Commentary

Keith Foulke catches up

The 2004 World Series hero has finally found peace after tumultuous times

Updated: September 28, 2012, 1:27 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- When the 2004 World Series team reunited Tuesday at Fenway Park, Keith Foulke threw the ceremonial first pitch to Jason Varitek, who playfully re-enacted the moment he leaped into Foulke's arms after the Boston Red Sox closer had fielded a comebacker and flipped it to first for the final out of that magical October.

That's a moment, Foulke said this week, he couldn't bear to watch for months afterward.

"It took me a couple of years to appreciate what happened," he said. "I couldn't watch the video because it was painful for me. My wife left me in September that year. I'm going home to an empty house. That was one of the reasons I liked pitching so much. My personal life was going to hell. I needed my professional life.

"Brutal. I made some bad decisions. I chose to try and go the family route; that's what killed me. Now I don't have a career or a family."

Foulke laughed a mirthless laugh.

Keith Foulke turns 40 next month. He last pitched for the Red Sox in 2006. He missed the 2007 season with a bad elbow, then returned to pitch for Oakland in 2008, his last season in the big leagues. In 2009, he pitched for the independent Newark (N.J.) Bears.

A strong case could be made that without Foulke, the Sox would never have won the World Series in '04. He appeared in 11 of the 14 games the Sox played in that postseason, and all four games of the World Series. He saved three games and won another, and in one three-game span of the ALCS, all won by the Sox, threw 100 pitches over five innings.

"You can say that about everybody," Foulke says of those who say he was indispensable. "I appreciate that when I hear people say that, but that's not how I think. It's still a team game."

[+] EnlargeJason Varitek
Michael Ivins/Getty ImagesJason Varitek embraces Keith Foulke after their ceremonial first pitch Tuesday.

Foulke laughs and says he still thinks he should have won the World Series MVP over Manny Ramirez, and probably is right.

"I was disappointed I didn't get the MVP," he says. "I wanted the car. I wanted the free car. I'd have put 'MVP World Series' on the license plate.

"Personal awards and all that, I got the trophy. I got the ring. I'm in the pictures. Every year this time of year, it all pops up again."

Foulke is now at a place where he can savor those memories, but it was long in coming. His family had blown up, and the divorce that followed was ugly. And it contributed, he said, at least in part, to a decision he made the following spring that he regrets to this day.

The staggering workload of the previous October did not cost him his career, he insisted.

"Sure, I was tired," he said. "But that's what I love to do. I always wanted to pitch more. That's why I liked being a starter. I liked going out there. That didn't hurt me much."

What hurt him was when Tom Gill, who had just taken over as the team's medical director, told him on the first day of spring training that he needed to have surgery on both of his knees, and Foulke refused.

"I don't like to regret anything," he said. "You live with your mistakes and learn. But not getting my knees fixed in spring training was by far the dumbest, stupidest thing I did. It was kind of like selfish to me. I screwed me.

"The first day of spring training, I couldn't bend down. We'd brought in a new doctor [Gill] that year. He said, 'I don't like it, I don't think you're going to make it.' I said, 'Screw you, pal, I'm going to be on the field, I need to pitch.' World Series, divorce, I need to pitch. Terrible mistake."

The second game of the season, Foulke gave up a game-winning home run to Derek Jeter of the Yankees. The tone was set. His ERA was a hideous 6.23. He blew four saves. He gave up a startling eight home runs in 39 innings, including a grand slam to Travis Hafner of the Indians in late June, when he uttered a statement that would hound him for the rest of his time in Boston:

"I'm more embarrassed to walk into this locker room and look at the faces of my teammates than I am to walk out and see Johnny from Burger King booing me."

Foulke was deeply unhappy, and it showed. Finally, in July, he had surgery on one knee, then had surgery on the other in the offseason. He opened the following season as closer, but Terry Francona replaced him with Jonathan Papelbon during the first series.

The decision to postpone surgery?

"Oh, it crushed me," he said. "I was starting downhill on my career, and all that did was make it a cliff I was headed over. My knees were killing me. I couldn't bend. I ended up hurting my elbow. I ended up having surgery in '07. That was one of the reasons why I didn't go to Cleveland. I couldn't throw more than a couple of days."

Foulke had signed as a free agent with the Indians after the '06 season, but shocked Cleveland when he announced that he was retiring because he couldn't pitch. Indians GM Mark Shapiro said that was one of the most honorable decisions ever made by a player, since he could have collected on his guaranteed contract.

"I didn't want to go to Cleveland and show up and then say, 'Oh, thanks for the contract, and by the way I can't pitch -- my arm hurts.'"

Foulke returned to the big leagues with Oakland, then called it a career after a turn with Newark in '09. In his 11 years in the big leagues, he saved 191 games and won another 41. He had three years in Boston, one of which should earn him enduring respect from Sox fans, even the "Johnny from Burger King" he never intended to offend.

"Everyone used to get on me about not liking baseball," he said. "I like baseball. I didn't like the downtime in baseball. I loved to compete. I loved to be on that mound. I wanted to pitch every day."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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