Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Powder keg tapping out
By Gordon Edes ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- With Fenway Park approaching its 100th birthday, Boston Red Sox players have always been aware of the presence of rats on the ancient premises. They just never knew how adept the rodents were at speed-dialing reporters.
How can you tell that the beer-drinkin', finger-lickin', video-game-playin' saga of the Sox's pitching staff has just about come full circle? When a reporter for the newspaper that gave the gravity of its front page to the antics of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey suggested Wednesday in a blog entry that perhaps the pitchers' behavior wasn't quite as beyond the pale as The Boston Globe's full-Monty expose suggested.
Fans of the team, meanwhile, braced themselves for the next episode in what figured to be a natural progression: drinking in the clubhouse (Pitchers: True), followed by drinking in the dugout (Pitchers: False) to drinking on the mound (Oh please, not that!).
But that would have been an old story in these parts. Or maybe you haven't heard of Ellis Kinder, a right-handed pitcher on some of the best Red Sox teams never to win a World Series -- the teams of Williams, Doerr, DiMaggio, Pesky and Parnell, among others.
"He pitched one night as drunk as could be,'' longtime Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette sports writer Roy Mumpton recalled in Peter Golenbock's book, "Fenway: An Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox."
"He threw two strikes, and the third pitch he threw nine miles over Birdie Tebbetts's head. Tebbetts went out to see what the matter was with him, and said, 'My God, he can't stand up!' Birdie said, 'I don't know what the hell to do, but I can't leave him out there.'"
The postscript to the story, beyond the fact that Kinder went 23-6 in 1949 for a team that lost the pennant to the Yankees on the last weekend of the season (a failure that these days would be labeled "loathsome")?
"Later that year, Kinder went on the wagon,'' Mumpton said. "He couldn't get anybody out. [Manager] Joe McCarthy gave him a 20-dollar bill and said, 'Go out and get drunk.'''
The story is retold here not to condone the behavior of the Beckett Gang, or unchecked boozing like Kinder's, but to try to put the "rally beer" in a little perspective. That shouldn't be too hard to do, not in the immediate aftermath of Doc Gooden confessing in an interview with ESPN that he missed the Mets' championship parade in 1986 -- the Buckner year -- because he was high on cocaine in a drug dealer's apartment.
Remember when beer on the field used to mean that things were going well for the Sox?
This is the same Gooden who in his autobiography, "Heat," described the team's debauched flight back from Houston after winning the NLCS that year.
"At one point the partying was so out of control, the lavatory door accidentally flew open and there was one of my teammates, his face in front of lines of cocaine," Gooden wrote. "I wasn't shocked that he was using. I was shocked that he was so high, he didn't even realize the door was open."
Drugs have also made an appearance in the tale of the Sox September collapse, with the published suggestion that Terry Francona, who somehow went from venerated to venal almost overnight, may have been abusing pain medication, an allegation that owner John W. Henry declared was "reprehensible" a day after CEO Larry Lucchino talked about the newspaper's "interesting theories."
But it's the image of "a bunch of drunk, fried-chicken-eating SOBs, playing video games,'' as Lester so vividly described it, that continues to dog the Red Sox, a team now widely portrayed as spinning wildly off its axis, with one day's revelations trumping the previous day's in its luridness.
(Tweet of the day came from @Chuck_Hogan: "Patriot Ledger reporting weapons-grade plutonium found in Tim Wakefield's locker in Sept.; Sox ownership looked other way.'')
The Sox are trying to put a cap on the damage, a task that would be daunting even for a raging-fire-extinguishing legend like Red Adair. Tuesday night came the late-night denials of dugout-imbibing by all three accused pitchers, the ex-manager and CEO Lucchino. Wednesday morning, veteran catcher Jason Varitek, the team captain, spent more than a half-hour with a couple of sympathetic FM DJs on the Hill-Man show on WAAF, vouching for the team's character. (Best part of the interview was the canned spots that 'AAF ran chiding the hosts for posing soft-toss Fan-Boy questions to Varitek).
It is clear, particularly in the comments made by Varitek and Lester, that the most befuddling aspect of this whole mess to the players is that the insular nature of their clubhouse has been penetrated by outsiders -- with the help of insiders. As Varitek noted, trouble has reared its head in various forms throughout his 15 seasons with the Red Sox, but in most instances, that trouble remained invisible to prying eyes. That hasn't been the case in the wake of this Sox collapse, and behavior that would be judged one way within the brick walls on Yawkey Way is held to a much harsher standard outside of those walls.
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And for that reason, the players' insistence that no connection should be drawn between a couple of beers chugged on a given night by nonparticipants and the team's 7-20 record in September -- a credible argument given that booze has seldom drawn distinctions between winning and losing -- is gaining little traction. Especially among a media whose forebears once sat in press boxes where the beer taps used to flow freely.
"This is not something new,'' Lester said plaintively. "We didn't invent rally beers. Babe Ruth was smoking cigars and eating hotdogs in between at-bats. Some guys have done worse things than we did, some guys didn't do anything.
"Baseball is a unique sport. Stuff like this has gone on more or less for a long time because you know it's not going to get out to the public. But I don't want it to sound like an excuse, or make it seem like it's funny. We need to be accountable and professional."
PR-distributed apologies, telephoned mea culpas, and drive-time radio interviews can only go so far in restoring public confidence in the uniform, even though many fans are clearly wearying of the soap opera. For the Red Sox, spring training can't come soon enough.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.