Big Papi hands out high praise
Gary Miller finds out who David Ortiz thinks is the toughest pitcher to face. (Hint: It's a Yankee, but not one who stands 6-10.)
• Although the Red Sox have reversed a career trend of being dominated by Mike Mussina, and David Ortiz has found success in two starts against him this season, Boston's ALCS MVP from a season ago has the highest praise for the Yankees' starter.
"He's the best starter in the American League," Ortiz said of Mussina. Even better than Mussina's new teammate, Randy Johnson? "Yes," Ortiz said. "Randy's got, what, two pitches? Granted, they're great pitches, but you can prepare for that. What's Mussina got, nine [pitches]? Three fastballs, three curves, the change, the split. He's impossible to predict." • The reverberations from the booing of Mariano Rivera at Yankee Stadium are still being felt and debated. For those expressing shock, Steve Stone and Steve Phillips said on an ESPN broadcast that they felt Yankees manager Joe Torre might have been leaving his closer in April 6 for an extended beating, possibly to spare him from the boos, which indeed did come when he was finally lifted. As for reaction around the rest of baseball, A's manager Ken Macha, who spent four years managing in Boston's minor-league system, said, "Anyone care to notice they've got some pretty good hitters over there? What did [the Red Sox] score, about 9,000 runs last year? They do that to a lot of good pitchers."
• The Red Sox's rally off Rivera that afternoon reversed what might have been a turbulent helicopter shuttle up to Boston for about half the team to be part of the festivities for the world premiere of the movie "Fever Pitch" that night at Fenway Park. Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek are featured in a restaurant scene, and Damon originally had dialogue in the movie with actor Jimmy Fallon, though it got cut. While Damon can wait to get his SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, he did make the media rounds while in New York during opening week. He received a surprisingly warm reception at a signing for his just-released book and dropped in on the Regis and Kelly show as well as Conan O'Brien's show. It feels somewhat surprising that New York police provided Damon an escort to try to make the O'Brien show taping across town, just after Boston's first undoing of Rivera especially to be interviewed by O'Brien, a lifelong Sox fan.
• Reliever Mike Myers is just glad to be back with the Red Sox, after spending much of spring training with the Cardinals. The submarining lefty is in one of the most-recognized scenes in the movie "Fever Pitch." The scene of the foul ball that beans actress Drew Barrymore in the crowd has been played constantly in commercials. By the way, for those of you who love cinematic flubs, Myers is shown pitching to the Orioles' Miguel Tejada in that scene. As far as Myers remembers, he has never faced Tejada (actually, Tejada is 0-for-1 lifetime against him, but that at-bat is probably not the one that was shown in the movie).
• The spirits of the Red Sox players were also dampened by manager Terry Francona's trip to the hospital the morning of April 6. Even team clown Kevin Millar found it hard to make light of "Tito's" chest pains, and Francona's lifetime friend Brad Mills, who is also Boston's bench coach, was clearly concerned. Mills and Francona go all the way back to their playing days together at the University of Arizona. So, when Francona uncharacteristically fell asleep on the team bus to Yankee Stadium, and even more unusually complained of not feeling well, Mills knew it had to be something serious. Although Mills had only filled in as a manager on the major-league level during rare ejections of Francona and Frank Robinson, he had spent a dozen years, with great success, managing in the minors. He was more than ready to fill in for his friend that day, as they put the entire game plan in before Mills left the hotel.
While players like Ortiz, Millar, Doug Mirabelli and Mike Timlin flew in a helicopter to be part of the movie premiere, Francona got the same treatment when he was transferred to a Boston hospital. He kept in touch with "Millsy" by cell phone when the Red Sox traveled to Toronto, but during the four games Francona missed, Mills made all the in-game decisions with his staff and managed a 2-2 ledger.
• Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli endured a lot of speculation about his job security during his first season with the Orioles. A strong finish quieted all that, and this offseason an already-imposing lineup was beefed up with the addition of Sammy Sosa. The departure of the former Cub from Chicago was riddled with rumor and acrimony, fueled by perceived disputes over things like where he hit in the lineup. With the first lineup ever to feature two members of the 500 Home Run Club, Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro not to mention former MVP Tejada and other big-name players such as Melvin Mora and Javy Lopez who hits where could be a tricky proposition for Mazzilli.
Mazzilli has said it has never been a problem with Sosa, who for the most part has hit cleanup for the Orioles. Mazzilli says the key is to communicate with Sosa and let him know who's hitting where and why. The Orioles' manager feels most blessed to have one of the few true leadoff hitters in the league, Brian Roberts who, somewhat ironically, is leading the team in homers and a deep and versatile bench. Although he doesn't look too far ahead, Mazzilli did get left-handed hitters David Newhan and B.J. Surhoff in the lineup last Thursday, knowing Randy Johnson was coming up on the weekend, and he "wouldn't want to do that to them." Newhan played center field, where Mazzilli calls him noticeably "calm and comfortable" out there.
What's most critical to the Orioles is getting competent starting pitching. The ongoing unraveling of Sidney Ponson, while troubling, and particularly costly considering his contract, is not totally unexpected. But it leaves Baltimore without a front man to a young rotation, supported by a deep and effective bullpen. That's where Rodrigo Lopez steps in. In Mazzilli's first season at the helm, Lopez flip-flopped back and forth between starting and relieving before eventually emerging as his manager's most consistent starter and posting the sixth-best ERA in the league.
Unaware that Lopez and his wife, Romy, have a special fondness for uniform No. 13, last year Mazzilli took No. 13, which he had worn since changing to it in his return to the Mets in 1986. Things worked out pretty well that year, as Maz earned his only World Series ring as a player. When Mazzilli learned about his new ace's fondness for the number, he figured something had to be done, especially the way Lopez had performed in 2004.
During the O's final exhibition weekend in Oklahoma City, he called Lopez into his office, with the Mexican native fearing maybe he had been demoted to the bullpen again or had the Opening Day assignment taken away. Instead, his manager told him to open the drawer in his desk. Lopez pulled it open, and as he did, the Orioles' uniform No. 13 was staring at him in the drawer.
"It's yours," Mazzilli told him. Mazzilli couldn't have guessed just how much it meant to Lopez, as the gesture actually brought a tear to his eye. Back as No. 13 in 2005, Lopez so far has responded by winning his first two starts, allowing only one earned run in 14 innings pitched.
• An emotional response of a different kind was felt in Baltimore last week by A's pitcher Barry Zito. During the team's off day April 5, Zito went to the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., to pay a visit to wounded servicemen who are back after spending time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zito said he was humbled by the incredibly upbeat attitude of all the military personnel he spoke with, especially considering the life-altering severity of many of their injuries, including the loss of limbs or paralysis. It was part of Zito's involvement in "Strikeouts for Troops," in which he will donate $100 for every strikeout this season to help wounded servicemen and their families.
Much of the money donated will go to clothing and entertainment items for the soldiers and to help their families with travel to visit them in the hospital facilities. Zito is working on getting several of his teammates and others around the league to contribute for either strikeouts or hits. More on the program and Zito's progress on it can be found at: www.strikeoutsfortroops.org.
In addition to helping out men and women he considers to be heroes, the Oakland left-hander is hoping projects like this can help improve the image of baseball in the wake of the ongoing attention the steroids issue is getting.
Zito is hoping to get many of his teammates to join him in the cause because despite the constant turnover in the A's roster, including the departure of the two guys he was closest to, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder this continues to be the closest clubhouse in the majors. Even with a large influx of new teammates, such as Danny Haren and Juan Cruz who came to Oakland in the Hudson and Mulder trades, respectively the A's still remain one of the only clubhouses that regularly has as many as a dozen players all involved in the same activity rather than isolating individually by their lockers.
Sometimes, players get together to watch a movie; other times, players gather in clumps to watch game tapes on laptops in the corner. Last week, half the team sprawled out on couches in Baltimore and watched White Sox closer Shingo Takatsu unravel by allowing three home runs to the Indians in the ninth inning of a game. Veterans like Eric Chavez were mixed with newcomers and rookies, predicting every pitch, cheering or "oohing" each result for more than half an hour. It's part of what makes the A's so successful and one of the most enjoyable teams to be around.
• Even as the A's are off to a slow start, things stay loose around the team because of someone called "Ronnie Mac." That's the latest nickname of clubhouse cutup Bobby Kielty, who last year sported a buzz cut but this season has been sporting a thick bush of red hair that would rival comedian Carrot Top's, or as his teammates like to imply, Ronald McDonald. Even though Kielty went 0-for-4 in his first start last Thursday in Baltimore, a game the A's won, Kielty provided a little comic relief for everyone on the team bus. He did so by having his red hair plastered down on his head with a part down the middle and one sprig of hair sticking up in the middle, a la Alfalfa of the Little Rascals.
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.
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