Back in 2000, Pokey Reese was one of the most sought-after middle infielders in the game of baseball. He was the Gold Glove-winning second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and he was coming off a season in which he had just hit a career-high .285 and stole 38 bases. It was his third year in the big leagues and he was also beginning to produce some pop in his swing, reaching the ten-homer mark for the first time. But it was his glove work that set him apart. Reese could get to balls and make throws few others could.
No doubt, his value was at its peak, which is why the Reds offered the then 26-year-old native of Columbia, SC a four year deal worth about $21 million after the 2000 season. Reese turned it down, a certain indication to Cincinnati’s front office that he was planning on testing free agency. A rumor than began to circulate that Reese wanted $10 million a year, an intimidating number for most teams to swallow at the time, especially for a middle infielder. That number became even more intimidating, when Reese’s offense began to disappear.
His agent denied that he nor his client ever made the demand and Reese himself blamed Reds’ GM Jim Bowden for planting the story but Bowden also denied doing it. Wherever it came from, that rumor and Reese’s .224 batting average in 2001 did huge damage to his acquisition appeal around the league. That’s why the Reds could only get a couple of pretty ordinary pitching prospects for the two-time Gold Glove winner when they traded him to The Rockies in December of 2001. Colorado didn’t even actually want Reese either. A day later they traded him to the Red Sox for Scott Hatteberg. Two days later, Boston released him and he ended up signing with the Pirates.
He did pretty well his first year in Pittsburgh, horribly his second and then just before Christmas in 2003, he was again acquired by the Red Sox, this time as a free agent. At the time, Boston’s front office and the team’s star shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra were locked in one of the bitterest contract feuds in franchise history. When Boston traded the disgruntled Garciaparra to the Cubs during the ’04 regular season, it was Reese who took his place for a while. By the end of that year however, he had lost the job to Orlando Cabrera, and had become the team’s utility infielder. He was the second baseman who cleanly fielded the ground ball off of Ruben Sierra’s bat that ended Game Seven of the dramatic 2004 ALCS versus the Yankees. Then, after winning his first and only World Series Ring, reese never again played in a big league ball game.
It really was remarkable that Reese made it as far as he did in baseball. His childhood back in South Carolina had been one of abject poverty. He then fathered two children out of wedlock and before he reached the big leagues, his daughter was killed in a car accident and his young son witnessed the bloody murder of his own mother.
At first glance, I thought the only member of the all-time Red Sox roster to celebrate a birthday on June 9 might have had an identity problem. His real name was Dominic Joseph Ryba, but everyone knew him as Mike. He won a minor league batting title as an all star catcher in 1933 and two seasons later, he was a 20-game-winning pitcher. That’s when the Cardinals brought him up for his big league debut at the end of the ’35 season. Ryba was already 32-years-old by then and he spent the next five years bouncing up and down between St Louis and the clubs top farm teams. In 1940, he went 24-8 for the Cardinals double A affiliate in Rochester, NY. Even though he was 37 years-old by then, the Red Sox traded for him that September and he spent the next six seasons, including all of the WWII years pitching mostly in relief for Boston. He did pretty well.
Overall, Ryba went 36-25 in Beantown, including an impressive 12-7 1944 season. In 1945 he compiled a career low 2.49 ERA. The right-handed native of DeLancey, PA also got all of his 16 career saves while wearing a Red Sox uniform. By the time all of the big league players returned from service in the War, Ryba was 43-years-old and ready for his next career as a minor league coach and big league scout. He died in 1971 at the age of 68.
Only three members of the Red Sox all-time roster were born on July 8th and none of them appeared in any more than a handful of games for Boston. One of them was a pitcher named Pete Magrini, a Santa Rosa, California-born right-hander, who made his big league debut as a Red Sox with two relief appearances and a start during the 1966 season. It was not an impressive one. He lost his only decision and his ERA was just a shade south of eight when he was sent back to Boston’s International League affiliate in Toronto that May. Magrini would never again appear in a big league ball game but he did make a contribution to the 1967 Red Sox Impossible Dream pennant-winning team. The manager of that club, the late Dick Williams, always pointed to Boston’s late-season acquisition of veteran Yankee catcher Elston Howard as a key to the team’s successful stretch run. Magrini was one of two Boston pitchers sent to New York for Howard. The other was Ron Klimkowski.
He will always be remembered by Red Sox Nation as the guy who was traded to bring Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe to Boston. It was the deal that eventually broke the curse of the Bambino and hung a championship banner again in Fenway after over an eighty year drought. It was Dan Duquette’s finest hour, even though the former Red Sox GM was actually trying to get a prospect named Ken Cloude from the Mariners and only “settled” for Varitek and Lowe after Seattle refused to give up on their young power pitcher.
Heathcliff Slocumb’s record was 0-5 at the time of the trade and his ERA was in the high five’s but he was actually in a very nice groove for Boston, having successfully converted 11 of his last 12 save opportunities. That hot streak and an impressive appearance against the Mariners just before the deal went down were the only reasons the Seattle brain trust, who were desperate for a closer, made the trade for the right-handed native of Jamaica, NY at the 1997 trading deadline. As we all know now, Slocumb’s career propelled downward from that point, but not before he registered 10 saves during the second half of that ’97 season to help the Mariners reach the postseason.
Slocumb had come to Boston in a trade with the Phillies in a 1996 preseason deal. He was coming off a breakout 32-save season with Philadelphia just one year after his 27-year-old high school sweetheart wife had died from cancer, leaving him with two young daughters. The pitcher used his grief and parental responsibility as a motivator and became one of the more effective closers in baseball. When he saved 31 more games during his first season in Boston, it did look as if he was on the cusp of a great career. Than a horrible start to the ’96 season combined with Seattle’s refusal to part with a pitcher who never made it, changed the course of baseball history for fans in Boston and maybe those in Seattle too.
Why Boston signed Junichi Tazawa as an amateur free agent in December 2008 was pretty easy to figure out. Its how they signed him that was sort of unusual. At the time, the Red Sox were getting pretty good results from another right-handed pitcher from Japan. Daisuke Matsuzaka had already helped Boston win a World Series in 2007 and had gone 18-3 in ’08. The two pitchers both played their high school ball in Yokahama, but unlike Dice K, Tazawa decided he would not start his professional career in Japan. Instead, he intended to shop his services to the highest bidding MLB franchise in the United States.
That turned out to be Boston, who gave Tazawa a 3-year deal for $3 million, hoping that he would give them a second roll of the “Dice” to throw at opponents. He became just the third native of Japan to bypass Nippon Professional Baseball and sign directly with an MLB team.
After getting off to a good start in Double A ball the Red Sox brought him up in August of ’09 and put him in their rotation. He did fine until his fourth start against the White Sox, during which he was shelled for 10 hits and 9 runs in four innings. That got him demoted to the bullpen and in his next appearance a week later, those same White Sox jumped on him for five more runs in 3.2 innings. He also injured his pitching arm and was forced to undergo surgery and sit out the entire 2010 season.
So Tazawa proved he was not another Dice K, but over the past three seasons, he has shown his fastball, curve and forkball are good enough to get big leaguers out consistently as a middle reliever and set-up man. In 2012, he was one of the few bright spots on a bad Boston pitching staff, producing a 1.43 ERA in 37 games. He appeared in 71 regular season games during Boston’s 2013 Division-winning regular season and then performed close-to-brillantly in their postseason run to a World Championship.
Though I located four members of the Red Sox all-time roster who were born on June 5th, none of them spent much time playing for Boston. So I selected the only one of the four who made it to the Hall of Fame as today’s Beantown Baseball Birthday Celebrant.
“Happy Jack” Chebro appeared in 392 games during his 11-season career in the big leagues that began with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1899. He appeared in just one game for the Red Sox in 1909, a starting assignment against another of his former teams, the New York Yankees in the last game of Boston’s regular season. He took the loss.
When I first started following baseball in 1960, New York Yankees dominated the record book. Babe Ruth’s single season and career home run records, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played, Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Jack Chesbro’s most wins in a season marks were all considered unbreakable. One year later, Maris hit 61 but that was OK by me because he was a Yankee. Then Aaron grabbed the Babe’s other record, Ripken replaced the Iron Horse, and a juiced up McGuire eclipsed Maris. That leaves just DiMaggio’s 56 games and Chesbro’s 41 victories still Pinstripe property.
I do believe that the Clipper’s hitting streak will fall some day in the not too distant future but Happy Jack’s victory mark will withstand the test of time. The ironic thing about Chesbro’s 41-win season in 1904 was that he too used juice to help him set the mark. But his juice came out of his mouth instead of a syringe and was applied to a baseball instead of being injected into his butt. Jack had one of baseball’s best spitballs and in 1904 he used it to near perfection. Just like steroids’ impact on the the human body however, foreign substances applied to a baseball can have disastrous side effects. One of the spitters Chesbro threw during the 1904 season finale against the Red Sox fluttered so much it got past the New York catcher and the winning run scored, costing the Highlanders the pennant.
Chesbro pitched seven seasons for New York with a cumulative record of 128-93. His total big league career lasted 11 years and his lifetime record was 198-132. That 40-victory season got him elected to the Hall of Fame by the old-timers committee in 1946.
I was an oversized kid. My first little league baseball coach kept asking me if I wanted to try catching. We already had a kid on the team doing the catching and I believe his name was John Malec. John had a tendency to get lazy back there and he would sometimes sit instead of squat in in his crouch at which point our coach would scream, “Get your damn rump off the ground Malec. If you’re tired go home!”
Young Malec was not alone. That same phrase or words very similar could be heard shouted to boys dressed in oversized catcher’s gear by coaches and parents at thousands of baseball fields across our country. It was against protocol and considered taboo for a catcher to let his buttocks come in contact with the dirt when assuming the catchers’ crouch position to await the next pitch. So every time Coach Aldi would ask me if I wanted to catch, I would quickly say no because I did not want to have anybody yelling at me to keep my rump off the ground.
Now if today’s Beantown Baseball Birthday Celebrant had started his Major League career in 1960 instead of 1980, either John Malec would be walking around with a lot fewer emotional scars or I myself might have even given the tools of ignorance a shot. Why? Because Tony Pena gave every lazy kid catcher an automatic retort to the phrase “Get your damn rump off the ground catcher.”
Pena sat on his rump waiting to receive every pitch thrown to him in 1,950 games during the eighteen-years he spent in the big leagues. That put him in fourth place on the all-time Major League list for most games caught. He wore a Red Sox uniform for 534 of those games.
Boston signed this native Dominican as a free agent after the ’89 season for four years and $9 million. He spent those next four years as Boston’s starting catcher. By then, Pena was no longer the .280 hitter he had been during his early years with the Pirates but he could still handle his responsibilities behind the plate. In fact, he won the AL Gold Glove for catchers during his second season with the Red Sox, in ’91. When his average plummeted into the .180s during the final year of his contract, however, it made the decision to not re-sign him easy for Boston’s front office. He then moved on to Cleveland, where he backed up and mentored Sandy Alomar Jr. for the next three seasons. The five-time All Star retired after the 1997 season with a total of four Gold Gloves, 1,687 career hits and a lifetime average of .260. He is now the highly-respected bench coach for the Yankees.