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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Pedro Martinez: Celebrating His Legendary Stint with the Boston Red Sox

Last weekend, former right-handed pitcher Pedro Martinez (along with Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio) was part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s most recent induction class. Although he pitched for five teams during his illustrious 18-year major league career, he is best known for the seven seasons he spent with the Boston Red Sox. During his stint in the Hub, he created many memories, which have already become part of team lore.

Pedro won 219 games with a 2.93 ERA during his career. However, his time in Boston was truly special, as he was a combined 117-37 with a 2.52 ERA, 1,683 strikeouts and 3 Cy Young Awards (another three top-three finishes). Not to be forgotten is the integral role he played on the 2004 team- his last season in a Red Sox uniform- when the team finally won a World Series after an 86-year drought.

As someone who watched nearly every one of Pedro’s Boston starts, either on television or in person, I can attest that whenever he took the mound it was an event; a spectacle. The very real possibility existed that something special might happen every single time he toed the rubber. There could be a shutout, a no-hitter, a preponderance of strikeouts. The buzz he generated was electric. Baseball fans of all backgrounds delighted in watching his exploits from the edge of their seats.

A wisp of an athlete, Martinez’s exploits were made all the more incredible because of their perceived improbability. Although small of stature, he possessed a fearsome mid-90s fastball, a curve and changeup that rank among the best of all time. He may have often been the smallest player on the field but because of his physical abilities, he seemed like a giant.

Fiercely proud of his Dominican heritage, he brought his culture with him when he came to Boston in a trade with the Montreal Expos prior to the 1998 season. Almost immediately, Dominican flags sprang up all over Fenway Park on days he started. In a city with a history of racial strife, this was no small feat. His mere presence changed the dynamic of crowds and how fans rooted for the team. The colorful fluttering flags, fans yelling themselves hoarse and gleefully hanging “K” signs in the outfield stands created a diverse and carnival-like atmosphere that has never been seen before or since.

Ability can get you only so far in baseball. For that reason, Martinez’s infectious fun-loving personality made him all the more entertaining to watch. From being cheerfully tied to a dugout post by teammates, to donning a Yoda mask while cheering between starts, number 45 made the game more fun for everyone around him.

There were many other highlights during Pedro’s Boston tenure, including:

The 1999 All Star Game, which was held in Boston. In front of the home crowd and a shockingly aged Ted Williams, Martinez started and threw the first two innings, facing some of the most feared hitters in the game at the height of the PED era. Nevertheless, he showed his superiority, getting five of his six outs by way of the strikeout. Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell (2,219 career regular season home runs between them) were all victimized by his electric stuff that night, marking an all-time moment for the Mid-Summer Classic.

Then there was the one-hitter against the New York Yankees in September, 1999. The only hit he allowed was a first-inning home run to Chili Davis, as he went the distance, striking out 17 and walking none. It was not only an exhibition of pitching in the truest sense of the word, it also came against the team’s arch enemy, which was akin to seeing an 85-pound boy mop up the playground with the oversized bully during recess.

If those things weren’t enough for a legendary 1999 season, Martinez saved his best for the postseason. During that year’s ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, he entered pivotal Game 5 in the fourth inning and pitched six no-hit innings despite an ailing back that had forced him out of Game 1, allowing the team to capture the series. Later admitting it was a move that could have jeopardized his career, it can also be seen as a possible turning point for a franchise that had been a doormat for so many years, and just five years later would finally win a World Series.

Even though injury and age depleted his talents by the time he reached his final Boston season in 2004, he was still an integral part of that team. Despite winning 16 games, his 3.90 ERA was more than a run and a half higher than any of his previous Red Sox seasons. That’s why his final start with the team was so fitting. It came in Game 3 of the Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Martinez was in vintage form, firing seven shutout innings and putting his team in the driver’s seat for the eventual sweep.

Martinez’ perpetually jovial disposition only flickered on the field. He was certainly not a bad guy but his competitiveness ran fiery hot. There was the 2000 game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, when he hit their first batter of the game, Gerald Williams, who promptly charged the mound and instigated a melee. Once order was restored and the bruised batter was ejected, Martinez exacted his revenge. He slammed the door—to the tune of 13 strikeouts and just one additional base runner—a ninth inning single permitted to John Flaherty.

Much like his career on the mound, Martinez shone giving his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. He spent most of his time thanking the many people, both family and those within baseball, he credits with helping him through his baseball journey. The only thing wrong with that is that we, the fans, should be thanking him. He allowed us to see things never before seen or thought to be possible. Along the way he brought a lot of excitement to the game, and in particular, hope and pride to fans of the Red Sox. Legends may fade away but they never truly die. If you ever spent one moment watching Pedro Martinez pitch you’d know that to be true.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Alex Bregman, the Houston Astros' 2015 Top Draft Pick, Talks Baseball

Every year, the Major League Baseball draft introduces a new group of top prospects to the professional game. Plucking the best young American players helps annually rejuvenate the level of top up-and-coming talent. One of the most notable entries this year was shortstop Alex Bregman, who is poised to become one of the National Pastime’s next stars.

The right-handed Bregman grew up in Albuquerque. He attended Albuquerque Academy and was a nationally known prep star. In particular, he garnered wide-spread attention following his impressive performance in the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase home run derby.

Despite being drafted in the 29th round in 2012 by the Boston Red Sox, he elected to defer his career aspirations and play collegiately. It was an excellent decision, as he starred for the LSU Tigers, winning the 2013 National Freshman of the Year award among an assortment of honors throughout his career. Additionally, his team played in the College World Series in 2013 and 2015.

During his three seasons in Baton Rouge, he combined to hit .337 with 21 home runs, 148 RBIs and 66 stolen bases in 196 games. As one of the most decorated players in college, he entered the 2015 draft as one of the most talked about prospects. Not surprisingly, he didn’t last long on the board, going to the Houston Astros with the second overall selection in the first round.

The 21-year-old has already signed and started his professional career. He is off to a strong start, hitting .259 (.367 OBP) in 28 games with a home run, 13 RBIs and four stolen bases. More information about his statistics is available here.

Back in 2012, I had a chance to interview Bregman. Unfortunately, this has not been posted until now, but what better time to revisit our conversation now that he is on the cusp of realizing his professional aspirations? In addition to keeping up with his progress on the field, he is also on Twitter. All the best to this young prospect who has worked so hard throughout his baseball career!

Alex Bregman Interview:

Who were your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: Milwaukee Brewers because when I was five I was told to pick a team and be loyal to them. I chose the Brewers. Later, my best friend Max Walla was drafted by them in the second round ('09). Now I really love how they have a young team and they are doing very well. My favorite player is Dustin Pedroia because he plays the game the right way. He hustles, plays so hard, and has a tremendous knowledge for the game. 

Can you describe what it's like having your own real baseball card before even graduating from high school?: You know, it's a dream come true. When I was growing up I always was collecting baseball cards and I dreamed of being on one. Now that dream is a reality and it’s pretty surreal.

What is it like being a highly regarded draft prospect?: It's an honor, but I am really just focused on winning a state championship for now with my high school teammates.

Can you talk a little bit about your performance in the Perfect Game home run derby?: Haha. You know it was really such an honor to be invited to the Perfect Game National Showcase. It was really fun getting to compete in a home run derby against some of the top players in the country, and my BP thrower was phenomenal.

How much baseball does a player of your caliber play outside of regular high school games?: During the summer and fall I played with Team USA and the Albuquerque Baseball Academy. I got to basically play baseball non-stop against some of the best competition from around the world. It was a blast.

Can you describe your memories of going to your first major league game (if you have been to one)?: I got to sit and watch the Angels play the Rangers with my grandpa, father and brother, and we had so much fun! We sat in the nose bleed section and you couldn't wipe the smiles off our faces

Have you had any interactions with current or former major league players?: I currently have been training this off-season with some of my best friends, lifting weights with our trainer (Adrian Gonzales PHW) and hitting at the Albuquerque baseball Academy with (Jason Columbus). They are Max Walla (Brewers), Blake Swihart (Red Sox), Scott Gracey (Blue Jays), and Jordan Pacheco (Rockies). We really push each other and are trying to be the best baseball players we can be. It really is a brotherhood, and I can't wait to see what happens.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Boston Red Sox Pitching Prospect Reed Reilly Has His Eye on the Major Leagues

Baseball teams can never have too much pitching. Consequently, there is an annual arms race to see who can draft, sign and trade for the hurlers that will hopefully create the indomitable staff needed for a true run at the World Series. In particular, the Boston Red Sox place great emphasis on this part of their team building, and one of the youngsters they have invested in is right-hander Reed Reilly.

Following a stellar career at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, California, Reilly enrolled at Cal Poly- San Luis Obispo and became the school’s closer. In three seasons, he compiled a record of 10-6 with a 2.29 ERA and 27 saves over 85 relief appearances. This included a school-record tying 14 saves during the 2013 season. It was enough to get him selected in the 18th round of that year’s draft by the Baltimore Orioles. However, he declined to sign and went back to college for one more year.

Reilly’s decision to go back to school paid off, as Boston chose him in the seventh round of last year’s draft. Thus far, he has primarily worked as a starter during his professional career. He posted a 3.89 ERA in 10 starts last season with Low Single-A Lowell. This year, the 23-year-old has pitched for Single-A Greenville and gone 4-3 with a 4.26 ERA in 19 games (12 starts). He has shown superb control, striking out 55 batters and walking just 13 in 88.2 innings. More information about his statistics is available here.

Throwing in the low 90s, some scouting reports indicate he may ultimately find his greatest success out of the bullpen. However, he is still young and has time to work on his craft to see where he truly fits.

This past offseason, I had a chance to catch up with Reilly (On Twitter at @Reeder_41) and ask him the following questions about his baseball career.

Reed Reilly Interview:

Who was your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: Growing up I was a diehard Mets fan. My family is from the New York/ New Jersey area, so I was raised watching all of their games and hating the Yankees. Anytime they were out in LA or San Diego, we would always go to see them play. My favorite player was always Robin Ventura. I was a left-handed batter and right handed thrower just like him and played third base as well. I would try to model myself after him in all aspects of the game.

How did you end up playing college ball at Cal Poly - San Luis Obispo?: I actually did not know about Cal Poly SLO at all until my junior year of High School. I went to a showcase at USC and that's the first time they came in contact with me. I took a visit up there my senior year and fell in love with the town and ended up being a recruited walk-on. Best decision of my life to spend my four years up there playing for amazing coaches who took our program to the next level in recent years.

If you did not start a career as a professional ballplayer, what field do you think you would have entered?: If I wasn't a baseball player I definitely would be involved in something sports related. I love all sports and would probably have been a scout or agent of some sort.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you, and what was your draft experience like?: I actually went through the draft process twice; this past year and the season before that. One of the main teams I talked to both years was the Red Sox, so I always had a feeling that they would be the team to take me. It was an honor that such a storied franchise had enough interest to draft me and I am forever grateful.

You were primarily a reliever in college; do you feel that is your future, or are you better suited for starting?: To be honest it doesn't matter as long as I am pitching. I loved being a closer in college and being in big situations, but also being able to start at the pro level was an amazing experience as well. I enjoyed facing the lineup multiple times through and figuring out how to approach each batter and setting them up in different ways. I would love to start as long as I can because I know that I can always fall back on coming out of the pen.

What pitches do you throw and which do you believe needs the most work?: I currently throw a four and two-seam fastball, curveball, slider, and splitter. I have always felt more comfortable with a splitter over a changeup. Definitely my slider and curveball could use more work, especially getting use to the lower-seam baseballs in pro ball compared to college. As this past summer season went on I became more and more comfortable but can always improve each pitch.

Who is one hitter from any time in baseball history that you would like to face, and how would you approach the at-bat?: Any batter that I could face would definitely be Mike Piazza. I would try to go right after him with my fastball and lock him up inside and then to finish probably slider or something soft low and away. He was one of the most exciting and dominating hitters for me to watch as a kid.

If you don't mind sharing, what is something that you treated yourself to after signing your first professional contract?: I actually still haven't made any big purchases since signing, but I am looking into getting an car. I put most of what I got into stocks and bonds, but I will definitely be treating myself and my family to something hopefully in the near future. 

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Alex McKeon: Boston Red Sox Catching Prospect Chats Baseball

The Boston Red Sox have high expectations every year and rely on the veteran foundation of their roster for their success. That being said, the team also places tremendous value on the cultivation of young talent to use at the big league level and as potential trade chips. A recent addition to this player development system is catcher Alex McKeon, who will see if he can eventually move up the ladder and play on baseball’s biggest stage.

After graduating from John Jay High School in Cross River, New York (where he finished with a .410 career batting average), the right-handed McKeon went on to play for Texas A&M International. He became a star, as he was selected as a member of the 2014 All-Heartland Conference first team, and also won a Gold Glove. That season, as a junior, he hit .354 with three home runs and 21 RBIs, ultimately earning his selection in the 31st round of that year’s draft by the Red Sox.

His college head coach, Chad Porter, was effusive in his praise for the receiver, stating "He's been a work horse. It's a well-deserved honor for him to be selected by the Boston Red Sox. No one will work harder and strive to live their dream more than Mac will.

"He is a leader on and off the field and he's something special to any team he's on."
Following signing with Boston, McKeon got into 28 games in the lower levels of the minors with two different teams. He hit .230 with six RBIs, while nabbing 39 percent of runners trying to steal on him.

This year, the 22-year-old is with the Lowell Spinners in short season ball (where he ended last season). The season has just started, so he is still getting his feet underneath him. In six games he has hit .227 with his first professional home run and one RBI. More information about his statistics is available here.

It will be interesting to see what is in store for McKeon but he couldn’t be in a better organization for his development than Boston’s, so he should have plenty of opportunity. In addition to keeping up with his games, you can also follow the prospect on Twitter.

This past offseason I had an opportunity to ask him the following questions.

Alex McKeon Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: I loved watching the 90s’ Yankees. My favorite player was probably Jorge Posada but on any given day it could have been Jeter, Bernie or Paul O’Neil.

As a childhood New York Yankees fan, how were you able to reconcile becoming a member of the Red Sox organization?: Good question that I get a lot. I think that being drafted by a highly recognizable team probably made the experience even better. Being drafted by the Yankees would have been surreal, but growing up hating the Red Sox also allowed me to have a good understanding of their history, which is valuable now. 

You studied history in college. How did you get into that field, and what is your main area(s) of interest?: All throughout high school I never was given a choice of classes. History was always my favorite subject, and college gave me the opportunity to explore that field.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you, and what was your draft experience like?: Happened the way I would imagine most lower round draft picks did. My college coach pushed area scouts to see me play; after some time the Sox and a number of other teams attended our last series of the year. I played well, and come draft day my phone rang. I really didn’t know if I would get drafted until I got the call.

What was the most helpful coaching/advice you received during your first professional season?: Nothing too specific. But I had amazing coaches in rookie ball. Especially our catching coaches, who we spent time with every day, learning about the difference in the “pro game” behind the plate.

What is the one part of your game that you hope to improve on the most?: As vague as it sounds, overall hitting ability; more specifically, power.

Who is one pitcher from any time in baseball history that you would like to face, and how would you approach the at-bat?: When I watch old baseball footage and see what kind of competitor Bob Gibson was, I think that an at-bat against him would be very intense and quite the experience.

What is more difficult, being able to call a game and work with a pitcher, or blocking pitches/controlling the running game?: I think it depends on the catcher. I’m pretty confident in my catching/throwing and receiving skills. Blocking is at the top of my list when it comes to refining my game defensively. Calling a game comes with experience and really paying attention to what works for a pitcher from game to game. 

**I’d like to note that compared to many, many minor and major league guys, I know very little about this game. I learned so much in the first year and expect the same this season.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew