to identify their weaknesses, take my strengths and try to apply it all.”

Two hours before his Sept. 24 start against the Rays, Porcello was relaxing on a couch in the visitor’s clubhouse as Latin pop music blared throughout the room. His concentration wandered between a no-stakes, two-man card game with teammate Marco Hernandez, his smartphone and a pair of TVs showing college football games, including Florida State’s victory over South Florida.

Once Porcello was left alone, he was left alone. Aaron Hill jokingly offered him a beer and Sandoval (on the DL but in town to work out with the team) flicked Porcello’s ear as he walked past. One would not know he was pitching that day unless they had seen the lineup card.

He allowed three earned runs in 6.1 innings with eight hits, nine strikeouts and only one walk in that outing. His fastball got up higher than it should have, allowing the Rays to stay in the game until a late Red Sox rally. Where a game such as that might have meant a loss in 2015, it was simply another challenge met and conquered in 2016.

“I definitely made a lot of mistakes, especially early on in the game and then after the inning where they scored those runs, I was able to settle back down and started executing my pitches better,” he said after that game. “I don’t know if it’s the mistakes or the situation. It’s every pitcher’s battle when you get into a tough situation and have some runners on base. You’ve got to make some pitches. There’s two ways you can go. You can settle down and execute a pitch. Or you make a mistake and basically play into the hitter’s hand. I’ve been doing a lot better situation of that this year.”

After more than a full calendar year with the Red Sox, Dombrowski is fully confident that the more-mature 2016 Porcello is the long-term rule, rather than the exception.

He cites evidence to back that up in Porcello’s performance.

“More changeups, breaking balls, mixing pitches much more. When he was a youngster, he was a two-pitch pitcher—fastball and change. He’s brought the curveball in recent years. He’s got the cutter, the two-seamer and four-seamer,” Dombrowski said. “Now, I think the mix of pitches and the comfort of throwing any pitch at any time, with the command that he has, when he’s behind in the count, is the maturity aspect you’re talking about. You have to have the ability to do that, and he does have the ability to do that.”

The Red Sox went 25-8 in games started by Porcello in 2016. His only loss in 16 starts at Fenway Park this season came in spite of a one-run, eight inning effort on Sept. 14. Baltimore beat Boston 1-0.

Porcello’s 2016 masterpiece, at least until now, was an 89-pitch complete-game 5-2 victory over the Orioles on Sept. 19. Sixty-five of his pitches were strikes. He struck out seven batters and allowed four hits without walking a batter. Porcello threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of 32 batters and went to a three-ball count once. 

He demonstrated, at least for one night, thorough mastery of all five of his pitches: the two-seam and four-seam fastballs, the changeup, the slider and the curve.

“That’s anybody’s ideal outing—to have all your weapons working. The reality is that doesn’t happen very often. It’s really hard to do. That was a really good night for me against a good lineup. In order to beat those guys, you have to have all them going. It just happened at the right time. It’s what I’m looking for. It doesn’t always happen. If I can have my fastball command, and at least one or two off-speed pitches, then I can manage that and be OK.”

It was during that start against the Orioles on Sept. 19, when a sinker ball got up and away from Porcello, plunking the combustible Manny Machado in the back. AL home run leader Mark Trumbo was on deck.

Even though there was no obvious intent, Machado glared at Porcello and the two exchanged words. Porcello’s NSFW reply was caught by TV cameras.

“We were just walking to first base, talking — talking like human beings. Nothing much was said,” Machado told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. “We all know, I know, he doesn’t want to hit me in that situation.” 

Porcello’s name was familiar to many Red Sox fans when he joined the team. He hit then Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis in 2009 at Fenway Park. Youkilis charged the mound and both benches would eventually clear.

“I can honestly say in both of those situations (Youkilis or Machado) I had no intention of hitting those guys. My reaction is basically a reaction to their reaction. It is always an emotional, heat-of-the-battle type of thing. Nobody wants to get hit by a fastball. Whether it’s 88 or 98, it’s going to hurt. I can completely understand that. That would be my natural reaction, to be pissed off and I’d want to say something, too.”

Porcello said he had yet to speak with Machado since the Sept. 19 game.

“I talked to Youkilis once a couple of years ago when he was with Chicago. We happened to be walking out of the ballpark at the same time. Just briefly, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I don’t even think he recognized me. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Machado. It’s really not necessary for us to talk about it afterward. We’re competing. That’s the way it should be. If I hit him in the back and everything is roses, it wouldn’t feel right. It’s not like I want to hurt him or he wants to hurt me.”

His Cy Young push, meanwhile, has won over hearts and minds across Red Sox Nation.

“Not because he’s my boy—but he’s got the inside track. He’s got better numbers than everybody else,” Red Sox DH David Ortiz told B/R/ “More wins. We are where we’re at because of his performance. I’ll leave it up to the voters, but I’d vote for him. 100 percent.”

The Red Sox paid David Price and Porcello a combined $52.5 million in salary in 2016. They totaled 39 wins in the regular season. Yet, neither has a postseason victory in nine combined starts.

“Once I found out (Price) signed here, it was awesome. He’s made a huge impact on our team. I’ve learned a lot watching him. How to maintain that even keel and demeanor, the focus and competitiveness. And the great things he brings that you don’t see on a day-to-day basis,” Porcello said. 

And when Price was struggling earlier this season, Porcello kept his distance. “It’s like, the more someone tries to offer help, they can make it more frustrating. It’s like, ‘I’m really good, I can work through this.’ At least that’s the way I am. I’m a leave-me-alone sort of guy. David’s accomplished so many things in this game. What am I going to tell him that he doesn’t already know?”

Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He is a columnist for the Boston Herald and tweets @RealOBF. 

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David Ortiz Glad ‘WWE’ Era Between Red Sox, Yankees Has Passed

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Boston and New York have been adversaries since the original Hamilton walked Broadway in the late 18th century.

David Ortiz has been at the epicenter of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry for the past 14 seasons. Come 2017, neither Ortiz nor Alex Rodriguez will be an actor in this award-winning baseball melodrama that featured brawls during the 2003 American League Championship Series and beyond.

Ortiz, for one, is glad the era of on-field gladiators has passed.

“This is not the WWE. This is baseball at the highest level,” Ortiz told B/R during a Red Sox visit here in August. “It’s all good for the game. People don’t pay to come and watch us fight. People used to do that because of what it used to be. And that’s why people believe the intensity isn’t there. It’s there. We just don’t fight like we used to.”

The David Ortiz Goodbye Baseball tour makes its penultimate regular-season stop beginning Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox could clinch the American League East title with victory or a Toronto loss. The Yankees have planned a celebration for Ortiz on Thursday but have not released details.

“Playing in New York is very special,” Ortiz added when asked Saturday by B/R about his final trip to the Bronx as a player. “The fans are very into it. Every inning you have to be on your toes to make something happen. The New York Yankees, I have a lot of respect for that organization. Somehow, someway, you get connected to it [when you’re from] the Dominican Republic.

“When I was a kid, New York was an organization that was very well mentioned back in the Dominican. Everyone in the Dominican is aware of the Yankees. We kind of changed the Dominicans’ minds a little bit once me, Pedro [Martinez] and Manny [Ramirez] got together here.

“Now, I would say it’s pretty much 50-50 Red Sox-Yankees in the Dominican. But when I was a kid, every game you would see in the Dominican was coming from New York. There are 3 million Dominicans in New York, so that connection is always there. It’s always an honor and pleasure to play there.”

The 40-year-old Ortiz has somewhat brutally slashed .307/.397/.574 against the Yankees in his career with Minnesota and Boston, producing 53 home runs and 171 RBI. His two-run home run in the 12th inning of Game 4 during the 2004 ALCS ignited baseball’s biggest-ever postseason comeback.

Red Sox vs. Yankees hit warp speed with the sale of Babe Ruth to New York nearly a century ago. The teams’ enmity has endured a roller coaster of competitiveness since. The intensity hit crescendos in the late 1940s, the mid 1970s—erstwhile Boston pitcher Bill Lee once referred to the Yankees as “Billy Martin’s Brownshirts“—the late 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century.

Fisticuffs aplenty came along for the ride.

Now, Red Sox vs. Yankees is enjoying a period of relative calm, at least when it comes to throwing punches.

“This is better,” Ortiz said in August. “Once you fight with someone, that guy becomes your enemy whether you like it or not. I don’t want to be having enemies in baseball. Once there’s a brawl going on and you’re throwing punches, people start getting injured.”

Fewer on-field melees does not mean the players’ competitiveness has waned.

“From that time until today, there are a lot of rules that have basically been added to the game,” Ortiz said. “Players have to approach things differently. It’s good for the game. You don’t want to send the wrong message that you have to fight to be able to earn respect or perform at this level.

“When I first came up and got hit, one of our pitchers [see: Martinez] would throw a close pitch to them. And same with the Yankees. And all of sudden, the evil would let loose. I think to avoid all this stuff, Major League Baseball passed all these rules to warn people or throw them out of the game if they throw at people on purpose.”

MLB‘s push to temper physical contact between players with disciplinary action sent the right message, at least as far as Ortiz is concerned.

“You come with your kids and family and you see players fighting 30, 40 feet away from you,” he said. “What is the mentality your kids are going to take away from that? You came to watch a baseball game. Not fighting. My kids questioned me and were asking, ‘Hey, Dad. What’s going on?’ That’s not the memory you want them to take home.

“It happens now but not as much. Now, we’re concerned about being suspended, missing games. MLB is on top of it big time. When a guy like me gets suspended for five or 10 games, it affects my ballclub. It affects me at some point, too. That’s not the image you want the fans to see.”

Another factor that has calmed tempers between the Red Sox and Yankees is the fact they have not met in the playoffs since Boston celebrated its Game 7 victory of the 2004 ALCS in the Bronx after erasing a 3-0 series lead. It could be said the victory was so devastating to New York that it had to tear down its old stadium and build a new one.

“I didn’t think we had that series won until the final out,” Ortiz said. “We were supposed to lose from day one. If I tell you after Game 5 or 6 we had them beaten, I’d be lying to you.”

As he did when he chose an Ultimate All-Star Team of His Era’s Biggest Stars for B/R in July, Ortiz spoke with reverence and respect about ex-Yankees Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, who were also key figures in the post-2000 act of this drama. The Red Sox honored both players with elaborate—if cheesy—ceremonies during their final stops at Fenway Park in 2014 and 2013, respectively.

“Mariano and D.J. were there forever,” Ortiz said.

He scoffed at the perception that Jeter wasn’t as tough as he was talented.

“What do these people want?” Ortiz said. “He was the one player you wanted to watch as another player. You cannot ask for more than he brought to the table. I’m talking about competing against him. Watching him play. Watching him handle his business.

“In my mind, he’s going to be the first player to go into the Hall of Fame with 100 percent of the vote. … Well, he should be. He did it all. The guy was perfect. Everything. The way he was as a player. The way he handled his business. The way he handled the media. The way he dealt with the fans. This guy was extraordinary.”

Ortiz’s farewell tour has morphed into a six-month-long episode of Antiques Roadshow. Among the items he has amassed are a custom surfboard plastered with an image of Ortiz at the 2016 All-Star Game courtesy of the San Diego Padres, 34 pounds (Get it?) of salmon from his original franchise (the Seattle Mariners), a giant bottle of cabernet from the Oakland A’s, cowboy boots and a giant belt buckle thanks to the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore bullpen phone he destroyed during an epic outburst in 2013.

“I’m keeping all that stuff in my garage. But I’m running out of room,” he said.

Red Sox vs. Yankees has morphed into its next chapter. A Boston fan buried a No. 34 Ortiz jersey during the construction of the new Yankee Stadium in 2008. It was later removed.

The Red Sox swept the Yankees in Boston two weeks ago. When the so-called experts write the history of the 2016 Red Sox, Hanley Ramirez’s three-run walk-off homer against New York on Sept. 15 could well be considered the final turning point. Boston hasn’t lost since and rides into the Bronx on an 11-game winning streak.

“You see the talent the Yankees have called up this season? The talent that we have here? The rivalry is going to continue,” Ortiz said. “They’re rebuilding that team very quickly. Talk about Mookie [Betts], [Xander] Bogaerts, Junior [Jackie Bradley]. The talent is there. These kids are still in the learning process. When you see the way Starlin Castro has been playing and behaving. And [Dellin] Betances. The way they’re doing things now. And that [Gary] Sanchez kid. You have a future Jorge Posada behind the plate. He has all the tools to be a great player.”

Ortiz told reporters in Boston on Sept. 16 that he expected to get booed (as reported by’s Scott Lauber) during his New York farewell but added that there is respect between himself and the Yankees faithful. He had a slightly more favorable forecast for his reception in the Bronx when asked about it by B/R here following the Red Sox’s 2-1 win over the Rays on Friday.

“Everywhere we go, we have a lot of fans. Getting into Fenway is tough. Every game is pretty much sold out. So our fans go everywhere we go,” said Ortiz, who was loudly cheered before every plate appearance here this past weekend.

Even in New York?

“Oh, yeah. Everywhere.”

As far as the departed A-Rod goes, Ortiz said in August he has taken the road of “forgive and forget.” Their once-deep friendship cooled after Rodriguez acknowledged using performance-enhancing drugs and his lawyer apparently attempted to implicate Ortiz as a PED user in 2014.

“I’m not going to start naming all the other players, but some of them are God-like in Boston right now, and people seem to forget that,” Joe Tacopina told ESPN Radio back then.

Tacopina later said he was not referring to Ortiz.

Ortiz tested positive for PEDs during MLB’s pilot program in 2003. He maintained to B/R that he never knowingly used any banned substances or tested positive for PEDs since 2003.

Thankfully, the A-Rod-Ortiz feud did not end in a duel with pistols on the grass in the Bronx or at Fenway Park.

“I’ve known A-Rod for a long time,” Ortiz said. “I’ve been a friend. I have a good relationship. He got confused and did things the wrong way with me and a lot of people. But it’s forgotten. If there is something God would like me to do, it is forgive.”


Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who writes the “Obnoxious Boston Fan” column for the Boston Herald. He covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He Tweets @RealOBF and @BillSperos.

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Olympic Speedskating Silver Medalist Eddy Alvarez Now Making MLB Push

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Birmingham Barons shortstop Eddy Alvarez has a “hidden secret.”

Alvarez is a Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants who won a silver medal in the Winter Olympics as part of the USA’s 5,000-meter relay speedskating team in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

You read that right. Miami. Winter Olympics. Silver medal. Speedskating.

But there’s nothing secretive about that. After all, the whole world was watching “Eddy the Jet” two years ago.

He then walked on at Salt Lake Community College in 2011 and became the team’s starting shortstop before undergoing surgery to repair a dozen tears between both knees. That, too, has been well documented.

Alvarez is dating Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner (not a secret). She knew so little about baseball when they first met at the 2014 Olympics that Alvarez jokingly says he “is pretty sure” she called the bases “pillows.” 

Nope, Alvarez’s “hidden secret” is he can do non-verbal imitations—of nearly anyone. His targets include hitters at the plate, roving instructors, team coaches and his own manager, Ryan Newman.

“Only when I call him out on it,” Newman told B/R after spilling the beans on Alvarez. “When I’m in a good mood, I’ll let him imitate me. A month or so ago before a stretch, I let him lead the orientation as me. It went well, it was pretty good.”

Think of him as an athletic, 5’9″, 180-pound Batting Stance Guy who can hit from both sides of the plate. “I have an analytical mind. I love people watching,” Alvarez said. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always been able to copy the mannerisms and body language of everyone around me.”

The biggest secrets for Alvarez lie ahead. His made-for-TV-movie life story has yet to be fully scripted. Three seasons into his pro baseball career, Alvarez has found his swing and his glove with the Double-A Barons. Alvarez (.250/.326/.348) heading into Monday’s game leads the Barons with 60 RBI from the leadoff spot. His swing has both matured and solidified this season.

(Monday, he went 5-for-5 in Birmingham’s 5-2 loss with two RBI and is now batting .420 (21-for-50) in August.)

“Living through an experience where the pressure is at its peak has helped. Making the Olympic team is something I like to compare making all these at-bats to,” Alvarez told B/R while sitting in the Barons dugout on a midsummer’s day about 70 degrees warmer than the ice in Sochi.

“In the Olympics, you only get one opportunity to bring it all together. If you don’t, better luck in four years. In baseball, you get to bat four times a night. As a baseball player, you fail seven out of 10 times and you’re a Hall of Famer. In skating, you get one opportunity every four years. It’s definitely a life lesson.”

He salvaged his season—and perhaps his pro baseball career—during a four-game series at Biloxi in the middle of June. He entered that series slashing with a butter knife (.199/.278/.231), but across those four games, he went 6-for-14 with his first home run of the season and four RBI. From the start of the Biloxi series to the end of the month, he raised his batting average 42 points. Overall in June, he hit .352 with three home runs, 14 RBI and 25 hits.

Instead of trying to move runners from base to base, he’s aiming to push them home. His time at the Double-A level and multiple adjustments to his switch-hitting swing, mainly from the left-handed side of the plate, have all helped.

Newman told B/R all those adjustments are “how the game weeds itself out.”

“I always played the ‘little man game,'” Alvarez said. “I am starting to figure out that I can put it to dead center. I was never able to do that. When you see that, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ I just don’t have to hit this guy over, or bunt the guy over. I can put the barrel of the bat on the ball somewhere and maybe score a run somewhere. And when there is a guy on third and no outs, infield’s back, I will get that ball on the ground to get that guy across. A lot of that goes to my teammates.”

Alvarez has been whirling against convention as an amateur, Olympic and professional athlete for 20 years. Born Eduardo Alvarez, his is a biography befitting someone whose Americanized first name in describes “a circular flow of water that spins counter to the surrounding current.”

That counterintuitive motion includes admitting his skating career is “definitely over.” His immediate Olympic concern remains keeping up with the continued successes of Team USA in Rio whenever his baseball schedule permits.

“Michael Phelps has been awesome,” he said in a brief phone interview Friday. “I’ve also been watching a lot of beach volleyball, [table tennis] and the Final Five. I love the Olympics.”


‘Baseball is my true passion’

The Olympics were never meant to replace Alvarez’s favorite sport.

“Baseball is my true passion,” Alvarez said. “I loved skating with all my heart, but I knew that was something that was going to be time-limited. I knew all I wanted to do was to represent my country in the Olympics. That was my goal, and I set myself to that. That’s why I left baseball for so long. Even if I didn’t sign professionally or go to college, I always knew I was going to try. This is more than I could have expected. But this is still being written.”

The current chapter in Alvarez’s book of baseball was prefaced with surgery to repair a torn right labrum suffered last season.

“Offseason was more a get-healthy offseason,” he said. “All spring training was rehabbing and, in the last couple of weeks, was just getting some at-bats. So it was tough jumping into the Double-A level with only a couple of weeks of spring training.”

Newman agrees.

“In spring training, he probably played only a total of nine innings defensively. It was his spring training for the first month-and-a-half of the season. He was playing catch-up on the defensive side,” Newman said. “It’s a fairly large jump for him to get to Double-A. I think he’s handled it pretty well. It affected him defensively at the beginning of the season, but not anymore.”

Alvarez has 22 errors, a plurality of which came early in the season while he worked to strengthen his arm.

“The game gets a little faster in Double-A,” said Newman, whose father, Jeff, was a major league catcher with the Red Sox and A’s. “Not only does the ball come at you a little more quickly, but the guys get down the line quicker. He had to catch up to the speed. To his credit, the kid has really worked his tail off. You can see the improvement on a daily basisespecially on the defensive side. We knew what he was capable of offensively. He’s starting to fit in here defensively.”

Like countless other ballplayers who reach Double-A, the struggles for Alvarez are as much mental as physical. (Unless your name happens to be Andrew Benintendi.) 

“This is big-boy level,” Alvarez said. “This is as close to the big leagues as you’re going to getthe two big obstacles in baseball are jumping to the Double-A level and staying in the bigs. The game definitely sped up in the beginning of the year. I have no problem telling you that I 100 percent struggled at the beginning of the year. With what I went through in skating, I take things on headfirst and try to fix them immediately. But when you’re going 0-for-10 or 0-for-15, the game is so fast. When you’re going good, the other hitters take forever for you to get an at-bat. When you’re going bad, it’s like you finish, and boom, all of a sudden you’re up at the plate again.”

And his thoughts on former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow making a run at the bigs after not playing competitive baseball since he was a high school junior 11 years ago?

“Have Tim Tebow call me and we can talk about this,” Alvarez added Friday. “Patience. That would be my advice. He’s going from 85-mile-per-hour pitching to 90-plus-mile-per-hour on a consistent basis. He’d better be ready. It’s not going to be easy. I’ve seen his swing. It’s impressive. I wish him the best of luck. I’m a big believer in someone who is willing to take on a new challenge.”

White Sox Director of Player Development Nick Capra all but conceded Alvarez’s long-term prospects with the organization aren’t anchored to the shortstop position.

The White Sox signed then-16-year-old Dominican phenom Amado Nunez for $900,000 in 2014. They also have 18-year-old Luis Curbelo and 20-year-old Johan Cruz ahead of Alvarez on’s list of White Sox prospects.

Cruz has settled in at short for Single-A Kannapolis. “Watching him develop, he may have a chance to stay at shortstop,” Capra said.  

Conversely, there are no immediate plans to move Alvarez to second base. Alvarez added he hasn’t been given any directive toward playing another position this season in Brimingham. 

“Our philosophy is that they’ll have to play themselves off at shortstop before we’d move them,” Capra said. “Is he an everyday shortstop down the road? Probably not. Can he play shortstop in a pinch? Yes.

“He’s probably more of a second baseman down the road with the ability go to the left side of the field. There are a lot of people who make a lot of money in baseball as utility players. Is that his role down the road? I don’t know. He’s developed into a pretty good baseball player. Can he play second base? Maybe so. That’s something we’ll have to put some thought into and see what happens down the road.”

The White Sox have several prospects who share Alvarez’s athleticism and potential to play multiple positions, including Jake Peter, who played shortstop in college. 

“We saw Peter as more of a second baseman. But being so athletic, we can move him around, second, third, short, left field,” Capra said. “We’ve never put Eddy in the outfield, but he’s very athletic. I’m sure if we did, he’d never miss a beat. We try as an organization to project what these guys can do and figure out what’s the best path to the majors for each of these guys. That’s what we’re doing with Eddy.”

Offensively, Capra said Alvarez has exceeded the White Sox’s expectations, especially given the fact he had just one full season in Single-A before making the challenging jump to Double-A.

“He’s had some help with guys getting on base and come up with some big hits,” Capra said. “He’s been up … with a chance to score runners and he’s done itwhether or not it was a base hit, a home run, a double. He’s done a really nice job with [runners in scoring position]. The mentality is different with RBI guys.”


Silver Lining Scorebook 

Team USA finished 0.271 seconds behind the gold-medal-winning Russians in the 5,000-meter relay final in Sochi. Alvarez was the first Cuban-American male speedskater to reach the Olympics after placing second in the 500 meters, second in the 1,500 and third in the 1,000 during the Olympic trials. In spite of high hopes, he failed to medal in three individual events at Sochi. He crashed into one skater while trying to qualify in the 1,500 and tripped over a another skater in the 1,000.

“You put your life into one thing. About 10 hours a day, six days a week, 11 months of the year, this is everything you know,” he said. “To see everything come together and realize you went through so much, it’s unbelievable.”  

Alvarez recalled his emotion as a perfect combination of joy, pride and excitement.

“Oh my lord, if you can put those all in onethe satisfaction,” he said. “I’m getting chills thinking about it.”

His advice to first-timers headed to Rio is plain and pointed: “Savor the moment.”

“That three-and-a-half weeks went by so fast,” Alvarez said. “Enjoy the moment. You’re there for a reason. You made it there for a reason. No regrets. Go out with a bang. You deserve it. You made it. Give it all you’ve got.”


‘If You Ain’t First, You’re Last’ 

In the 2006 movie Talladega Nights, the father of fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby misguided his son through life by telling him, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Years later, Ricky’s dysfunctional dad admitted he actually didn’t mean what he said.

Well, “if you ain’t first,” are you last?

Alvarez could not get off that line without letting out a laugh.

OK, but do you win a silver or lose a gold?

“That’s short-track speedskating,” Alvarez said. “You never know what’s going to happen. One slip. One fall. Two teams fall. It’s incredible how fast everything can change in that sport. You can be in front by a corner on the last lap and fall. It’s short-track. I wouldn’t say I lost the gold medal. The opportunity of racing for that medal was amazing in itself.”

He does have a baseball equivalent to the silver medal. “Absolutely. Getting to the World Series and having that opportunity to be a part of history.”

Alvarez remains unsettled about recent revelations of widespread doping and a massive cover-up perpetuated by the Russian Olympic Federation that ran from 2011 until 2015.

In a July 18 statementUnited States Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis T. Tygart said, “Our hearts go out to athletes from all over the world who were robbed of their Olympic dreams.” 

“That’s deep,” Alvarez said. “I won’t feel like that unless there’s a lot more information provided to me. Right now, I’m going to say it’s a pure sport. I couldn’t see athletes going to that extent in that sport in the Olympics. I definitely could see more of how it’s the government making them do something like that. It’s hard to think that at the end of the day, there’s a potential that some of these athletes did cheat.”

Were Alvarez and his American teammates skating on a level frozen playing field?

“That’s a tough one for me to answer,” he said. “If I say yes, then I wouldn’t be true to my heart. If I say no, then what if these are false accusations? In my heart and in my soul, I want to say these guys were clean. If I lost, it’s because that’s how the universe meant it to be.”

Alvarez said he was tested eight times in Sochi. He’s been peeing on demand as part of USADA random testing since he was a teenager.

“I was 15 years old,” he said. “I was training in Miami doing inline, ice skating and baseball. We were driving up to Port St. Lucie (about a 90-minute trip) for a baseball tournament. As we’re getting to Port St. Lucie, my coach called and said the USADA showed up at baseball practice. We had to drive back to give a sample.”

Any missed test is counted as a positive.


‘Pillow’ Talk

The most positive personal takeaway from Alvarez’s trip to Sochi was his relationship with Wagner.

“I did not know her beforehand; she will say otherwise,” he said. “She knew who I was. I had an idea who she was. I watched her Olympic trials. I saw her for the first time [up close] on the set of the Today show in Russia.” 

There was a not-so-chance meeting in the athletes cafeteria a few days later.

“I knew her friends,” he said. “We ended up talking for hours, and we never stopped talking since then.”

When Alvarez was in competition as a skater, he and Wagner often trained at the same facilities.

Wagner is currently training full-time in California for the upcoming skating season.

“In a way, it works, and in a way, it doesn’t at all,” Wagner told Nick McCarvel of icenetwork in November. “Summertime is my time to see him in whatever small town he’s playing baseball in. We try not to go more than six weeks or two months without seeing each other.”

Their shared history as competitors helps them relate to one another, except perhaps when it comes to the particulars of baseball.

“Is she a baseball fan? Well, she’s going to be,” Alvarez said. “She was never a baseball fan, she had no idea what happened. I’m pretty sure she called the bases pillows. She will say she loved baseball players in their pants. She’s learned so much. It’s great to have someone as a part of your journey. We’ve lived the same life and have an understanding of each other and our careers.”


Plastic Skates to Baseball Cleats

Alvarez’s athletic exploits began with a pair of plastic skates and a concrete basketball court in his family’s Miami backyard. Like LeBron James, he soon took his talents to South Beach and would race through makeshift, homemade courses along the beach’s walkway.

“That’s when recreational skating was a big deal,” Alvarez said.

While his Olympic athleticism earned him a silver medal, it didn’t fully translate to baseball.

“I had a lack of upper-body strength when I began playing again [at Single-A Kannapolis in 2014],” he said. “Speedskating is very lower-body dominant. Everything is core to your legs. In my swing, I rely a lot on my lower half. A sense of balance and generating power from my lower half is something I brought from the skating world.

“Speedskaters are trying to carry as little weight as possible in the upper body. I had zero muscle. When I tried to pick up a 31-ounce bat, it felt like a weighted bat, like I had a few donuts on the head. It was a building process. I lost a lot of strength and had to develop it. It’s been a huge catch-up game so far.”

Still, Alvarez spews optimism.

He sees his life as a “story of steps. Making the Olympic team. Getting to the Olympics. Medaling. Working out and getting ready to maybe sign professionally. To signing. It’s always been steps. The next step for me is somehow getting on that September roster. Whether it happens or not, that’s the goal. No one is going to outwork me. I’m not going to leave it up to that. That’s not going to happen.”

Baseball will be back as an Olympic sport four years from now in Tokyo. Alvarez has already accepted the challenge of reaching the Olympics as a baseball player.

“That is in the back of my mind—to be a rare two-sport Olympian—that would be unbelievable If I had the opportunity to represent—I would take it in a heartbeat.”

Alvarez will be 30 when the Tokyo Games open on July 24, 2020.

Until then, Alvarez will have to settle for another dream, that of following in the major league footsteps of one his favorite athletes as a kidHall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.

“I loved how little and agile he was at shortstop,” Alvarez said. “That’s the kind of game I want to play. I want to be remembered for those plays that seemed impossible.”

Oh, and here’s one more secret.  

“I can do backflips,” he said. “If I were to ever run on a major league field, I will do a backflip. Just like Ozzie.”


Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He tweets @BillSperos and @RealOBF.

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David Ortiz Selects Ultimate All-Star Team of His Era’s Biggest Stars

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz is going out with a big bang in his 20th and final major league season.

At the All-Star break, the 40-year-old Ortiz has 22 home runs, 72 RBI and has sucked opposing pitchers into a Black Hole with a .332/.426/.682 slash line and major-league best 1.107 OPS. He’s alone at No. 19 on the all-time major league home run list with 525 career “moon shots,” having recently passed Ted Williams, Willie McCovey and Frank Thomas.

Ortiz will start in his 10th All-Star Game on Tuesday night in San Diego. He took himself out of the Home Run Derby a couple of weeks ago, telling B/R “that’s for the guys in their 20s. It will wear you out, though.”

But he is eager to participate in the game itself. “We’re going to have fun and give the fans what they’re expecting. I’m going to take my couple of at-bats as usual. It’s not an obligation. The All-Star Game is for the fans to enjoy watching their favorite players. As players, we have to put on a good show so the fans can go home happy.”

Ortiz recently sat down with B/R in the visitor’s dugout at Tropicana Field and formed an all-time All-Star team of opponents he’s faced during his days with both the Minnesota Twins (1997 to 2002) and Red Sox (2003-present). Ortiz had roughly 15 minutes of prep time to ponder his selections. He spent that time in the batting cage whaling away at soft tosses and chatting with a few visiting friends.

Here’s his breakdown by position:

C, Ivan Rodriguez“Pudge was an outstanding hitter and an unbelievable catcher. How many Gold Gloves did he win? He was one of the best I’ve ever seen.” (Note: Rodriguez won 13 Gold Gloves.)

1B, Jim Thome/Carlos Delgado: “There’s a whole lot of choices there. During my time, it was two guys who dominated the game incredibly. Jim Thome and Carlos Delgado. It was ridiculous, the way they hit. What you came see with them is what you got.

“Coming up, I would always ask them questions. They had so many answers for me that made sense. Now, when the young players come up to me, I have the same answers. For example, when I asked them about hitting with men in scoring position, they gave me the sort of answer that boosted my confidence.”

2B, Robinson Cano: “I thought Chuck Knoblauch was the one player who I thought was going to dominate that position for a long time. But once you got to see [Dustin] Pedroia and Robinson Cano play, they took that position to another level. Looking at Cano, you’re looking at a third baseman playing second base with good range. He makes everything look like he’s not even trying.”

For the record, Ortiz and Pedroia have been teammates since the Boston second baseman broke into the majors in 2006. 

SS, Derek Jeter: “The Captain was a champ. He was the guy you want to play for your team at shortstop for the next 20 years. He had consistency over the years. He may go down as the best shortstop of all time because he won so many championships. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. That’s what it’s about. To compete against Jeter was incredible. I played against him tons of times. It was a competition. You wanted to beat him, but you enjoyed watching him do his thing. There was respect.”

Ortiz initially had another answer when the conversation moved to short.

“Before he moved to third base, Alex Rodriguez was the best,” Ortiz said. He quickly gave the nod to Jeter, when asked to compare the two. A-Rod’s full-time shift to third and Jeter’s five championships with the rival Yankees were his cited reasons.

3B, Adrian Beltre: “I’ve watched him at third base for a long time. I’ve been playing at this level for almost 20 years. I’m going way back to the guy I saw dominating for a long time. It’s crazy. If [Miguel] Cabrera hadn’t been moved to first base [originally in 2008], I would put him in the package, too. You have to be a fan of Beltre at third base, regardless. Beltre is a Hall of Famer to me; Cabrera the same thing.”

CF, Ken Griffey Jr.: “I saw Griffey play five or six years of my career. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. When it comes down to hitting, Griffey, since day one—it was stupid the way he hit. His swing was unique. I remember coming up as a kid—I’m sure a lot of guys wanted to hit like him, and you can’t.”

RF, Torii Hunter: “Another one of the best. Griffey and Torii have something in common: They cover way too much ground out there, a ridiculous amount of ground. Once Torii figured out the hitting, he became one of the top 10 hitters in the game.”

LF, Barry Bonds: “I don’t care about the baggage. He was the best hitter I’ve ever seen. The best. He didn’t miss pitches. Doesn’t matter if you throw him 65 or a 105. There was no rush in his swing. I hear other things people say about it. This and that, blah, blah, blah. He was special. Barry’s swing was so short and compact. You’re not going to find many videos of Barry being fooled by a pitch. It was unbelievable. Without a doubt, he’s the best hitter I’ve ever played against. No one can match his numbers. His numbers are ridiculous.

“I totally understand the perceptions people have about him. But I don’t think anything that can make you that good. That’s how I feel. Before all that crap came out about him, he was a Hall of Famer already. He was a 400 [home run]/400 [stolen bases] guy. That’s what I feel. I don’t know what people say behind the scenes, blah, blah, blah. I’m talking about the guy I saw on the field do what he’s done from the first day I saw him until the last day he played.

“You still have to do everything. I’m not saying that it’s OK to go out there and use stuff that’s not legal, but there’s something special about him that no one will ever have. When he was playing with Pittsburgh, he was beyond everybody already. Beyond everybody. That’s something people should think about. This guy was legit since day one.”

The so-called “baggage” carried by Bonds also extends to Ortiz. 

Ortiz’s name was included on a leaked list of players who tested positive for banned substances during MLB‘s pilot testing program back in 2003. Ortiz maintains he never knowingly took any banned substances, has never tested positive since the pilot program and told B/R “nothing makes you hit.”

Bonds’ name, meanwhile, has become synonymous with performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Bonds was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 for allegedly lying to a grand jury during the BALCO investigations. The perjury charges were dropped following a mistrial, and an obstruction of justice conviction was overturned in 2015.

DH, Edgar Martinez: “He’s the one DH who impressed me the most. I got to see him play a little bit in my career. I saw Edgar hit a ball that start foul and ended up fair. That’s how good his hands were inside the ball. The man made hitting too easy.”

SP, Pedro Martinez: “Definitely the best. He was not fun to face, especially early in my career. I faced Pedro in his prime. His stuff was stupid.”

Ortiz struck out six times and scratched out three hits including a home run in 17 career at-bats (.176 average) against Martinez while he was with the Twins.

The Dominican duo of Ortiz and Martinez were pivotal in helping the Red Sox end their 86-year World Series drought in 2004. In 2015, Martinez became just the second player born in the Dominican Republic, joining Juan Marichal, to enter the Hall of Fame.

RP: Mariano Rivera: “He had one pitch [his cut fastball]. You knew it was coming, but it didn’t make a difference.”

Ortiz fared far better against Rivera, knocking out 13 hits and one home run in 38 at-bats (.342 average).

He said being a part of Rivera’s final All-Star Game in 2013 was his favorite All-Star moment. In that contest at Citi Field in New York, Rivera walked onto an empty field to the blaring sounds of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and pitched a perfect one-two-three inning in the bottom of the eighth.

“That moment was special. As a player, it was something you never forget about,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz clearly has respect for the Yankees teams he went toe-to-toe with in countless high-pressure battles, as he selected Jeter, Cano and Rivera. The Yankees beat Boston to win the ALCS in seven games in 2003. The Red Sox responded a year later by becoming the first major-league team to erase a 3-0 deficit in the postseason, beating the Yankees 4-3 in the 2004 ALCS. Ortiz hit .387 in that series with three home runs and 11 RBI. 

All in all, Big Papi’s All-Star lineup carries a strong Latin flair, boasts an asterism of brilliant Hall of Fame-caliber numbers and favors those who played a majority of their careers at one position. Every selection also has at least 12 years of MLB service, so his fellow veterans get the respect for doing it over a long career.

Who are your biggest snubs? 


Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He Tweets @RealOBF and @BillSperos.

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Red Sox’s Bradley, Betts, and Bogaerts Give MLB a New-Age ‘Killer B’s’

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.  The Houston Astros had them in the 1990s.

The Miami Dolphins had them in the 1980s.

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” had them in the 1970s.

They are “Killer B’s.”

There’s a 21st-century group of baseball Killer B’s in Boston that consist of two outfielders and a shortstop who are lumped together thanks to the alliteration resonant in their last names, overflowing offensive statistics and exceptional talent.

They have been so good, they’ve been honored with that same nickname famously carried in the majors by that 1990’s Astros trio of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Derek Bell.

Right fielder Mookie Betts, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and shortstop Xander Bogaerts are significant elements inside the Red Sox hive. They also happen to represent 33.3 percent of the American League’s starting lineup in July 12’s All-Star Game.

These Killer B’s have also been critical to keeping the uneven Red Sox in contention this season, especially in the wake of a horrid 10-16 June. 

Equally noteworthy for the Red Sox bottom line is that the three combined will earn less in 2016 than what Boston will pay Manny Ramirez this season.

That’s the same Manny Ramirez Boston dealt at the trade deadline in 2008, right before Betts entered his sophomore year of high school in Nashville, Tennessee. Ramirez is getting $1.993 million deferred, while the money for these B’s combined is a mere $1.763 million.

The troika has created plenty of buzz throughout baseball to earn its All-Star slots. Among the highlights of note you may or may not be aware of:

1. Bradley possesses “special” and “extraordinary” instincts in the outfield, thinks Boston’s Green Monster is “more hype than substance” and strung together a 29-game hitting streak that ran until May 26.

2. Bogaerts is a top-five hitter in the AL with a .332 average, rates second with 115 hits and has been engaged in a season-long World Cup of sorts in FIFA 16 on PlayStation with Red Sox minor league shortstop Mauricio Dubon.

3. Betts tops the AL in total bases, stands No. 2 in runs, ranks third in hits behind Bogaerts and Jose Altuve, and is “100 percent committed” in working toward getting more African-American kids to play baseball.

Playing and hittingliterallyin the middle of this All-Star hive of divergent Red Sox talent is second baseman Dustin Pedroia. He’s found a steady compatriot with Bogaerts to his left and defensive stability with the duo of Betts and Bradley covering his six.

“With Jackie and Mookie, it’s like we have two center fielders,” Pedroia told Bleacher Report last week. “Those guys can go get the ball. They can throw. They’re moving together. It definitely shrinks every outfield when those guys are out there. Whenever a guy makes a good defensive play, or throws someone out, it lifts the whole team.”

Pedroia’s combative and feisty playing style carries into the locker room. A random mention of Red Sox minor league second baseman Yoan Moncada triggered a partially sarcastic outburst of indignation as a prelude to one interview. “He’d better find a new position or he’ll be in [Triple-A] until he’s 40.”

About 36 hours earlier, Pedroia had delivered another stinger when a reporter asked what was said during a visit to the mound when he chewed out pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez during Boston’s humiliating 13-7 loss on June 27. “What did I say to Eddie? Do you honestly think I’m going to tell you that?” Pedroia asked and answered with equal incredulity.

His assessment and praise of Bogaerts as a shortstop are delivered with the same blunt sincerity and impact.

“We’re always communicating. The back-and-forth is how you play defense,” Pedroia said. “Xander has gotten a lot better at understanding the speed of the game. He’s got more experience with positioning because he’s played more games. The more games you play, the more comfortable you get with guys’ tendencies; where they hit the ball, where they swing past and things like that.

“At that position, it’s very important to understand where to play. He’s taken to that, and he’s putting himself in the right spot. Now he’s a game-changer on defense. He makes all the plays. He makes the great plays, and we’re pretty fortunate to have him.”

Pedroia is a study in perpetual motion on the field. His verbal and non-verbal chatter spreads across a 180-degree arc. Bogaerts is a chief beneficiary.

“With Xander, we’re on the same page during the game,” Pedroia said. “If he sees something with a right-handed hitter on a swing, and he thinks he’s going to hit the ball, he’ll tell me to scoot up the middle and I’ll scoot over.”

Bogaerts and Betts are, as noted by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, the first duo of Red Sox All-Star starters aged 23 or under since Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr in 1941.

Markus Lynn Betts (yes, MLB) originally also played second base in the minors and was converted to outfield full time during his rise to Boston. Bradley played all three outfield positions last season, while Betts bounced between center and right.

The decision to anchor Bradley in center and Betts in right was made in the offseason. Due to injuries and poor play, the Red Sox have used seven different players in left field during 2016.

Boston outfield coach Ruben Amaro Jr. was once the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. He’s aware of the potential pitfalls when moving players between positions.

“There’s a very close bond there. They have a real mutual respect for each other. Mookie could be playing center field for any team. He would rather play in one spot than bounce around all the time. He could have complained. But that’s not how he is,” Amaro told B/R.

Bradley’s ability to be in the right spot to catch a ball, or reach it just in time, has not gone unnoticed by his outfield coach or second baseman.

“Jackie has an instinct that is very difficult to quantify,” Amaro said. “He does things that the real extraordinary players do. I’ve had a chance to watch Andruw Jones and Garry Maddox as a youngster. I’ve had a chance to watch some really instinctive, fabulous playersa Devon White comes to mind. You can put Jackie in that category because he has a nose for the ball that you just cannot explain. That’s special.

“A little bit like guys like the Ozzie Smiths and Omar Vizquels of the world at shortstop. You watch them play shortstop and say, ‘That’s different from everyone else.’ Those instincts better manifest themselves in center. In our ballpark, you need two center fielders. In Philadelphia, we had Jayson Werth in right and Shane Victorino in center. It was ideal. Here, we have a situation where it was right for the team, and these guys knew it.”

When Pedroia follows anything hit above his head, he too notices Bradley doing special stuff. “His anticipation of things, of swings, his instincts are pretty special. He’s always putting himself in the right spot.”

For Bradley, Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster is toothless. Boston’s 37-foot-high left field jets out from the third-base foul line to the 379-foot mark in left-center field. Its remnants meet the edge of Boston’s bullpen in right-center to form Boston’s Triangle. The Triangle’s apex is 420 feet from home plate.

“Center field seems huge because there’s more space in right-center, but I would say it’s less space because of the wall. Playing the wall isn’t as hard as people make it seem,” Bradley told B/R. “If it’s over your head, let it hit the wall and catch it off the wall. If not, you try and make the catch. Definitely a lot more hype than substance. What’s the big deal about the wall? Guess what? It’s just like any other wall. If you can’t get to it, it’s going to bounce off just like any other wall. Just be ready to catch it off the wall.

“We try to preach to our guys to be aggressive. If a ball hits the wall, it’s basically a double anyway. So why not see if you can try and cut him to a single? It’s not supposed to be a single anyway. You just got a ball hit over your head.”

Inside the offices of the Red Sox Class A affiliate in Salem, Virginia, you’ll see posters of all three Killer B’s along with several other players on this year’s team who once played there. The farm system stocked by then-GM Theo Epstein and his protege Ben Cherington had Bradley and Bogaerts playing together at the Class A level in 2012. Betts joined the duo at the major league level with Boston in 2014.  

“Jackie was my first roommate [in major league spring training]. We just bonded because we’re young and came up at the same time. Bogey as well,” Betts told B/R.

Bogaerts told B/R that familiarity breeds esteem. “It makes it a lot more easier coming up together. You know the person. If he’s going through a struggle, you remind him that ‘you can make this kind of play’ and tell them to go back to the kind of guy he was and don’t try to be something else. We enjoy playing the game. We always want to help each other. No matter how good or bad, we always want to help.”

The mixed bounty of offensive superlatives produced by the Killer B’s has given rise to and been driven by fellow All-Star David Ortiz’s historic (thus far) final season.

The abilities of Betts (.339 OBP), Pedroia (.369) and Bogaerts (.393) to reach base often allow designated hitter Ortiz to draw gimme walks or face a beleaguered hurler from the stretch.

This season, the 40-year-old Ortiz is slashing at a Teddy Ballgame-like .337/.429/.677 pace, topping the AL stat sheet with a head-spinning 1.106 OPS and 34 doubles.

“There’s not anything they can’t do once they get in the box,” Pedroia said of Betts, Bradley and Bogaerts. “Offensively, if you’re preparing [for them], you know they’re going to get their hits. You just want them to hit singles. That’s why type of players they are. They’re going to get their hits. They’re going to get on base. You just want to limit the damage. Sometimes you can’t. That’s how good they are.”

Bees, by nature, assume preordained roles and strive for uniformity. Not so in the Red Sox clubhouse. Boston’s baseball B’s deliver a striking contrast in terms of background, skills and pregame attire.


‘Where the Soul Patrol Roams’


Betts, 23, and Bradley, 26, have formed the core of Boston’s Soul Patrol, denoted by specialty T-shirts worn underneath their uniforms.

The moniker pays tribute to the African-American heritage of the two outfielders. To become a member of the Red Sox Soul Patrol, all you have to do is play or coach outfield for the Red Sox. Players of all races and ethnic backgrounds are welcomed.

Before one game here last week, Amaro, too, was wearing his Soul Patrol shirt.

The Red Sox experienced the unique occurrence of having an all-African-American outfield when Chris Young (now on the 15-day disabled list) played left for 40 games this season. The Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, waiting a dozen years after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 arrival in the bigs.

Twice in this century (in 2005 and 2009), as noted by Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald, the Red Sox had only one black position player on their roster during the season.

In 1981, nearly 19 percent of the players in the majors were black. By Opening Day 2015, that number had fallen below 8 percent, according to The Washington Post‘s Barry Svrluga.

“We’ve got some old souls on the team. We wanted to share the fact this year that the number of African-American ballplayers were declining in the majors. We wanted to let people know, show our support and hope that the numbers go up,” Bradley, who grew up in Virginia, said. “We’re just doing this and having fun. It’s kind of our own deal. We’re not making any big deal about it. Just wearing the shirts and having fun.”

Both Betts and Bradley were inspired by a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in May during a road trip to Kansas City.

“You don’t see it muchthree black outfielders,” Betts said. “There were so many guys who played, really good guys who played, and you only hear about one or two. But there were so many who make an impact, who paved the way to where we are now. There’s so many you can think about, like Josh Gibson, I didn’t know he passed so early (Gibson died in 1947 at age 35). Going to the museum, it opened my eyes to the fact that this opportunity we have now, we have to take advantage of it. I am 100 percent committed to helping get more African-American kids to play.”

Among the names Betts said he learned about by visiting the museum was “Mr. Larry Doby,” who became the first black player in the American League 69 years ago this week with the Cleveland Indians. Another was Sam “The Jet” Jethroe. He was both the National League Rookie of the Year in 1950 and the first-ever black major league ballplayer in Beantown playing for the then-Boston Braves.

Fenway Park is located a mere 1.3 miles from the location of the former Braves Field. Yet it would take another nine years before the Red Sox finally skulked past the color barrier by adding Pumpsie Green to their roster in 1959.

“That’s crazy,” Betts said.

Soul Patrol” was also coincidentally the name of a noteworthy all-black unit of the Boston Police Department that existed from 1971-72.

The Red Sox bear a scarred not-so-recent and somewhat-recent past when it comes to integration and the development and assimilation of black players. Betts, however, said he feels no added pressure or discomfort because of his race while playing in Boston in 2016.

“That doesn’t register. What registers is not playing well. In Boston, when you’re not playing well, they let you know. No matter who you are, they’re going to let you know. I don’t know if being African-American makes it worse. Probably not now.”

Hall of Famer Jim Rice played in Boston during the racially charged and polarized 1970s and ‘80s and currently works for NESN as a part-time in-studio analyst. He’s also a constant presence at spring training in Fort Myers, Florida. Rice is the only African-American ballplayer who played his entire career with the Red Sox to be enshrined in Cooperstown, New York.

His reception to the Soul Patrol was muted, according to Betts and Bradley. “Not really,” was Bradley’s response if Rice had talked to them about it. 

“No matter what skin color you are or where you’re from, you have to play the game and respect the game. He really hasn’t said much about it. His mindset is ‘you have to play the game’ and let that other stuff take care of itself,” Betts added.

The Soul Patrol shirts are designed and produced by 20-year-old Californian Kabir Chimni and his Sports Swag company.

Chimni first connected with Bradley on Twitter when the Red Sox outfielder was playing for the University of South Carolina. “Jackie reached out to me to design some Soul Patrol shirts for him, Mookie and the rest of the outfield in spring training. For the design, I wanted something that really popped and that’s where the spiky edge came to it. I put the Soul Patrol text in the outfield, as that’s where the Soul Patrol roams,” Chimni told B/R via email.


The World Cup That Never Ends


Bogaerts’ pregame shirt of choice is a modified Lionel Messi Barcelona home jersey. His affinity for soccer goes back to his days as a boy in Aruba. The multilingual (English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento) shortstop has found an apprentice of sorts in Honduras-born Dubon, who was recently promoted to Boston’s Double-A affiliate in Portland, Maine.

Bogaerts is also a client of Scott Boras, which means Dubon could be his replacement in 2020 if/when the Yankees sign Bogaerts for $350 million over 10 years.

Until then, expect the two to log another few thousand hours battling on the digital pitch long-distance.

“We lived together in spring training. We play a lot. Since he’s a shortstop like me, we like the same stuff and do a lot of the same stuff. I just dedicate a little more time at that than him. I play it a lot,” Bogaerts said.

That dedication has paid off in their unofficial standings.

“Out of the whole [Red Sox] system. The only guy who beat me in FIFA is the other No. 2 [Bogaerts],” Dubon told B/R. “We play whenever we can. We talk a lot. He helps me out a lot with fielding and hitting. He helps out big-time.”

Bogaerts won’t be helping Dubon in FIFA 16 again any time soon.

“I don’t keep a running tally because I know it’s always me winning. Pretty much. He started getting a nice streak of three games in a row. I gave him some tips, then he started to beat me. I won’t be giving him any more tips. I got back winning again. You struggle in PlayStation like you do in baseball. Trust me.”

The PlayStation FIFA 16 style of Bogaerts mirrors his real-life MLB 2016 approach: Focus on offense without being too aggressive.

“Offense. Score. Score. Scoring. I don’t like tie games. You have to score goals to win the game,” Bogaerts said. “It’s no different than when I’m at the plate. No one is going to sit around and give you a base hit. The scorer is not going to give you it. You have to go out there and try to get one every at-bat.”


Practice, Practice, Practice


All three B’s have experienced batting slumps of various lengths in the past two seasons.

Bogaerts said patience and preparation have been critical in turning things around. Betts joined Pedroia and Travis Shaw for early batting practice here five hours before game time on June 28. “I was slumping. I needed it,” Betts said.

Bogaerts’ 2016 FanGraphs spray chart is evenly balanced when it comes to line drives and fly balls. There’s a heavy tilt leftward when it comes to grounders and home runs (eight of his nine HRs have been hit to that side).

“I’ve been hitting a lot of balls to left field because of the way they have been pitching to me. Using the whole field is probably the biggest part (of why he’s hitting well), because sometimes teams are trying to shift you. That leaves a big open hole at second base, so you want to just shoot the ball right there. I was talking to Mookie about it when some teams started shifting him. He got a few knocks, just little ground balls that got through. They should have been out, but they were hits.”

While bees are born and bred into a lifetime of performing a singular, repetitive task, Boston’s Killer B’s never stop learningat least when it comes to baseball.  

“You’ve got to notice it. That’s why the videos are important. That’s why in between at-bats are important. You have to know how they got you out and know how they throw you. It’s all about the work done in between at-bats and realizing what they’re doing with you,” Bogaerts said.

The entire baseball world will see all that buzz and perseverance showcased next week in San Diego.


Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He tweets @BillSperos and @RealOBF.

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Yoan Moncada Can’t Stop the Hype: ‘He’s Got a Following Everywhere We Go’

SALEM, Va. — Children are everywhere.

Some are running on the grass behind the first base stands at Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium. A handful are playing whiffle ball inside a miniature version of Fenway Park, complete with a diminutive Green Monster, near the main entrance. Others are eating ice cream and hot dogs.

A few are even watching baseball.

The Salem Red Sox are offering the irresistible Carolina League allure of potential future superstars, reasonably priced family fun, Friday night fireworks and Mayberry Deputy Night. A Chamber of Commerce evening in this city of 25,432 at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains has helped generate the second-biggest crowd of the year (5,727).

The main attraction on the field on this June 3 is Salem second baseman and leadoff hitter Yoan Moncada. Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen likened the muscular 6’2″, 205-pound Cuban-born Moncada to Bo Jackson this past March.

By the time he bats in the bottom of the seventh, Moncada has raised his batting average 22 points to .309 in just over 27 hours. Moncada dynamited his way out of a 4-for-30 slump by slamming seven doubles over three games, reaching base 11 times and scoring six runs.

Boston Red Sox principal owner John Henry’s $63 million investment appears sound.

The “Legend of Yoan Moncada,” meanwhile, continues to prosper.

Back on this at-bat in Salem, Moncada draws a walk on four pitches. He scores the tying run as Salem erases a six-run deficit in an 11-10 victory. He finishes the game 3-for-3 (all doubles) with two walks and his 32nd steal of the season.

“He’s in scoring position when he’s on first base,” said Salem shortstop Mauricio Dubon, who hopes to become the first Honduran-born player to reach the big leagues since Gerald Young. Moncada and Dubon earned spots on the Carolina League All-Star team that will play its California League counterparts in the Golden State on Tuesday. But he won’t play in that All-Star Game. Instead, he’ll be with the Class AA Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs after being promoted Sunday night. 

“I love running. It’s one of my biggest assets. Believe it or not, I practice running during the day and during batting practice. That’s what I do. I run, run, as far as I can,” said Moncada, who was born in Abreus, Cuba. “Growing up, I was always the fastest one among my friends and classmates.”

He told B/R in March his goal for the season is to “steal 100 bases.” 

After this game, the switch-hitting Moncada is missing from the clubhouse. He has decided to stay in the dugout to watch those promised fireworks and then sign autographs for fans and would-be entrepreneurs who found the fortitude to stay through it all.

A week after his 21st birthday, he’s the biggest kid in the stadium.

Legends are often born from a mixture of fantasy and reality.

Moncada’s past and potential offer a tantalizing mix of both.

Playing baseball in Cuba as a teenager, Moncada made $4 each month and walked or hitchhiked to his games with Cienfuegos. Moncada did not defect. Rather, he received the necessary clearance from Cuba’s Serie Nacional, the Cuban military and the Castro government before leaving his home country. His “mysterious” journey to the United States included a stop in Guatemala.

Moncada wasn’t offering any more details on how he left Cuba. His current agent, Gulfport, Florida, CPA David Hastings told B/R in March he did not come to represent Moncada until after his arrival in the United States in 2014.

The Red Sox smothered the Dodgers and Yankees by offering Moncada a $31.5 million signing bonus in 2015. Boston’s cost then doubled because it exceeded its international spending pool. The topic of money and his well-documented affinity for customized luxury cars follows Moncada throughout the Carolina League.

When he comes to the plate during games at nearby Lynchburg, Virginia, Pink Floyd’s “Money” blares over the stadium’s PA system.

“He’s got a following everywhere we go,” said Salem manager and former major league catcher Joe Oliver. “That’s very unique for a minor leaguer.” 

Before all three Salem games B/R was present for, Moncada signed autographs for anyone who asked once he finished batting practice.

One autograph seeker was 13-year-old Nick Nauseef, who came to watch the Red Sox from his home in North Carolina with a family friend. Moncada autographed a game-used bat from another league contest for the young teen before a scheduled doubleheader.“He’s big,” Nauseef said.

Most legends are.

Red Sox Nation has a strong foothold here. Among the players on the current Boston Red Sox roster who once played in Salem are Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Travis Shaw and Christian Vazquez.

The hype generated by Moncada swept through the Carolina League, infecting fans from just outside the Washington Beltway in Woodbridge, Va., to the bustling South Carolina beach burg of Myrtle Beach. Neither Portland nor the rest of the Eastern League stand a chance against this Cuban-born contagion. 

Red Sox fan Ray LaPrade lives near Salem. 

He captured Moncada’s initial Carolina League grand slam on video.

The hype surrounding Moncada and former Salem outfielder Andrew Benintendi has drawn LaPrade and his wife here several times this season. “People are realizing that Boston is actually utilizing the farm system, and we’re going to see future MLBers playing in Salem,” he said. “I think a lot of folks, including myself, haven’t really paid a ton of attention to minor leaguers until they’re at [Triple-A] Pawtucket [Rhode Island].”

He and his wife had a chance encounter with Moncada at a restaurant in nearby Roanoke after a recent weekend game.

“I recognized him instantly. I shook his hand, told him I couldn’t wait to see him at Fenway, which prompted a huge smile,” LePrade said. “He was really nice. I recalled notes about his physical stature, and it really set in being that close. Twenty-one-year-olds weren’t built like that when I was 21. He’s really filled out and has quite a set of arms. This guy looks more like a strong safety enforcer than a baseball player.”

Legends are never perfect.

In 61 games with High-A Salem this season, Moncada slashed .307/.427/.496 with 25 doubles, 36 steals and 57 runs scored. He’d also struck out 60 times in 228 at-bats and made 11 errors. He would homer in his Class A finale Sunday.

“He’s improving on both sides of the ball,” Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett told B/R via email. “He’s been really focused to his cage routines to keep him consistent offensively where he can impact the game with his on-base skills, power and speed, while staying committed to his daily defensive work to maximize his great athleticism at the position.”

Moncada reiterated in two interviews during B/R’s three-day visit to Salem the importance of practicing the same routines daily. Dubon and coach Angel Berroa translated his conversations with B/R.

“I’m working hard every day and trying to get better. I am doing the same thing in the cage every day. I’m just trying to be consistent on the plate and keep working. There are no real difficult or specific areas where I think I have failed,” Moncada said. “The level of baseball this year is harder, but it’s the same baseball game. I’m not changing anything but trying to be better.”

Oliver said Moncada’s natural swing “is to the center of the field.” Of the seven aforementioned doubles, he hit two to left field, three to center and two to right. A 20-foot-high wall runs across the entire outfield here. “To hit the top of the fence in the opposite field [referencing a double to left that bounced atop the fence past the 325-foot mark] shows you how strong he is,” Oliver said.

That same double would have landed in the Monster seats at Fenway Park.

Moncada’s love of running has gotten him in trouble. He was thrown out trying to go from first to third on a ground ball during one of three games watched here. Two nights later, he scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch in the ninth inning.

“It’s a learning curve. He’s coming over here, and he’s starting to find out there are good ballplayers on every club we play,” Oliver said. “He’s still trying to find himself as a player. He has the potential to be a power guy. He’s already a speed guy. He has to get acclimated to the speed and abilities to a lot of the other teams. Now, his speed is just outrunning it. He’s up to speed in two or three steps. It’s just amazing how quick he’s able to get going.”

Curating and developing Moncada’s still-raw abilities and talent remains the priority for the Red Sox. Salem wrapped up the first half of the Carolina League season with a 43-26 record and clinched its first first-half Southern Division championship since 1988.

“Our main job is to develop. Winning is kind of secondary. Right now, these guys are playing well together, and we’re winning. But the ultimate goal is to develop. We’ve already moved some guys up to Portland, and these guys haven’t missed a beat,” Oliver said.

Transitioning the ball out of his glove to make a flip to second or a throw to first consistently remains a shortcoming with Moncada. Berroa begins his pregame fielding drills with Moncada by rolling the ball toward him and having him shovel it toward second base.

Crockett hinted Moncada may not be a second baseman forever.

“We believe Yoan can be a very good defender at second base with tremendous athleticism. As most players progress in their minor league career, we commonly expose them to multiple positions as they reach the highest levels in an attempt to make them versatile to fit major league opportunity,” Crockett wrote to B/R. “At this point, we are focused on second base with Yoan, but like others in our organization, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some versatility down the road.”

Barely 21 and with a scant 142 professional games in the United States, Moncada spreads the ball with authority to all fields and follows with torrid speed to each base.

“We have some pretty good young players playing in Boston now who possessed raw tools and had much success during their ascent to the big leagues, but certainly Yoan has a physicality and unique skill set of speed and power that can impact a game,” wrote Crockett, a Harvard University grad and former minor league pitcher once drafted by the Red Sox. Crockett has been with Boston’s front office since 2006.

Outfielder and designated hitter Benintendi got his call-up to Portland from Salem after just 34 games this season, thanks in part to his .976 OPS and then-Carolina League-leading 46 hits.

“Many factors are taken into account for promotions, including performance and dependability in all facets of the game, physical and fundamental, progress on a specific adjustment, etc.,” Crockett wrote. “Each case is taken individually. Yoan has been focused on improving his defensive consistency and two-strike approach.”

Some legends fly. Others, such as Moncada, are still earthbound.

In Salem, Moncada drove a modified BMW X6M Lumma widebody from his apartment to the players’ parking lot behind LewisGale Field.

In what may be the best omen of a future in Boston with the Red Sox, Moncada cruised past a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Massachusetts icon, during his 18-minute commute to and from the ballpark. Likely more important to Moncada is the fact there are three Chipotle restaurants in Portland, including one located less than a mile from Sea Dogs Park.

Chipotle is his favorite eatery.

Teammate Carlos Mesa, 28, is also from Cuba. He and Moncada shared a two-bedroom apartment in Salem with Deiner Lopez, a native of Venezuela. Moncada and Mesa each have their own bedrooms. Lopez sleeps on the couch.

Mesa is the resident cook.

“I’m not a very good cook,” Moncada said. “Mesa. Mesa. Mesa. He cooks for us.”

“Yoan likes rice and beans every single day,” Chef Mesa said. “And the meat is either chicken, beef or pork. No spices. Yoan doesn’t like spices.”

But he does love the flavor of Chipotle. Their Chipotle of choice is less than 10 minutes away.

“The first time me and Yoan went for the Chipotle, we were in a rush and had to get to practice. I said we need to get some fast food. I told him we should try it. He asked if it was spicy. Yoan ate some, and he said, ‘Ahh, it’s too spicy. I don’t like it,’” Mesa said.

Fast-forward a few weeks. “Now, Yoan likes the Chipotle every single day. Every day. Since it’s close to the apartment, Yoan will say: ‘Carlos, are you cooking today? I can go for the Chipotle.’ Yoan loves Chipotle now.”

Salem boasts a rarity in Southwestern Virginia—an authentic Cuban restaurant called El Cubanito. It’s become a trendy spot on the Carolina League dining circuit. On the day Moncada failed to show for a scheduled noon meeting, about a dozen members of the visiting Myrtle Beach Pelicans coincidentally pulled up in the team bus for lunch.

“When he goes there, he eats the same things: rice, beans, pork, plantains. It’s very nice,” Mesa said.

Moncada apologized unprompted by the Red Sox for missing that meeting. “I overslept,” he said through Berroa. “I was so tired from [the previous night’s] doubleheader.”

The tree-lined, multi-two-story-building apartment complex where Moncada lived was spartan by $31.5 million signing-bonus standards. It is flush with families, single people and retirees. It has a pool. Three schools are nearby. It’s well-maintained and sprawling but otherwise unremarkable. It could just as easily be in Salem, Oregon; Salem, New Hampshire; or Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Two-bedroom units run about $850 a month, but the complex is offering a $200 move-in special. Luckily for Moncada and his roommates, short-term leases are available.

Moncada spends his down time either sleeping, playing video games, surfing Instagram, watching TV or eating. PlayStation is the unofficial console of choice for the Salem Red Sox. FIFA 16 and MLB The Show 16 are played almost exclusively. Moncada said he usually goes solo, but his teammates will play against each other. Dubon reigns as the Salem Red Sox PlayStation FIFA 16 champion.

“I’ve practiced with him a long time. I’ve pitched for him. I have a good relationship. He’s my best friend,” Mesa said of Moncada. Mesa spoke almost exclusively in English, with some assistance in translation from Berroa. “I help him with baseball. I help him get going in the morning and make sure he’s ready and on time for practice. Everything. Every time.”

Mesa has been officially on Salem’s seven-day disabled list all season and has yet to play in 2016. 

Moncada and Mesa share the same agent, and the Red Sox signed them at the same time. Mesa came with a $300,000 price tag. Moncada initially lived with Hastings and his wife, Jo, after coming to the U.S. Mesa frequented Jo Hastings’ Habana Cafe restaurant near St. Petersburg, Florida, during spring training when he was with the Pirates.

That connection with Jo Hastings led to the friendship between Mesa and Moncada. Eventually, Mesa and his family joined Moncada in living at the Hastings’ Gulfport home, which included an unused apartment. Moncada and Mesa now have their own Florida homes nearby.

They, however, are not necessairly a package deal if now that Moncada has been called to Portland.

“Yoan has good coaches and trainers here. We are like a family,” Mesa said before Sunday’s callup. “And he will have good coaches in Portland or Pawtucket. Portland will be a great opportunity for him. This is all about him making it to the majors. That’s what we all want.”

Added Crockett, “We see each player individually, and they’ll follow their own best path.”

Legends speak with deeds. Moncada, however, remains determined to learn English.

“I learn a lot by listening. I’ve learned more by having conversations with the American players that I know well and feel comfortable with. I don’t know a lot yet. I feel more comfortable speaking English with people I know,” Moncada said.

Deanna McNaughton, 22, is a Red Sox fan who grew up in New Hampshire. She majored in Spanish and graduated from Roanoke College in Salem. During his time in Salem, she taught English as a second language to Moncada and three teammates (schedule permitting) between six and eight times a month. Each class lasted about an hour.

“I love watching baseball. I love the Red Sox. For me, dream job doesn’t even begin to describe it,” she told B/R. The players—Moncada, German Taveras, Franklin Guzman and Rafael Devers—range in age from 19 to 23. They are contractually required to make an effort to learn English.

“They’re all so young. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them on track. But they understand why they’re in the class. They know they can’t play major league ball if they can’t talk to the media. They are so motivated. They will try to repeat anything and everything. If I say something ridiculous, they will repeat it,” McNaughton said. “When you hear them talking, you know they are frustrated. There are things they want to say in English but can’t. They’re also looking for better communication as teammates and friends.”

In one recent class, the topic was naming body parts and how to properly explain injuries and other ailments to coaches and trainers. “Saying things like: ‘They hurt.’ ‘They burn.’ ‘I think something may be broken.’ Important things they can communicate with trainers and coaches. It’s important to know the difference between ‘knee’ and ‘elbow.’”

McNaughton said Moncada has been a solid student and, at times, knows more than he demonstrates.

“His biggest challenge is not being shy. We’re working on building up confidence when he uses English. When he’s unsure about something, you can tell. When he’s comfortable and confident, he won’t hold back. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. Which can be good or bad.”

Tavares, Guzman and Devers are from the Dominican Republic. Not all versions of Spanish are created equal. “There’s a lot of difference between the Spanish spoken in Cuba and the Spanish spoken in the DR,” McNaughton said. “A lot of it has to do with the influence of Haitian and Creole. There are different accents. Different words for the same thing. There’s also a difference between the rural versus urban.”

The classes were held around lunchtime and before the players have to report for the day. Often, Moncada and the others would arrive with takeout from Sheetz, a regional convenience store/gas station chain that offers on-site items prepared to go. “They eat so much. They’ll walk in with bags of food. Stuff like burritos. And coffee.”

There are no grades or formal evaluations. The players will write a sentence after each class to show what they learned using as much of that day’s vocabulary. There’s also homework.

“A lot of the English words derive from Latin roots, and a lot of those words are in Spanish. With English, there are certain things you learn just because English is that way. There’s no logical or common sense,” McNaughton said. “They want to learn the baseball-related vocabulary and how to make a conversation out of isolated words.”

Oliver speaks “Spanglish.” The Salem manager’s biggest concern is that nuanced meaning of what he may say to a player doesn’t cross the linguistic divide. “The inflection of things. Maybe you’re taken out of context,” he said. “Typically, you try to find a coach, or better yet a player, who can translate and find the exact message you’re trying to make. Words cannot translate sometimes.”

Dubon, 21, was educated in a bilingual school in Honduras and played high school baseball in California. He was the in-house translator of choice for Moncada and remains so for his Spanish-speaking teammates.

“I know it’s hard coming from another place. Different place. Different languages. I try to make the job easier for them. It’s hard,” Dubon said.

“Yoan is doing really well. When he came here last year, he had no clue. I told him not to be afraid and that he will make mistakes. I still make mistakes. I tell him not to worry,” Dubon said. “The clubhouse is incredible. You have American guys trying to speak Spanish. You have Latin guys trying to speak English. People don’t see that. That’s why our chemistry is so good.”

Nuance is important, though, even among friends. “The jokes are hard. There are certain things they can joke about,” McNaughton said. “It’s very hard to say something sarcastically. There is a very different sense type of humor in Latin American countries. When they’re speaking English, a lot of it is establishing that it is a joke.”

Legends generally walk alone.

There was no visible friction in the Red Sox clubhouse between the multimillionaire Moncada and his not-so-multimillionaire teammates. “We all get along,” Moncada said. “There are no problems.”

Those closest to Moncada’s heart live hundreds or thousands of miles away from the Salem Red Sox clubhouse. They will be even further away when Moncada is in Maine.  The short list includes his parents and sister in Cuba, his surrogate family of David and Jo Hastings in Florida, and his 22-month-old son, Robinson.

The boy was named in honor of Robinson Cano, who is Moncada’s baseball role model. He lives with his mother, Nicole Banks, in West Covina, California.

Yoan Moncada has not seen his parents in two years. He said they have never seen him play professionally in the United States either live, on television or via the Internet.

“All they have are the videos I send them,” he said.

Moncada speaks to his family in Cuba and Jo and David Hastings daily, either by phone or Skype.

“With my mom, I always ask her how she feels. And how are things going,” Moncada said. “With my dad, it’s different. He always asks me about baseball stuff. So I talk to him more about what happens on the field.”

Moncada’s sister will have her quinceanera in August. This special celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday in Latin culture dates back 2,500 years. It’s on Moncada’s mind in 2016. “Yoan is a good son,” Mesa said.

“When he speaks with [his sister], he’ll be asking: ‘What do you need? Do you have good shoes? Do you need a dress?’”

Expect the Moncada family quinceanera to be a blowout.

Moncada FaceTimes with his son two or three times a week. He is limited because of the time difference between Virginia and California, and his schedule.

“Yoan is 21. But when he FaceTimes, it’s like two little boys on the phone,” Mesa said. “The boy will yell ‘Hey,’ ‘Hey,’ and Yoan will say ‘Hey,’ ‘Hey’ right back,” Mesa said.

“When he’s had enough, Robinson says no and hangs up,” Banks added.

Moncada hasn’t seen his son in person since January. There were plans for him to see the boy this week given that the Carolina-California All-Star Game will be played in Lake Elsinore, an hour south of West Covina “Yoan is very disappointed. They were both looking forward to seeing each other,” said Banks before learning of Moncada’s call-up. She also has a six-year-old son.

Robinson Moncada can rake.

He doesn’t turn two until Sept. 11.

“The apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” Dubon said.

“Robinson literally is a spitting image of his father,” added Banks. “Both in his looks and his personality. He has so much drive. Robinson is out there practicing with [my son’s] six-year-old team. I can’t keep him off the field. When he’s at home, he’ll go into the garage. He puts the ball on the tee himself. He hits. He does it on his own. He went through three buckets of balls in 90 minutes the other day. At my [older] son’s practices, we call him the Bat Bandit. He will go through everyone’s bat bag to find one he can use.”

Banks said her youngest son also shares his father’s proclivity for flashy attire. “Yoan is very showy. Robinson is into shoes and clothes. It’s just his being. It’s funny. My older son is like me. This one is exactly like him.”

Banks’ name surfaced in several stories when Moncada arrived in America in 2014 and again when he was signed by the Red Sox in 2015. She worked with a California marketing company helping international players, including Cubans, complete and process the paperwork required to emigrate from their homelands with the hopes of eventually playing in the United States. 

Banks maintained to B/R she was not professionally associated with Moncada’s exit from Cuba and never formally worked with him. Her name remains on the incorporation papers of a player-marketing firm in Florida called “Baseball Divas” in Gulfport. Jo Hastings co-owns it. Banks told B/R she is no longer actively involved with the company.

“My relationship with Yoan was strictly romantic,” she said. The couple met in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2013. Moncada, then 18, was playing with the Cuban national team in the World Port Tournament. “Some things are meant to be. It’s weird how fate works,” she said.

In West Covina, Pony League play begins at age three. The players hit pitches from a machine.

“All the coaches at the pony park are fighting over who gets him next year,” Banks said.

Note to John Henry: Start saving now.

“Robinson is destined. He has that star in him,” his mom said. 

The greatest legends last forever.

Even with his rapid progression through the Red Sox farm system, Moncada’s baseball career will have a time limit. He does, however, have one special long-term goal before its over.

“I want my son to play professional baseball. I hope to be around long enough to be there when he comes up,” Moncada said.

“Like Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr.?” he is asked.

Moncada smiles.


No translation necessary.


Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for B/R. He can be reached at @BillSperos or @RealOBF.

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Ted Williams ‘Would Have Loved’ David Ortiz Hitting Home Run No. 521

The greatest hitter who ever lived” gave Claudia Williams a batting clinic that spanned two decades.

The only surviving child of Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams has emerged as a caretaker of his magnificent and complicated legacy. She, better than anyone else, can speculate with credibility on what her dad would think of Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz matching Williams’ career record of 521 home runs. 

Ortiz hit the milestone home run Friday night at Fenway Park during an 8-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners

“I see a lot of things in David Ortiz that I know my dad would have just loved,” Williams told Bleacher Report the day after she participated in a ceremony that retired Wade Boggs’ No. 26 in Boston. “Congratulations to him. I think it’s awesome.”

Being a child of Ted Williams, Claudia Williams wrote in Ted Williams, My Father: A Memoir, presented a tidal wave of challenges. They were the result of her parents’ divorce, Williams’ drive for perfection in everything and everyone, a volcanic temper and intense, profanity-filled outbursts at those closest to him.  It also gave her unmatched insight into Williams’ personality, character and, eventually, unfettered access to his brilliance when it came to hitting baseballs and catching fish. 

“People don’t realize it, but the daughter of Ted Williams watches swings. He’s got a great game. He’s got a great swing,” Claudia Williams, 44, told B/R when asked about Ortiz. “My own father taught me the importance of getting ahead of your hands and swinging up. He takes a nice, wide stance. My dad would describe him as being ‘stronger than an ox.’

He’s got arms on him like Goliath. He’s got a little bit of an upswing. And I like the way he cocks his hips and he puts that power through his midcore. He’s a power hitter through and through. We see that every time he hits a home run. They don’t just go over the wall, they go way over the wall. Beautiful swing. Beautiful depth. Great strength.”

Ortiz also tied Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Willie McCovey with home run No. 521. When he spoke one-on-one to B/R prior to hitting his 500th home run in St. Petersburg, Florida, last September, Ortiz deferentially brushed off any comparisons to Williams as “crazy talk,” noting Williams’ military service in two wars that would cost him 727 games over five seasons. 

“Historically, you know how great Mr. Ted Williams was. It’s wonderful talking about the greatest hitters of the game and your name being mentioned with them,” Ortiz added after Friday’s game. 

After his milestone 500th home run, he spoke of Williams and others in the 500-home run club as players whom he could only watch “in cartoons” as a child. “The whole world knows it’s not easy to get,” he added.

Claudia Williams concurs. “If you hit over 500 home runs, you’re doing something right,” she said. “There’s a ton of arguments out there. This is happening this season, it didn’t happen then. It’s not like [it] was then. The pitchers are this or that. I don’t care what people say.”

In 2003, Ortiz and Ramirez tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug during a pilot testing program. In 2009, the New York Times reported the results, which were supposed to be anonymous. Ortiz continues to deny knowingly using any banned substances.

He told Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe in March 2015 it would be “unfair” if anyone denied him a Hall of Fame vote because of the 2003 positive. “I was using what everybody was using at the time,” he added. When asked about the PED results by B/R in 2015, Ortiz deferred by saying, “I only want to focus on the positive.”


The Kid vs. Big Papi

The “Ortiz vs. Williams” debate, for as much as it does exist, is mainly drawn upon generational guidelines. For those who were either old enough to see Williams play (he retired in 1960 and died at age 83 in 2002) or grew up in a household where he was idolized (this author included), his place as the first among equals on the Red Sox Mt. Rushmore is unquestioned. For many who grew up in a post-2004 world, they saw Ortiz pile up World Series rings before ever hearing of Williams’ baseball, fishing and military exploits.

Among those in Williams’ corner: Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski. He replaced Williams in left field in 1961. When asked who was better, Williams or Ortiz, Yaz was brief. “It’s got to be Ted, he told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy in May. “I mean, he was the greatest hitter who ever lived. And he missed all those years serving his country in two wars.

Yaz is joined on the Williams side of the ledger by Gordon Edes, the Red Sox historian who covered the team over 18 seasons for the Boston Globe and ESPN.

“Baseball lends itself to comparing stars from different eras much better than, say, basketball, where no one would dare suggest George Mikan could play with LeBron James. Baseball differs in that we can fairly debate the relative merits of [Babe] Ruth, [Hank] Aaron and [Barry] Bonds, say, while of course noting the differences in the environments in which they played,” Edes told B/R via email.

“It’s reasonable to discuss Ortiz relative to Ted Williams, and the fact they played different positions hardly matters, given that the comparison revolves exclusively on their hitting,” Edes continued. The ‘debate,’ such as it is, is a short one: ‘Mr. Williams,’ as Ortiz calls him, dwarfs anyone else who ever played for the Red Sox as a hitter. Ted is the all-time franchise leader in the alphabet soup of BA, OBP, SGP and OPS, as well as the team’s all-time leader in home runs.”

In addition to being the last hitter to bat over .400 (.406 in 1941), Williams produced the two highest season batting averages in Red Sox history. Among the other categories in which he dominates, as Edes noted, he posted the top nine seasons in OBP in Red Sox history, five of the top seasons in SGP and eight of the top 10 seasons in walks. 

“The chasm between Ted and runner-up is large, but Ortiz has certainly thrust himself into a favored spot relative to Carl Yastrzemski and Wade Boggs, with Jim Rice and maybe Manny [Ramirez] another rung below,” Edes wrote.

On the day he turned 40 last November, Ortiz announced he would retire after the 2016 season. Ortiz reported to Red Sox camp this spring considerably leaner than he was in 2015. Whatever he did in the offseason has worked. Thus far, he’s making a bid for league MVP. In his first 59 games this season, Ortiz slammed 17 home runs. drove in 59 runs, and led the American League with 29 doubles, a .423 on-base percentage, .715 slugging percentage and a stat-nerd-baffling 1.138 OPS.

Ortiz remains on pace for arguably the greatest offensive season in big-league history for any ballplayer over 40. 

Williams won the 1957 AL batting title at age 39, hitting .388 with 38 home runs, 87 RBI and a haughty 1.257 OPS. A year later, he became the oldest player ever to win a batting crown at 40 with a .328 average and 1.042 OPS. Williams slashed .316/.451./645 with 27 HRs in his final season of 1960 at age 42.

A lifelong Red Sox fan, Dave McCarthy, 63, was a New Hampshire State Police officer for more than 25 years and worked details for top state politicians and visiting past presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. That job eventually led to a relationship with Williams and a longtime spot as Williams’ personal security man. McCarthy is now the executive director of the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame, housed inside Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

“Bush Senior almost fell down the stairs in a rush to meet him in New Hampshire,” McCarthy told B/R. The two had met during flight training school when they were both in the Navy in World War II. “Of all the presidents and people I’ve met, none of them had the effect on people as Ted Williams did. It’s as if baseball makes everyone an eight-year-old kid. Even Matt Damon couldn’t believe it when I introduced him to Ted.

“Ted would have loved to see David tie and break his 521 mark. He would be brief and praise him,” McCarthy added. “Ted would always defend the new players. When it appeared that Nomar [Garciaparra] was going to [be] the patriarch of Boston, he loved the kid.”

Williams campaigned for Bush in New Hampshire during the 1988 GOP primary campaign, drawing huge crowds and helping the then-vice president capture a pivotal state victory.


‘Boston’s Mr. October’

Ortiz, who took an infamous selfie with President Obama at the White House in 2014, has cast a similar spell over Boston thanks mainly to his postseason fireworks and Broadway-like October timing. His postseason slash line of .409/.553/.962 is buttressed by 17 home runs and 60 RBI in 295 at-bats. In 2013, Ortiz captured World Series MVP honors with a .688 average and a Thor-like .760/1.188/1.948 slash line.

His postseason home runs are the stuff of schoolchild legend across New England.

There was his walk-off, 10th-inning blast off Jarrod Washburn that capped Boston’s three-game sweep of the Anaheim Angels in the 2004 American League Division Series.

There was Big Papi’s Game 4, 12th-inning big fly against the New York Yankees in 2004 that provided a rocket boost for Boston’s historic comeback in the American League Championship Series. 

And, of course, there was that grand slam against the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS that not only tied the game 5-5, but also sent Torii Hunter sprawling over the wall and turned Boston bullpen cop Steve Horgan into a local celebrity.

For Ted Williams, there were no postseason heroics. He hit .200 in his lone World Series appearance in 1946. He was nursing a bruised elbow suffered in a pre-World Series tuneup game. In those seven games against St. Louis, he went 5-for-25 with five strikeouts, one RBI and no home runs. “And I did poorly, and I don’t know why today,” he told the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

“The biggest way Ortiz’s career impacted the Sox differently than Ted’s is the team’s success on the field,” explained Edes, who called Ortiz “Boston’s Mr. October.” Ortiz has a .455 career average and three home runs in his 14 World Series games. “His postseason play offers a powerful supporting argument to his claim that he belongs in Cooperstown,” Edes wrote.

Williams and the Red Sox rolled to the World Series with 104 wins as the American League champions in 1946 when baseball was back at its pre-war strength. Until 1969, the American and National Leagues each sent one team to the World Series. That was baseball’s entire postseason.

To see how Williams could have benefited from the playoff expansion that players like Ortiz enjoyed in the post-wild-card era, B/R examined the final American League standings during years in which Williams’ play was not impacted by military service.

Splitting the then eight-team American League geographically into Eastern and Western divisions and adding just one wild card in comparison to the two of 2016, Williams and the Red Sox would have reached the postseason nine more times in his career. Those seasons would have included 1948 and ’49.

The 96-win Red Sox lost 8-3 to the Cleveland Indians in a one-game playoff in 1948. In 1949, the Red Sox again won 96 games, and again fell one game short of the World Series—losing the pennant to the Yankees in the final weekend of the season.


Beat the Press

Ortiz and Williams have much in common.

Both Ortiz and Williams played in Minnesota before coming to Boston. Williams starred for the minor league Minneapolis Millers before joining the Red Sox as a rookie in 1939, while Ortiz was signed by the Red Sox in 2003 as a free agent after being released by the Minnesota Twins.

They share Hispanic heritage, Ortiz was born in the Dominican Republic, while Williams’ mother was Mexican-American. Both showered the right field bleachers in Fenway Park with home runs from the left side of the plate, they both committed a tremendous amount of their time and treasure to charitable endeavors for children and, at their core, they desired the love and adoration of the masses.

“Williams’ relationship with the fans and media experienced far more ups and downs than Ortiz, who generally has received favorable press,” Edes said. The harshest critiques of Ortiz have been centered around the lingering question of PED usage, early-season slumps (not an issue this year) and flare-ups about his contract situation that seemed to become an annual spring training ritual.

Ortiz’s smile and benevolence have become defining traits. “I just want to make everyone happy,” Ortiz told B/R before he hit No. 500 last September. “You’re not always going to make everyone happy. A lot of people who follow your career and are on the positive side, that’s all you’ve got to care about.”

Ted Williams, who was born in San Diego in 1918, battled with the press and negative fans throughout most of his career, taking much of the criticism on a personal level.

As Claudia Williams notes in her book:

He absolutely fell victim to the fickle love of the crowd and the criticism of the press. … Expectations were high, and in only his second year in the major leagues some fans and the press began to ride him for disappointing them—they wanted more—the start of what would be a career-long battle. Some players might have shrugged it off, but Dad was too driven, too intensely focused on being the best and wanting to impress. When he lashed out at sportswriters, he earned new nicknames like ‘Terrible Ted’ and the ‘Problem Child.’ Even when he hit a home run and the whole crowd cheered, he was still angry with them for criticizing him and refused to tip his cap as he rounded the bases. When he was rejected, it angered him, hurt his feelings, but it also made him even more determined to prove them wrong. … ‘The Kid’ emerged. The way he verbalized as an adult was a mix of playground expressions and childlike wonderment, beaten and aged with rough-guy sarcasm and dugout swearing. … It’s as if his life was played out on a big playground. Dad hated the press because they were his punishers, the bullies on his playground, and, as he would put it, ‘They were always trying to blow things out of proportion, stir things up, and rip you.’ The knights of the keyboard took control and manipulated a lot of Dad’s career just by choosing what they did or didn’t write about.

To wit, Ted Williams won the Triple Crown in 1942 and 1947 and failed to win the MVP award (as chosen by the writers) both times.

“No wonder Dad held a grudge against the press for his entire life,” Claudia Williams added.

The fans, too, felt his wrath. The “Splendid Spitter” expectorated toward the fans in Boston’s left field on Aug. 7, 1956. He had dropped a fly ball hit by Mickey Mantle in the 11th inning that led to two runs and was booed for his efforts. Williams was fined $5,000 (5 percent of his salary) but was unrepentant. “I’m not a bit sorry for what I did,” Williams said at the time. “I was right and I’d spit again at the same fans who booed me today. Some of them are the worst in the world. Nobody’s going to stop me from spitting.”

On the flip side, when encouraged by the crowd, Williams was at his best. He wowed the Boston crowd with his Old-Timers Day fielding performance in 1982 and would eventually tip his hat to the Fenway crowd on “Ted Williams Day” in 1991. By the time he made his storybook appearance at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, Williams had been fully embraced by the citizenry of Red Sox Nation as their Founding Father.

Claudia Williams discussed the change in her father’s demeanor toward the public in the later years of his life in her book, as well:

Even at death’s door during his last public appearance, Dad was able to acknowledge the crowd when they stood and applauded for him. He was always trying to make up for some shortcoming the press had written about or make up for a poor performance on the field. What I believe made Ted Williams great at home plate was his ability to take all his anger, all his hurt, and channel it with supreme discipline and control right into his wrists, the grip, the bat, the precise connection with the ball, blasting it exactly where he wanted it to go, shoving it right down the throats of sportswriters.

Both Claudia Williams and McCarthy said Williams spoke without any filters of what would be considered “political correctness” today. “My dad was brutally honest and sincere. That was the thing I admired the most about him. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind,” Claudia Williams told B/R.

It was that sense of speaking out against what he saw as injustice that led Williams to lobby for the inclusion of “great Negro ballplayers” like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige into Baseball’s Hall of Fame during his 1966 Cooperstown induction speech. 

McCarthy said Williams didn’t have the benefit of a PR coach or someone who might have counseled him to temper his remarks to avoid public backlash.

“Ted grew up in a tough life. He had a heart a mile long. He was a perfectionist working on his craft. He wore his heart on his sleeve. You had guys like ‘Colonel’ Dave Egan who would rip him. Ted would lash out and tell them what he thought. That led to a lot misunderstandings and a lot of slanted stories. Ted was an emotional kid. And the press loved it. It made for a great story. The press won every time,” McCarthy said.

“Ted just couldn’t understand. He poured his heart out to this guy and he rips him. It hurt him.”


The Right Stuff of Greatness

Williams and Yankees second baseman Jerry Coleman were among a handful of baseball players who served in both World War II and the Korean War.

McCarthy said that historic gap makes any comparison between Ortiz and Williams nearly impossible. “Two completely different eras. How do you compete with a generation that went to war? It’s tough. One of them was brought up in a really unique time in this country when there was a world war. He, along with so many others like Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller, lost prime years of their career when World War II started. That’s the stuff legends are made of country-wide, not just in sports.”

Williams enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve’s aviation program on May 22, 1942, after, Edes noted, he was given a draft exemption—3-A as the sole support of his mother. It was later changed to 1-A, but Williams appealed and had it reversed to 3-A. That stirred a public uproar. Williams spent his service time in World War II stateside training naval pilots, including the aforementioned George H.W. Bush.

Williams fiercely resisted being sent back into active duty with the Marines in Korea. His 39-0 record as a Marine Corps pilot remains the most durable mark in Boston sports history. He flew 39 ground-attack combat missions during the Korean War as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot in his F9F Grumman Panther. He and his squadron mates risked life, death and capture at the hands of the Chinese and/or North Koreans 39 times. He returned safely, if not always fully intact, all 39 times. Captain Williams’ plane crash-landed on his initial mission in 1953 after being hit by ground fire.

“Williams’ military service did not impact evaluations of him as a player, but of course enhanced his image as a larger-than-life figure, a Duke Wayne in flannels,” Edes wrote.

Ortiz enhanced his image as a larger-than-life figure with his succinct speech and “F-bomb” at Fenway Park on April 20, 2013. It was the first Red Sox home game following the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt that shut down the city and several surrounding suburbs.

“This is our f–king city. And nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong,” Ortiz said.

Claudia Williams said her father would have approved of what Ortiz did and would have offered similar sentiments toward those who had bombed Boston had he been given the same opportunity. “I’ll take the Fifth,” she said when asked if Ted Williams would have used the same language.

She does have one issue with Big Papi. “The only think I spank Ortiz on is him saying that Dad’s home run (a 502-foot blast at Fenway Park in 1946 now marked by a red seat 37 rows up in right-field bleachers) didn’t go as far as it did. I bet you anything my Dad did that.”

When asked about it in 2015 by the Boston Globe, Ortiz said with some laughter: “The red seat? Cough — bull — cough … I went up there and sat there one time. That’s far, brother.”

Ortiz’s torrid start has kept fans, players and media types asking if he will actually walk away after this season. But Ortiz told’s Rob Bradford on May 20 he is “100 percent sure” 2016 will be the final year of his career. 

When it came time for Williams to retire, McCarthy said Williams told him the decision was easy. “I asked him one night how difficult it was for him to take off the Red Sox uniform for the final time. His answer was simple. ‘I’ve had enough, I was ready to do something else. I’m glad I got out when I got out. It was enough.'”

By the way, Williams homered in his final at-bat.

One more challenge for Ortiz.   


Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He met Ted Williams when he was 14 and still has the autographed ball to prove it. He tweets at @BillSperos and @RealOBF

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Top Cubs Prospect Ian Happ Strives for MLB Dream in Memory of Father

SALEM, Va. — It’s been a wondrous 53 weeks for 2015 Chicago Cubs first-round draft pick and Myrtle Beach Pelicans second baseman Ian Happ on the baseball diamond.

Sunday delivers a poignant reminder of his greatest personal loss off it.

It will be Happ’s first Father’s Day since the passing of his dad, Keith, who died in October at age 58 as a result of brain cancer.

“It’s going to be tough,” Happ told B/R before a recent Pelicans road game against the Salem Red Sox.

Next week, Happ, 21, will represent the Pelicans in Tuesday’s Carolina/California All-Star Game in Lake Elsinore, California. His .392 on-base percentage is tops on his team, and his 45 walks are tied for the Advanced-Class A Carolina League lead.

During all this, he’s been adapting to a new position.

The mundane and exciting details of collegiate and minor league baseball life were the stuff of the daily conversations Happ would have with his dad.

“It’s definitely difficult. I think about him every day,” Happ said. “The hardest part is not being able to talk to him after games. And to talk about my failures and successes, and share the entire experience with him. I’m incredibly fortunate for the 21 years that I had and the man that he shaped me to be.”

Perhaps the most influential trait Keith Happ passed on to his youngest son was confidence.

“He preached to me to be confident and always believe in my abilities. He wouldn’t ever get on me for having a bad game or making an error,” Ian Happ said of his father. “He would always pick me up. The only thing he would get on me would be for not being confident enough in myself or being upset with myself. The biggest thing I try to carry with me is that confidence.”

Happ’s work ethic, meanwhile, has earned rave reviews from Myrtle Beach manager Buddy Bailey and Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison.

“Some kids you have to cowpoke to get locked in,” Bailey told B/R. “Ian is committed. You wish everyone could bring the same intangibles that he does.”

“We may have even underestimated how driven he is,” Madison added. “He’s worked as hard at learning second base, if not harder, than at hitting. He’s trying to impact the game with his defense and baserunning. He’s willing to put in the work, maybe work too hard. Sometimes we have to pull back the reins. This is Myrtle Beach. It’s humid and hot. We have to make sure he’s not overdoing it.”

Tasked with learning on the job at second, Happ has become a voracious viewer of player video and has developed a keen ability to discern flaws in his game—and when asked by teammates, theirs too.

Second basemen Robinson Cano of the Seattle Mariners and Neil Walker of the New York Mets are among Happ’s favorite subjects.

“Neil Walker is a Pittsburgh kid,” Happ said. “I was able to watch him in high school and all the way up. He’s a switch-hitting second baseman, a pretty awesome guy to model yourself after.”

And Cano?

“He’s just unbelievably smooth in everything he does. Nothing looks max effort. Everything looks like he’s really under control. I’m always trying to do that.”

Former major leaguer Sean Casey began a friendship with Happ five years ago when both worked out at the same suburban Pittsburgh gym. It has grown into an ongoing relationship between mentor and mentee.

“I was always wondering who this kid was who was there by himself all the time to hit and lift,” Casey, an analyst for MLB Network, told B/R. “It made me think about back when I first started when I really loved baseball and I couldn’t wait to hit even on my own.”

Baseball was “95 percent half-mental” for the late, great Yogi Berra. Casey would classify it closer to 95 percent.

“Ian’s always believed in himself. He’s got a purpose for what he’s doing when he comes to hit,” Casey said. “In the past few years, we’ve talked a lot about the mental side of the game. ‘What does it look like to play every day and not waste a pitch? What’s your routine for every at-bat?’ Why you can’t waste a pitch. I can just tell talking to him on the phone, he’s getting used to it. He wants to understand what it will take to be successful at the next level.”

Casey played for the Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox and three other teams in his 12-year career. Current Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein brought the three-time All-Star to Boston in 2008.

“Ian Happ is a guy I would have bet on. There are certain players you ‘bet on,'” Casey said. “Theo is a good friend of mine. When I saw the Cubs had an interest in him, we had talked a little bit about Ian. I said, ‘I would bet on this kid.'”

The Cubs did, to the tune of a $3 million signing bonus after taking him with the ninth overall pick out of Cincinnati, per Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.

The draft philosophy for Epstein’s Cubs is simple: Choose the player in uniform and the person in street clothes.

“We do an extensive job of digging into players’ background and makeup, their overall drive and what they’re all about,” Madison said. “When they’re in high school, the scouts start the process. Once they get into college we start following them over the summers and on the Cape [in the Cape Cod League]. In their junior year, we talk to their teachers, guidance counselors, teammates and people like Sean who know them to see what type of person they are. That’s the toughest part and the most important.”

The switch-hitting Happ began the 2016 season by being named Carolina League Player of the Week after slashing .429/.600/.905 with three home runs and eight RBI from April 18 to 24. He reached base in 20 straight games through June 2. He’s batting .274 with 61 hits and an .813 OPS, all tops or second in Myrtle Beach, heading into Friday’s doubleheader at Potomac (Va.).

He also has 68 strikeouts in 223 at-bats.

“He’s not afraid to get to two strikes and look for pitches he can do damage with,” Madison said. “With the nature of getting to two strikes, you’re going to be at higher risk of striking out. You’re also able to control the zone, work counts, wait for good pitches, draw walks and get on base.”

With more experience comes better competition.

“As you move up the ladder, not a lot of balls are straight. The balls are moving late. You’ve got to really let that ball travel so that you can make better decisions in the strike zone and not just be up there whaling away. As you move up the ranks, guys have more late movement,” Casey said.

Happ’s page presents one glaring statistical anomaly. His batting average is .116 higher in day games than it is at night (.371 versus .255). He’s only had 35 daytime at-bats, but no other player in the Pelicans has such a large spread. “If it ends up like that end of the year, it would be something to look into and make adjustments to help him out,” Madison said.

The Cubs enjoyed extraordinary success with the first-round picks who preceded Happ. Both Kris Bryant (2013) and Kyle Schwarber (2014) reached the majors less than two years after being drafted. Happ remains focused on the here and now. Madison says any comparison between Happ’s progress toward Chicago and that of his two immediate first-round predecessors is both unfair and inaccurate.

“No one moves up as quickly as Schwarber and Bryant did,” Madison said. “There was a need for those guys at the big-league level, and they were able to blow right through our system. Ian’s on more of a regular first-round path. We expect him stay here for the bulk of the season. The position change, that’s slowed him down a bit. If he were just an outfielder, he’d be in AA by now.

“Our goal is not to rush them to the big leagues—but to make sure when they get there, they’re ready. We want those guys to struggle and fail at the minor league level.”

Any decision to move up Happ or anyone else is ultimately determined by the player himself.

“The player always tells you when it’s time with his performance and his daily approach,” Madison said. “Sometimes guys aren’t performing to an elite level, but their approach is right. They’re making hard contact. The at-bats are professional and they’re ready for the next challenge.”

Happ stays in touch with his mother Mary Beth and brother Chris on a daily basis. The Cubs knew about Keith Happ’s illness before they drafted Ian. The entire Happ family was invited to watch Ian take batting practice with the major league Cubs July 24, when he was en route from Class A (Short Season) Eugene, Oregon, to Class A South Bend, Indiana. He shagged a few fly balls and then took 10 and 25 swings in the batting cage.

“That was incredibly special,” Happ said. “It was one of the last times he was able to move around. He was able to be down on the field and get to meet Jed [Hoyer] and Theo. It was really a special day. For him to watch me hit at Wrigley Field was pretty incredible.”

The Cubs found the experience as beneficial as Happ did.

“The biggest thing was just supporting someone in the family, knowing his dad might not be around at the big league level. To watch Ian do his daily work on the big league field, we thought it would be something special for Ian and his family,” Madison said. “We’re a baseball team, but we’re also a family. Family and what he was going through are bigger than baseball. I can’t imagine going through that. The way he battled through it, continued to fight, and grind, and stay focused on his career was impressive.”

Happ met Schwarber that day. They share the same agent. In the offseason, Happ spent a month living and training with Schwarber in Tampa, Florida. Schwarber knew Happ’s father had died.

“I never wanted to bring that up,” Schwarber told’s Carrie Muskat in March. “He did a really good job, from what I saw, separating himself from that. He came there to work, and I definitely feel like he did get better that offseason. We’ll see what happens.”

The two broke up their routine with a hunting trip to the middle of the state.

“It was awesome,” Happ told B/R. “He was very generous in letting me stay with him and letting me kind of pick his brain on baseball and hitting and what it takes to get to the major leagues and succeed like he has.”

Schawarber’s 2016 season ended in catastrophe April 7, when he tore two ligaments in his left knee in an outfield collision with teammate Dexter Fowler. He underwent surgery April 19 and is expected back next season.

“Oh man. It was tough see because right at the beginning of the year, I saw how hard he worked this offseason. He will come back stronger than ever. He’s a horse,” Happ said.

The two exchanged text messages after the injury, and Schwarber was asking Madison about Happ’s progress during last week’s draft.

“He asked me, ‘How’s Ian doing? How’s Ian doing with his defense? How’s it going with the family?’ He truly cares about the kid,” added Madison.

That extended Cubs family extends from Happ’s locker in Myrtle Beach to Epstein’s office at 1060 West Addison Street in Chicago.

“We’re calling up [Cubs top prospect and catcher] Willson Contreras today. Miggy Montero is excited about having him there. When we send pitchers up, we have veteran pitchers ready to take them under their wing. Theo and Jed have done a really good job of creating that culture,” Madison said.

All the support Happ has received since his father’s passing is helping him refocus on the MLB dream the two always shared.

When that day comes, there’s no question who he’ll be thinking of first.


Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He tweets at @BillSperos and @RealOBF.

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Toronto Blue Jays Pitchers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez Bond as ‘Brothers’

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — How did you meet your best friend?

Were you in the same third-grade class? Did you play on the same Little League team? Or perhaps work at the same crappy, after-school job?

It’s more likely than not it was through some sort of shared experience, one that wasn’t necessarily as exhausting or thrilling as working your way from the minors to the big leagues.

Toronto Blue Jays resident BFFs and starting pitchers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez can’t recall at this point exactly when and where they first met or when they initially connected as pals. It may or may not have been at a Tampa steakhouse, or on some dusty Blue Jays minor league Florida practice field in nearby Dunedin back in 2012. They did share the same agent when they were in the minors, so that first official meeting was inevitable.

At this point, four years later, all that matters to them, their Blue Jays teammates and a few million baseball fans in Canada is that they did meet.

They call each other “brother” so often it would be far more poetic if they played in Philadelphia. Sanchez and Stroman spoke to Bleacher Report in separate one-on-one interviews here this past weekend about their fraternal bond and how it has helped carry them to the majors.

For this “Duo of Brothers,” every day has become St. Crispin’s Day.

“In the beginning, we were just friends. But we started hanging together in the minors,” Sanchez said. “Ever since then, we became brothers. He’s my best friend and knows more about me than anyone else. But he’s more my brother than anything else.”

For Stroman, the Blue Jays’ Opening Day starter in 2016, his relationship with Sanchez has grown into a brotherhood thanks to shared time and purpose.

“It’s similar to the family aspect in a sense of the bond that you have between two individuals. It’s no different than having a brother—even though there isn’t blood,” Stroman said. “In baseball, you spend time with your teammates and your buddies more so than with your family. So from February to November, I’m with my brothers—we get to the clubhouse anywhere from noon to 2 on a game day, and we’re here until 11 p.m. at night.

“This is time spent with a new family, so obviously you become close to your teammates as if they’re your family. That’s why I love baseball so much because you get that dynamic. You’re playing with your family because you’re playing pretty much every waking moment together with these guys; you know everything about them and you grow.”

The “Stromance” between Sanchez and Stroman has been social media fodder for at least two years and has its own #StroChez hashtag.

Stroman and Sanchez share a Toronto apartment, which has a spare room for visiting family and friends. They spend just about each waking hour together, whether or not they’re at the ballpark.

“We enjoy being in [Toronto]. Toronto is not much different than New York. It’s much, much cleaner, smaller, nicer people, like a smaller New York City. It’s a very diverse place, and it fits our personalities well,” Stroman said.

The diverse geographic roots of its members are another unique component of this unlikely alliance.

Stroman is a determined, confident 5’8″ starting pitcher from Stony Brook, New York. His parents were divorced when he was in the fifth grade. His father, a New York City police detective, spent considerable time with the young Stroman in fostering his baseball talent and his fearless attitude.

That discipline his father taught is evident in Stroman’s posture when he stands to speak to reporters. It is reminiscent of a police officer standing watch. Even postgame, he’ll don a fresh warm-up suit, clean shirt and fresh black Raptors hat before the TV cameras are turned on. Then he hits the showers. All this attention to style and detail follows countless hours spent throwing, studying hitters, physical conditioning and a biting 94 mph fastball that snips off a corner of the plate.

Stroman is one of seven starting pitchers 5’9″ or shorter in the majors, according to’s sortable database. He has branded himself around a trademarked slogan that reads “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart.”

“That’s his personality,” Sanchez said. “He likes to prove doubters wrong, and he’s done it his whole life. You don’t see a lot of 5’8″ starting pitchers in the game.”

Sanchez isn’t quite as loquacious as Stroman, but few are. The 6’4″ right-hander was raised by his mom and stepfather, a former minor league ballplayer, in Barstow, California. The city of about 23,000 is located in the desert, midway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles—a milestone of sorts when driving in either direction. Sanchez’s biological father died when he was in fifth grade.

Sanchez told’s Arden Zwelling in 2015 that he doesn’t remember anything about their relationship.

“The difference in our backgrounds goes along with our story,” Stroman said. “We’re very different personality types. Our upbringing has something to do with it. I was brought up on Long Island. I spent a lot of time in New York and have been around cities a ton. Aaron is from a small-population city. Ever since we started hanging out, he’s kind of opened up and his personality started coming out.”

Sanchez, 23, said any soft-spoken persona is often temporary. “If you know me, you get the full me,” he said. “If I don’t really know you, I’m kind of reserved. He gets to see the real me.”

How close are these two? “It’s definitely unique. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two guys who didn’t grow up together be so close,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said.

Gibbons goes so far as to suggest that this 40 percent of his starting rotation is attached by an “umbilical cord.” Stroman concurs with the otherwise anatomically impossible analogy. “We’re together 24/7. We’re together through every part of this journey. We practice together. We come to the field together. We work out together,” he said.

This common experience has led to an uncommon friendship.

“It’s unique between me and Marcus because we’re doing memories of a lifetime, doing something we love,” Sanchez said. “A lot of people don’t understand it’s nice to have that same friend with you because we go through a lot of the same (stuff) of being so young and being away. We’re there for each other and we know when someone is missing their family they always have that brother right there to feel comfortable and know that we’re going through the same thing together.”

Whenever one half of #StroChez is pitching, the other is emotionally along for the ride.

Sanchez exited this past Friday’s 6-1 win over the Rays after seven shutout innings, during which he allowed only two hits while fanning six. Sanchez mixed his fastball and curve, throwing 71 strikes on 103 pitches, a follow to his worst start of the season. He also dropped in his changeup at just the right moment.

“I had runners on base a couple of time and I could hear Marcus (from the dugout) saying ‘Come on, let’s go. Now’s the time. This is the hitter you want.’ Stuff like that,” Sanchez said.

To no one’s surprise on the Blue Jays bench, Stroman was the first player atop the dugout steps to greet him.

“You know that umbilical cord can only go so tight before it snaps back,” Gibbons deadpanned.

“I try to be that top-step guy, more so for him, because we’ve been through the trials and tribulations together. We know each other better than many other people know each other. I can go up to him and say ‘I think you should focus on this a little more,’ and it resonates more than if it was coming from someone else,” Stroman said.

Combined, they threw for 15 innings at Tropicana Field, allowing just nine hits and one run, while striking out 15 Rays in their two starts here. Toronto won its games by a combined 11-2 score.

“When Marcus is pitching, I feel like I’m out there with every pitch. The thing about Marcus is that he trusts and values my opinion, as I do for him. If I see something when he’s pitching, or he sees something when I’m pitching, it’s easy for us to have that dialogue together, as opposed to someone else coming up to him,” Sanchez said.

Sunday, Stroman recorded 24 outs on his 25th birthday in arguably the best outing of his career. He was in full attack mode from his first warm-up. He fanned nine while giving up just one run and three hits in getting the win in a 5-1 victory. Sixty-six of his 103 pitches were strikes.

“He’s such an emotional guy. He’s so anxious to pitch,” Sanchez said. “When he’s out there, it’s more like me telling him to ‘calm down’ or ‘keep control.’ It’s more about staying in the moment. It’s about knowing that if you get the ball on the ground and stuff behind you doesn’t go the way you want, you need to just keep going.”

“It was awesome,” Stroman said to handful of reporters afterward. And the words of former teammate David Price—“If you don’t like it, pitch better”—were in his head. “I get pretty frustrated out there, but I don’t take it start to start. The day after, it’s pretty much washed.”

Sunday afternoon’s stellar performance was likely “washed” by 8 p.m. as Stroman and teammate Jose Bautista were back home in Toronto and sitting courtside cheering the NBA’s Raptors to a Game 7 playoff win over the Indiana Pacers.

Just another benefit of downtown life in “The 6ix,” a topic Stroman covered in a recent story for The Players’ Tribune.

(Potential spoiler alert: For Stroman’s 25th birthday, Sanchez said he commissioned an original “sick painting” of his roommate by a female artist whose work Stroman admires. There was no completion date available.)

Gibbons sees plenty of benefit in the #StroChez dynamic. “They’re basically out there with each other whenever one of them pitches. They push each other, they encourage each other, and they get on each other. If I need to talk to one of them about something, and it applies to the other, I can say ‘just go see your buddy, too.’ So you don’t always have to go to the source to get your message across.” 

When the two do talk baseball away from the field—a rarity—the conversations are forward-focused and center around approaching a hitter or a certain lineup.

“We sacrifice a lot. We work unbelievably hard. At the end of the day, we know we’ve maximized whatever we could have done to get better. This game can consume you. So we do everything we do to get away from the game,” Stroman said.

These are professional athletes living the dream in the big city and enjoying every coveted minute away from baseball. On an off night, you might find them “playing games, laying low or going out to eat at a cool restaurant,” Stroman said. “We’re normal people.”

There are no disputes over who’s the messy one, or when it comes time to cook the occasional at-home meal.

“We have a good dynamic. We don’t fight, ever.” Stroman said. “We have two different personalities. I think we kind of round each other out. There’s a great dynamic.”

The Blue Jays are relying on that dynamic in part to sustain a rotation that lost Price to the Red Sox via free agency in the offseason. Where Price was once the unquestioned lead dog in the Jays’ 2015 rotation, that role has been ceded to whomever can fill it.

Oftentimes, it’s been Stroman.

He hosted a onesies-only Super Bowl party for his teammates at Chez #StroChez.

On March 11, a year and a day after Stroman’s 2015 ACL injury that sidelined him for six months, he threw 4.2 innings of shutout spring training baseball against the Red Sox. But he delivered his most explosive pitch during his postgame media-scrum defense of teammate Jose Bautista. The slugger had been blasted by Hall of Famer Goose Gossage as “a f–king disgrace to the game” in an interview with ESPN.

“He’s one of my mentors. He’s taken me under his wing from day one. I see what he does on and off the field. How he trains. How he goes about his business. And he does it professionally, and he works harder than anyone else in the league,” Stroman said that day, all while wearing a “Joey Flippin Bats” T-shirt.

(Bautista famously flung his bat after belting a three-run homer to give the Blue Jays a seventh-inning lead in Game 5 of the American League Division Series vs. the Texas Rangers, a game Stroman started.)

For six months post-surgery in 2015, Stroman was undergoing two days of rehabilitation each week at Duke University while taking classes there three other days. He returned to pitch for Toronto in September. He will walk at the Duke commencement on May 15 in Durham, North Carolina, after receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology over the winter.

Often attacking batters metaphorically with his fastball or occasional cutter, his volatility on the mound earned him a six-game suspension in 2014 for throwing near Baltimore catcher Caleb Joseph’s head.

He was even accused of being “disrespectful” to his teammates and Gibbons by team announcer Gregg Zaun, after he was taken out of a game at Chicago with a lead on April 25 that the bullpen eventually lost. Stroman said the “disrespect” charge was a “media creation.”

“I can’t describe the camaraderie in this clubhouse to someone who isn’t here all the time,” he said.

And Sanchez’s constant presence, Stroman said, remains a calming, stabilizing effect.

“It’s good to have someone there that you can bounce ideas off of and someone there that knows what you’re going through lately. It limits stress. It limits the tough times that you go through because you have someone there that’s usually going through the same thing you’re going through,” he said.


All quotes were obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report unless otherwise specified. Stats courtesy of

Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist. He tweets at @BillSperos and @RealOBF

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Manny Machado Belongs with Harper, Trout in MLB’s Best All-Around-Star Debate

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado doesn’t talk about whether he belongs in “The Conversation.”

That’s baseball speak for: “Who is the best all-around player in the game?”

The top two candidates are Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. But Machado has plenty of campaign surrogates who are willing to speak on his behalf for inclusion into this race.

Chief among them is Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

“The separator for me is the impact the player has on both sides of the ball. There, Manny is as good as anyone in the game. He impacts us and our pitching staff nightly, whether he’s hitting or not. One example is the depth that he allows us to play,” Showalter told Bleacher Report.

“Manny’s got a lot of ‘want tos.’ No. 1, he wants the Baltimore Orioles to win a world championship and contribute to that. But he’s not satisfied with just being good. I don’t know why people are having those conversations without his name in it. Machado also doesn’t get nearly the recognition of those other guys.”

Machado does offer a hint of his views on The Conversation via the body art tattooed across his upper back.

It reads simply: “Sky’s the Limit.”

“The sky’s the limit for him, for sure. He wants to get better every year. He wants to be the best,” Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop told B/R. Schoop played with Machado in the minors and remains perhaps his closest friend on the team. “He fits right there,” Schoop said. “You could see right away in the minors he was a special player.”

Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis told B/R that Machado already is—or should be—a part of any discussion of the game’s finest.

“Manny’s just as talented as those two guys. Obviously, he’s going to continue to have to prove himself,” Davis said. “That’s the name of the game. Once you do it once, can you do it again? And after you do it again, can you do it again? It’s up to him to see where he goes from here.”

Shortstop J.J. Hardy firmly agreed Machado’s name “should be involved” in any serious best-in-baseball discussion. Machado made a major league-high 713 plate appearances in 2015 over 162 games. “He’s amazing. He’s definitely, arguably there with them.”

Machado is currently No. 6 on ESPN’s player ratings and the No. 7 position player on MLB Network’s Top 100, which is updated weekly.

His overall body of work over the past 365 days prior to Monday can offer numeric solace to those ranking him among the likes of Trout and Harper.

During that time frame…

  • Trout had 33 doubles, 41 HR, 89 RBI and a .297/.399/.586/.985 slash line.
  • Harper had 44 doubles, 47 HR, 112 RBI and a .336/.458/.691/1.149 slash line.
  • Machado had 36 doubles, 38 HR, 86 RBI and a .301/.373/.537/.910 slash line.

When it comes to picking the best of the best between the likes of outfielders like Harper or Trout versus a third baseman like Machado, all of whom have similar numbers, Showalter posits a simple question to his questioner: “Which position will impact the game more?”

“Third base?” is the hesitant answer.

“You bet your ass, and Manny can play shortstop, too,” Showalter answered. “You can’t make the opposition hit the ball to your best defensive player. I can’t make my best hitter hit with the bases loaded. It has to be his turn. He impacts our game in so many ways.”

“When I bring up young players, I ask myself if they can defend well enough to have the growing pains to become good offensive players. They’re all going to struggle here offensively. The jump between Triple-A and the majors is the biggest in sports. I can’t bring up anybody who’s letting in two but not driving any in. If you’re a plus-defender, then I can let you grow offensively. I knew we could do that with Manny, Jonathan (Schoop) and (Joey) Rickard.”

Defensively, Machado’s statistical edge is quite decisive, even though Trout hasn’t made an error since 2014. Machado turns 24 in July and has won two Gold Gloves at third base, plus a Platinum Glove for being the best overall defender in the American League in 2013. He was worth 14 runs above the average player at third on defense, while Harper and Trout were worth 10 and five, respectively.

Showalter sees much more to Machado’s defensive edge at his position than what is displayed in analytics.

“Those numbers are not some dark bugaboo, but you have to take the cloak off them. And they don’t show everything” Showalter said.

Among the items not quantified in Machado’s “defensive WAR,” according to his manager: “Arm strength, tags—he’s a great tagger—range in the air, throwing to the right base, defending the swinging bunt and positioning.”

Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher and current broadcaster Jim Palmer brought up The Conversation without being asked.

“Everywhere I go, people ask why isn’t Manny in the conversation for one of the best players in baseball. I think he is in that conversation, certainly in the top five,” Palmer told B/R. “He just plays at a very, very, very, very, very, very high level.”

Palmer’s breakdown of Machado, who is closing in on 2,000 career at-bats, helps to explain why he’s playing at such a high level and why he’s likely to stay here.

“He’s very talented. He had two ligament problems—in the right and left patella—and he’s taken care of that. He’s had a lot of experience. It seems like he’s more focused. He’s more selective at the plate. He’s got power to all fields. Certainly, it helps that Camden Yards is a great hitter’s park.”

“Defensively, he’s got the reflexes of a shortstop playing third base, with a great arm. You really have to be able to anticipate the play at third base. They don’t call it the hot corner for nothing. He’s a very talented young player.”

“He’s so imaginative,” said Showalter, who made it a point to stress his observations were much more praise of Machado than a critique of the others involved in the debate.

“A good defender has a great imagination,” Showalter said. “You can’t put them into a robotic mindset. He’s so loose-jointed he can do things that others can’t do at third base. You have to give him the freedom to use his imagination.”

As an example, Machado recently tried to steal third base with two outs and lethal slugger Chris Davis at the plate. “A guy like Manny, you let him have the flow. His maturity has grown in both the competition and preparation for the competition,” Showalter said.

The stratosphere, not merely the sky, appeared to be a step stool on Machado’s ascent to the top, as he tallied at least one hit in the first 16 games of 2016. After going 2-for-5 against the Royals on Saturday, his average stood at .397.

The ceiling of Tropicana Field, the Rays pitching staff and some stellar defense have temporarily clipped his wings. Tuesday, Machado’s average had “tumbled” to .342 after going 0-for-11 over the past three games.

He’s not alone, as the Orioles have scored just one run in the past 26 innings. Before the series, Rays manager Kevin Cash said a key to slowing Machado was making sure he didn’t come to bat with runners on base. For two nights, anyway, it has worked. 

Palmer and Davis agree that Machado has become more patient at the plate, mini-slump or not.

“He’s never really in a hurry. He’s understanding a walk is as good as a hit,” Davis said. “We all know as an offense they’re not going to challenge one through nine. They’re going to try to pick their poison and come at different guys. It’s been good for a lot of guys to know they’re not going to have to win the game with one swing of the bat. That’s something that Manny has bought into and that’s been huge for our team.”

Added Palmer: “He’s at that point now where you really have to make good pitches to get him out.”

To wit, a filthy 92 mph changeup Chris Archer threw to strike him out in his first at-bat Monday night. “He should chase that pitch, that’s how good it was,” Rays catcher Curt Casali said. Archer fanned 10 Orioles Monday, including five in the first two innings.

“It’s valid that he’s in there,” Casali said of the best-in-baseball discussion. “He makes great in-game adjustments, he’s strong and swings a big bat. He’s one of the toughest outs in the league for sure.”

Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria and Machado have combined for four AL Gold Gloves since 2009. The Rays TV network made the hot corner comparison prior to Tuesday’s telecast, juxtaposing highlight clips of Longoria and Machado.

Before the game, Longoria told B/R the numbers will, in the end, dictate who makes the cut and who doesn’t. “If the numbers are comparable, I don’t know why he shouldn’t be in there. He’s an amazing player. A special player. His plate discipline has gotten better. He always knows what’s coming, which is what you see from the elite hitters.”

Moving from shortstop to third base has made Machado even more of a defensive threat, Longoria said. “He’s got a great arm. And some of the plays he makes, that others don’t, occur because of his arm—going way down the line behind the bag or moving to his right when he makes throws going away from first. And his range both ways.”

There is another conversation Machado chooses to engage in with vigor. That’s the never-ending chatter he enjoys with teammates in the clubhouse and during pregame warm-ups and batting practice with Hardy and Schoop. There, he smiles, laughs, jokes, talks trash in Spanish and English and shows all the signs of a 23-year-old potential MVP and/or best player in the game enjoying the ride.

Before Machado jogs off the field into the clubhouse after batting practice, he stops at the dugout steps and signs about a dozen autographs for Orioles’ partisans on site.

“He’s just growing up. He’s maturing,” Davis said. “He’s learning how to continue to be himself and be aware of his teammates. After being with a group of guys for a number of years you start to learn their tendencies. And you know where they’re going to be on the field—that’s what you’re seeing defensively. He understands that you need the second baseman, the shortstop and the first baseman. It’s been good for him.”

But Machado still struggles to achieve elite status in one area—at the card table in the Orioles clubhouse playing the poker-like game called pusoy.

“It’s a fun game, and it helps you think a little bit and get the brain going,” Schoop said through a laugh. “I’m way better than he is. He’s in High-A and I’m in the big leagues in the card game.”

Heck, even someone as crazy talented as Machado can’t be great at everything.


All quotes were obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report unless otherwise specified. Stats courtesy of

Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who tweets @RealOBF and @BillSperos

Read more MLB news on

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