In anticipation of Opening Day, I’m reading Summer of ’49 by the late, great David Halberstam, a book I bought last summer, hadn’t got around to, and am heavily invested in now.
One of the aspects that the book touches upon was the culture of player acquisition in the 1930s and ’40s, where players were discovered in industrial leagues and sandlots, were signed by clubs, worked to get to their position, and if they were able to break through the glass ceiling and survived veteran hazing, earned their place in the big leagues. Yogi Berra, Tommy Henrich, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Mel Parnell and Bobby Doerr all spent their entire careers with either the Red Sox or the Yankees. It’s kind of amazing.
I don’t begrudge or even dislike free agency, but it’s created a different era. This is not news. Players come and go, some stay for a few years, some stay for one, or part of one. I got to thinking of some memorable characters who took off after one year in Boston, so naturally, here’s another lineup.
Mind you, I’m a limited creature, so I’m going to hang within the last 22 years. It’s my era, and as great as Frank Tanana or Orlando Cepeda might’ve been, I won’t have the emotional attachment I will to some of these folks.
C — Mike Macfarlane, 1995
The Red Sox won the American League East this season, which came out of nowhere, to me. There was a new manager, a lot of new players and the team bore little resemblance to the previous year. As a result, 1995 makes a couple of appearances here.
Macfarlane came over from Kansas City and brought stability to the Sox after they cycled through several catchers the year before. He hit .225, he looked like a buff Scott Fletcher, and he led the league in passed balls with 26. Despite that, he was still an upgrade from 1994, so I threw my fan weight behind Macfarlane. After the season, the Sox grabbed Mike Stanley from the Yankees, and Macfarlane went back to the Royals.
1B — Nick Esasky, 1989
After a couple of years watching random games on TV, 1989 was the first year I felt ready to follow the Red Sox day in and day out. I started to notice patterns for first time. I noticed that Jim Rice, who I had latched onto early, didn’t really play much anymore. I noticed that Jody Reed, Wade Boggs and Mike Greenwell always seemed to be on base. And I noticed that Nick Esasky always drove them home.
Esasky’s story is pretty well known at this point. Esasky, in his only year in Boston, hit 30 home runs, 108 RBI, posted an .855 OPS, and left for Atlanta as a free agent. He played nine games with the Braves in 1990 before succumbing to vertigo, ending his major league career partly into his eighth season.
2B — Chris Stynes, 2001
2001 was my worst season as a fan. The Red Sox weren’t the worst in terms of talent or wins and losses, but they were as loathsome a group as I can imagine being assembled. The Sox lost, in succession, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek to injury. From there, a team of clubhouse worms, including Carl Everett, Mike Lansing, Dante Bichette and Shea Hillenbrand, to name but a few, led a hate-filled cast.
There were some isolated bright spots, though. Trot Nixon broke out that season and emerged as a leader, the voice of intense reason in a divided dugout. David Cone quietly did his job as best he could in the twilight of his career. And Chris Stynes kept quiet, playing wherever manager Jimy Williams put him (until he was fired by Dan Duquette, himself not long for the baseball world). It wasn’t a great year — in 96 games he hit .280 with a .732 OPS — but in a year where I almost gave up and started rooting for the Minnesota Twins, I took whatever I could get.
3B — Adrian Beltre, 2010
I could talk about Beltre’s 28 home runs, his one-knee home runs, his .919 OPS or his crippling of two different left fielders.
But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just link to this collection of .gifs of Beltre freaking out after teammates touched his head. It makes me miss Victor Martinez all the more.
SS — Orlando Cabrera, 2004
Had Alex Gonzalez not come back for the second half of 2009, he would have had this spot locked down. But Cabrera was just as brilliant, albeit differently, in his three months with the Red Sox. He was exciting, he was edgy, he seemed to have a knack (real or perceived) for the big hit, and will forever be immortalized as the shortstop on the best Red Sox team that will ever be.
He left as a free agent after the season, and thus began Theo Epstein’s quest for Nomar Garciaparra’s replacement. Edgar Renteria, Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro have all had a shot at it (and the last two still have a shot). But you don’t have to look far to find a Boston fan who wishes it had just been Cabrera ever since.
RF — Rob Deer, 1993
Rob Deer had a mighty swing. He swung for the fences at all times in all situations. In his first at-bat with the Red Sox after his trade from Detroit, Deer took Cleveland’s Derek Liliquist over the left field wall. When he connected, he went deep.
Connections weren’t always in the cards for Deer, though. In 38 games with Boston, Deer hit .196, struck out 49 times, and went deep six more times. He might not have helped the cause, but the Sox weren’t really going anywhere that year, anyway. At least he was memorable.
CF — Willie McGee, 1995
McGee was a weird, weird looking guy. And McGee was the most consistent member of the Red Sox’ revolving door center field that also included Lee Tinsley and Dwayne Hosey. And McGee also shared a common trait with a lot of players on this list — he was a once-great player who was now in Boston, and as a young fan, I was still naive enough to be excited. “Hey, Boston got Willie McGee! They got Rob Deer!” And, when I was 20, they got this next guy.
LF — Rickey Henderson, 2002
Rickey was a favorite of mine for years before he arrived in Boston, and he locked down this spot right away. That season, Manny Ramirez suffered a hand injury, putting Henderson in left field for a few weeks in the summer, back in the every-day slot he first inherited with the Oakland A’s in 1979.
He only played 72 games, only stole eight bases, only hit five home runs, and came to accept his reserve role. But for a season, I got to watch Rickey Henderson as a Red Sock, an entertaining and much-needed antidote to the disaster year of 2001.
DH — Carlos Baerga, 2002
Carlos Baerga, at one time, was seen as a future Hall of Famer. He put together great years as the Cleveland Indians’ second baseman, but in 1996 he turned 27, was traded mid-season to the New York Mets, and the wheels fell off. He went from the next Joe Morgan to a serviceable utility player, a fate that was inconceivable even a year prior. By 2002, he had moved on to Boston, got most of his at-bats at DH and played a bit at second.
But Baerga did his part in the reclamation of the Red Sox as an entity I could feel good rooting for. Baerga was the first Sock I remembered hugging teammates, a torch that was carried on by David Ortiz and Kevin Millar and now is a common occurence. He was a good guy, and despite owning a career that went from immortal to faceless, played because he so obviously loved baseball. He passed that love of baseball onto his teammates.
Isn’t that what it’s all about? Playing a kid’s game long after your prime? It’s about passion. And so are exercises like this, making a list of memorable and forgettable names.
Lord, I’m going stir crazy. Bring on Opening Day.