“Now I Can Die in Peace” (Book Review)

“Now I Can Die in Peace” (Book Review)

Bill Simmons is my favorite sports writer.

Over the course of his career, he has produced a ton of work, and much of it is focused on the teams that he loves the most: the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Red Sox.

simmonsHis writing can be long-winded, and is always extremely biased, but it can also be very funny, and he truly does care about what he is writing about. He has managed to create a great career as a sports writer, and still manages to love the game he writes about.

Really, there is nobody better to write about the 2004 Red Sox than Bill Simmons.

Over the course of the book, which is now in its third edition, he has accumulated articles that not only chronicle his pained history as a Red Sox fan, but his infatuation with the team, and the ups and downs of the ’04 season that culminated in the historic World Series win for the first time in 86 years.

simmons2The articles do well to show really how painful some of the memories of the Sox are for their longtime fans, and also show their nature of loving then hating someone on the team. The overractions are constant, the idolization of athletes is continual, and it is constantly fun to read.

One of the best parts about Simmons’ writing is the endless pop cultural references, and the tons of footnotes that he adds to his work. It is hilarious, and often spot on. His consistent use of The Shawshank Redemption as a means to compare things is always right, and gives us a firm ground for comparison in many of his articles.

Simmons takes us through the hurt, and the torture, of so many Red Sox moments of infamy: from the harrowing losses over the years, to the players leaving town for greener pastures, leaving behind them a rabid fanbase that wants nothing more than to celebrate a World Series victory with their beloved team. He takes us through the panic-inducing 2004 ALCS, where the Sox fell into a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 hole against the mighty, and hated, Yankees.

And he does it so expertly that he has created a true page turner of a book, even though we already know the ending.

The connection that Simmons has with the team is incredible, and at points, it becomes a book that is more about the relationships he has with people because of the Sox, than about the Sox themselves. His father plays a major role in so many of his stories, and his article after the Sox finally won is something that can truly tug at the heartstrings. Simmons is a versatile writer, who is easily able to make us mad along with him, or vividly recount the tale of a game that we watched, or make us actually laugh out loud while reading.

The '04 Series win was kind of a big deal.
The ’04 Series win was kind of a big deal.

There are tons of books about baseball, and many of them are very well done. Now I Can Die in Peace provides us with a little something more than others, specifically others that have chronicles the championship run: it has soul to it, and that soul comes from an endless passion for the team that the author has.

For any Red Sox fan looking to relive some pain and some glory, this book is a must read. For fans of other teams, it offers a great look at how the team came to be where it is today, now a team that has won 3 championships in the last 10 years.

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Goodbye Jeter, From a Sox Fan

Goodbye Jeter, From a Sox Fan

As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, I should hate Derek Jeter. All Red Sox fans should. He was a great ballplayer, one who tormented the Sox for years and years. During the heyday of the Yankees, he always had his hand in shattering the hopes and dreams of Red Sox Nation time and again, as he led the dreaded Yankees to five World Series titles.

jeter2But looking back now, now that we have won three World Series of our own, broken the Curse, and remained one of baseball’s most well-run organizations, it is possible to look back at the career of The Captain with some respect.

Had the Sox never come back from that 3-0 deficit in 2004, and never emerged as champs again in 2007 and 2013, Jeter would probably remain one of the most hated people among Sox fans. But finally, we overcame him and his team, and are champions ourselves, so now we can give him the respect that he deserves.

I know that he is being lauded as such, but I don’t think that Jeter is a top-5 Yankee of all-time. It is impossible to crack that list, with the truly impressive list of some of the best players of all-time sporting the pinstripes during their careers. Despite his Gold Gloves, he was never really the best defensive shortstop out there, and his bat would never destroy you. But his timing would. When there was an incredible play to be made, or a clutch hit to be had, it always seemed that it was #2 doing it.

Off the field, despite having an impressive list of gorgeous A-list girlfriends, a string of beautiful women leaving his apartment, he was never embroiled in controversy, as so many athletic stars are these days. He kept his nose clean, at least to the best of our knowledge. And this allows us to like him even more, because he never became a true villain in the sense of someone like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.

We were only able to hate him because he was good.

I watched his final game at Yankee Stadium the other day, and when he came up in the bottom of the ninth, it was almost guaranteed that he would do something. Hitting a walk-off single to secure a victory for his team was pretty much expected. Sure, they may have tossed him a ball that was easy to hit, but he still got it done. And that is all that matters. It was a perfect sendoff for a magnificent career.

jeterI always liked that he wore #2, now the final single-digit number that a New York Yankee will ever be able to wear, as his will be retired soon. Letting him have that number was a historic move, and he honoured it throughout his career. He does stand with the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle, and that single number on his back was always a symbol of that, of his greatness.

Even as a fan of his most hated rival, it is easy to look at Jeter with respect, and some admiration. He had a great career, and in five years, it is all but guaranteed that we will be seeing him again when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

It is a place that he belongs, among all the other greats of this amazing game, and as much as I don’t want to see another Yankee cap in bronze there, he deserves it, and he belongs there. Even just being the all-time hits leader on such a hallowed team is enough to get him in to Cooperstown, in my opinion.

In a season that served as a year-long sendoff for #2, it has become tiresome reading all of the articles about him. Seeing all of the strange, and somewhat cheesy gifts that teams presented him with over the course of his farewell tour. But now that it is over, with only two games left on his career (being played in Boston, no less), we can really look at him and appreciate what he has done for the game of baseball.

He played, he won, and he did it with class.

Congratulations to Derek Jeter on a great career. I won’t miss seeing you rip the hearts out of Red Sox fans, but I will miss having you be a part of baseball.

Because that’s where a true ballplayer belongs. A part of the game, forever.

Retooling the Red Sox

Retooling the Red Sox

The non-waiver trade deadline day was a bittersweet one for me, as a Red Sox fan.

It is time to admit that there will not be playoffs in Boston this season, but I can accept this “do poorly one year, make some smart moves, and compete every other year” concept that seems to be happening there over the past couple of seasons. There is no question that moves needed to be made this year, that the team assembled just wasn’t working out. There are significant gaps in that lineup, and some changes needed to be made.

The Red Sox ended up making the most moves on deadline day of any of the teams, getting back some good major league talent in exchange for some pretty central pieces of their championship team of a year ago.

And this is where the bittersweet feelings come in.

When the rumours surfaced that Jon Lester was on the trading block, I didn’t want it to be true. I know the way the Sox operate, that they don’t want to dole out massive contracts for aging players, but I wanted them to break their own rule for Lester. He is my favorite pitcher, and I have followed his career since he first started with the Sox and threw his improbably no-hitter right at the start of his career. I always figured that he would rack up a couple of Cy Youngs over his career, and while we still may be waiting for the awards, he has had some outstanding seasons and shown himself to be a great playoff pitcher in the Series wins in 2007 and 2013.

Oakland Athletics v Boston Red SoxFor me, Lester was the Red Sox, as much as Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are. He was the core, and despite him coming up on 30 years old, I wanted him to remain with the organization for his whole career. Sure, there is talk that he could re-sign with the Sox in the off-season, but let’s be honest. That almost never happens, and there will be plenty of teams that will offer him the term that the Red Sox won’t, given his age. I just pray that he won’t end up on the Angels or Yankees.

If he had to be traded, I wanted him to be traded to the Pirates or the A’s, teams that I like, and that do still have playoff aspirations this year. In the case of the A’s, he now can join the best team in baseball, in hopes of leading them to a championship that has eluded them for 25 years.

It was surprising that the Red Sox managed to get back an All-Star player for Lester, given that teams are often looking for top prospects when the big names are traded. Instead, we are treated to a big player-for-player trade, that rarely happens in the MLB anymore. It made for exciting discussions, and while the loss of one of the best left-handed pitchers is crushing for the Sox and their fans, it was no secret that their outfield needed a lot of help.

I will miss Jon Lester, and while I will still cheer feverishly for the Red Sox, I know that they are done for the year. I will cheer along the A’s as they try to make their way through the postseason, hopefully making it back to the World Series.

Some thoughts on the other moves the Sox made:

  • Despite my sadness in losing Lester, I was happy for the return. Cespedes will fit nicely in the outfield, and he should be able to mash in the small confines of Fenway.
  • Surprised they traded John Lackey as well as Lester, but content that they got a couple of big leaguers back in Kelly and Craig. They are both having down seasons, but are “needed a change of scenery” candidates.
  • Glad they traded Jake Peavey. I never liked the deal that got him in the first place, and never felt like he fit with the Sox. Sure, he contributed to the World Series last year, but it was frustrating to watch him this year, because you knew he was going to give up at least one home run every time. He will do much better with the Giants, and being back in the NL.
  • Good return on Andrew Miller, getting a quality prospect.
  • I like the whole idea that they were not gutting the team and rebuilding. They are more doing a retooling, changing things on the fly.
  • They are going to have to go after some pitchers in free agency this winter. They need to try and sign Lester back, and should probably make a play for someone like Max Scherzer. They will need a top of the rotation starter at least, to give the kids coming up some breathing room and some lowered expectations.

I understand that the Red Sox needed to make some moves, and despite so many quality pieces being sent out the door, I understand what they needed, and so I would definitely qualify them as winners on this trade deadline day.

Red Sox Lose 8 in a Row

Red Sox Lose 8 in a Row

What’s wrong with my beloved Boston Red Sox?

Coming off an improbably World Series victory last year, even the most feverish of fan had a tough time believing this group would be able to pull off the feat again. Because one of the key things about last season’s win was that it was improbable. Going from worst-to-first and erasing the stink of the Bobby Valentine era was something incredible, and they were a scrappy team that managed to get the big hits and clutch pitching exactly when they needed it.

Boston_Red_SoxThis season, after falling to 20-27 on the year, and last place in tough AL East, they are not getting the big hits when they need them most, and they seem to be falling behind early in games frequently. Not a good way to play the game. Despite some pretty bad numbers over the past month, I don’t think that the pitching is the real issue here. Sure, there are major question marks in their rotation: why can’t the team score runs when Jon Lester is pitching, or who knows what you are going to get when Jake Peavy is on the mound (answer: at least one home run against and a bunch of walks, it seems), what is wrong with Clay Buchholz this year (he is healthy, but not good), is John Lackey actually their best pitcher (nope, but sometimes he looks that way), and is Felix Doubrount actually good enough to be a No. 5 in the rotation?

This group is good on paper, but has been doing things that they didn’t last year. They are giving up early leads, walking too many batters, and giving up too many dingers. It is tough to play from behind all the time, especially when the hitting is struggling to push runs across the plate, as the Sox are this year. Being behind 2-0 is not a big deal. Being behind 2-0 seemingly every game is much more of a struggle.

Too many times this year, I will watch the Sox get runners on base, and then completely flounder. There are inning-ending double plays, weak fly balls, poor strikeouts, and they are all coming at the wrong time. There is nobody in the lineup at this point that is mashing, and nobody is there to get that key hit that can keep them in these games.

The 2014 Red Sox do not have a stellar offensive lineup, and the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury looks to be more stinging with every loss. But they aren’t getting him back, so they need to adapt. The Sox need to go back to being a patient team, working the pitchers, being patient at the plate, and taking their bases in any way that they can get them. Also, they are not a speedy team, which hurts, because with a stagnant offense like they have now, they need to try and manufacture some runs. Somehow, some way.

One of the many beautiful things about baseball is that the season is a marathon, and an 8 game losing streak does not eliminate them from the playoff chase. In fact, despite their recent slide, they are still only 6 games behind Toronto in the division.

But the time is now to get things going. Hoping for a miracle run will leave them with nothing but that empty hope. The Sox need to play with some urgency. 2013 is over. It was amazing, but it’s over, and they need to realize that to even have a sniff of a chance to play for the title again, they need to start making moves up the standings.

This team needs to start playing its heart out. And soon.

Red Sox Sign Stephen Drew (SS)

Red Sox Sign Stephen Drew (SS)

Not enough production out of the 3B position, and another injury to Will Middlebrooks has forced the Boston Red Sox to re-sign free agent Stephen Drew, he who turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer during the offseason. Drew will make a pro-rated $10M for the rest of the year.

New York Yankees v Boston Red SoxThe good news is that this allows rookie Xander Bogaerts to slide over to 3B, where he was successful during last year’s run to the World Series. Bogaerts wasn’t bad at SS, but he is still learning the position, and will probably still be considered the short stop of the future for the club. Bringing back Drew provides an upgrade at defense, as well as offensively, as the Sox need more than they were getting from Middlebrooks at the hot corner.

This will also lead to the inevitable demotion of Brock Holt, who I quite liked at third for the Sox. He has played well in his limited time with them this season, managing to do a little hitting, and playing some solid D. He plays baseball hard, which is what I love to see. But the Red Sox are not a developmental team, and changes needed to be made before they fall out of the race in the always tight AL East. Even with a losing record, they are hanging around, but they can’t hope for that for too long.

Overall, this is a good move for the Sox, and it should only be a couple of weeks before Drew is able to get back into major league action.

Lester K’s 15

Lester K’s 15

For years now, I have predicted that Jon Lester would win the American League Cy Young award as the best pitcher. Sure, he hasn’t really come close, but he has always been so full of promise, that it seemed like he was always ready to take another step in his development, from being a big, strong staff ace to one of the best in baseball.

He has had some really good years, and some forgettable ones (like most things from the Bobby Valentine era in Boston).

lester2On Saturday, Lester put together one of his best ever outings, by striking out 15 Oakland A’s. I was lucky enough to be watching the game on MLB.tv, and it was impressive. It is exciting to see any pitcher hit double digits in K’s in a game, but 15 is almost unheard of. Sure, there were the days of Roger Clemens fanning 20, but even in today’s pitcher dominance, this many strikeouts is unheard of.

Over the course of 8 innings, Lester fanned 15 and allowed only 1 hit. Of course, the Red Sox bullpen made it interesting by almost letting things fall apart in the ninth, but the Sox won 6-3.

This is the type of game that I always knew Lester was capable of, and that is able to do every time he takes the mound. His stuff was almost unhittable, and he demonstrated tons of movement on all of his pitches. Throughout the game, he was focused on working hitters both outside and inside, painting the corners of the plate to the endless frustration of the A’s. And this included many borderline calls that didn’t go in Lester’s favour. He probably could have had more strikeouts than he did.

So far this season, Lester has been the victim of a low-performing offense when he is on the mound, but his strong stats cannot be ignored, despite his 3-4 record. In only one game has he had an ERA above 3.00, and he has had at least 6 strikeouts in every start. His season ERA sits at an impressive 2.59, with 58 K’s in 48 innings and a pretty good 1.09 WHIP. And don’t forget, he pitches in the tough AL East, where he has already faced the Orioles, Yankees (twice), and Blue Jays. Throw in the MLB-leading Brewers, and division leading A’s, and the competition he has to face is pretty solid.

Maybe it is no surprise that Lester is in a contract year, and only received a lowball $70 million dollar offer from the Sox in the offseason. Lester is pitching for his $100 million+ contract, and it is tough to argue that he doesn’t deserve it, especially when you see the other 9-figure extensions less comparable pitchers have been receiving.

For now, Red Sox fans should be pleased with the fire Lester has pitched with this year, and rejoice in the 15 K gem he tossed on Saturday. It was something to behold.

Eating Boston: Cask n’ Flagon

Eating Boston: Cask n’ Flagon

Part of the Boston experience is so uniquely intertwined with the Boston Red Sox experience. You need to try and take it all in, in one of the cities that truly is a baseball-first place. In a massive market like Boston, there are plenty of sporting options. The Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, Revolution, all take their draws from the citizens of the city.

But no draw compares to the popularity of the Red Sox.

Based on this, the Fenway area of Boston is one that must be visited when in town. A big part of this, are the sports bars that surround the legendary Fenway Park, the largest being the Cask n’ Flagon.

caskThe Cask n’ Flagon does what sports bars are supposed to do. It offers a wide selection of bar food, and a really strong list of beers to keep you entertained while the game is on the multitude of TVs placed around the bar.

First, a couple of negatives from my trip there.

  • The lines are really long on game days. Be aware of that if you plan to go when the Sox are playing at home. I was there when they were on the road, so it wasn’t an issue.
  • The TVs aren’t as big as they should have, or could have been. For a bar that thrives on sports, there should be some monster screens in there, in my opinion.
  • The staff couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the Red Sox game on. Seriously? The place was packed with people, there specifically to watch the game. And it took them nearly an inning to figure out which channel it was on, and how to get their TVs to the right place.
  • We ordered some wings. They forgot to place that order. After watching tables around us get the food they ordered, and an hour having passed, we finally asked about them. Our waiter was very apologetic, and we did get our wings. On the house. With some extra wings on there. This is excellent service, and they more than corrected their mistake.

Some of the good.

  • They fixed their mistake, and not having to pay for the wings was an added bonus.
  • The wings were actually incredibly delicious and filling.
  • Very good beer selection, especially for a sports bar. And quite reasonably priced.
  • Huge establishment, with tons of seating to help deal with their game day crowds.
  • A fairly attentive staff, definitely friendly.

The Cask n’ Flagon does not merit a special trip or anything, but if you are in the area, it is a good, sports-centric place to pop in for a beer and a snack, maybe before or after a game, or when the Sox are on the road and you want to watch the game surrounded by their fans.