Boston Strongman

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands Wednesday—  senior writer Tom Verducci writes about how 2013 World Series MVP David Ortiz, one of the greatest postseason sluggers ever, used leadership and resilience to carry the Red Sox and the city of Boston to their third Series title in eight years. Ortiz, who had a .688 BA with 11 hits and two home runs in the six- game Series against the Cardinals, shares this week’s cover with Boston police officers Javier Pagan and Rachel McGuire and detective Kevin McGill –all three appeared on SI’s April 22, 2013 cover as the issue reported on the Marathon bombings.

Writes Verducci, “If any one person were to lead the Red Sox and—given the team’s cultural importance in New England—by extension Bostonians through a terrible time, it was a man with an outsized capacity for resilience. The grind of a 162-game season played in a 182-day window, followed by the wilds of postseason play, would test even Lewis and Clark. But among baseball’s 109 world champions there has never been a story of resilience quite like this one. No team—not the 1969 Mets, not the ’91 Twins—has won the World Series in the year after being as bad as the Red Sox were in 2012 (.426 winning percentage). And only six months before the Series—just a half mile east on the same street where Ortiz was applauded—two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, wounding 264 others and terrorizing hundreds of thousands. Four days later the citizenry was ordered to “shelter in place” during a daylong citywide lockdown, while a manhunt for the bombers proceeded. The pleasant routines of life, including baseball, were put on hold.” (Page 32)

Things were not always easy for Ortiz in Boston. Since arriving in Boston in ‘03 Big Papi has battled through injuries, steroid allegations, batting slumps and criticism from an ex-manager who claimed Ortiz quit on the team. Still, Big Papi remained ebullient and ready to lead by example.

Writes Verducci, Ortiz is the team’s leader in every imaginable way, a man of imposing size (6′4″, 250 pounds) yet easy accessibility. He delivers the right words and mood for a club as reliably as he does big hits. He is a baseball -philosopher—thoughtful, colorful, -profane—and his well-scarred career and outsized personality serve him well in big situations that can rattle others. “You can be the real deal today and s— tomorrow,” he says. “That’s how the game goes. On the day you feel your best, you can go 0 for 5. You go home and say, ‘I feel like Superman, and I went 0 for 5.’ That tells you how tough this game is: On your best day you had a bad day.” (Page 32)


Gone Crazy

This fall, the 2013 World Series has been the greatest show on Earth. In this week’s sports illustrated–on newsstands now–senior writer Tom Verducci explains how the Cardinals and the Red Sox both brought the weird in the 109th fall classic—from whacky beards to foul-ups, bleeps and blunders—in a series full of tense games and never-seen-before endings. But look past the drama and the two evenly matched teams, and you see a sport in need of change. Think the DH was funky? Make way for the bonus at bat.

Writes Verducci, “The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—-intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” (Page 34)

Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in the majors this season. Only twice during the Wild Card Era — in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves — has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. However, the paths each team took to this year’s Fall Classic were drastically different. While the Boston’s pitching staff was middle-of-the pack all year, the Cardinals’ rode to glory on the arms of their flamethrowers, especially during the postseason.

Writes Verducci, “The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today’s game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis’s innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.” (Page 34)

In contrast, the Red Sox relied on patience at the platelong pitch counts and late rallies (plus a late season surge from DH David Ortiz)to get wins. “The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent counter-tacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for “grinding out at bats” to “run up pitch counts,” the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers’ Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey’s Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to “grinders” when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.” (Page 34)

Stylistically, the Red Sox–Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. As an alternative, Verducci suggests that baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting time. Call it, The Bonus At Bat.


Clutch Much?

Clutch HittingWhile postseason baseball won’t settle the debate of whether the clutch gene exists, SI’s Albert Chen says in this week’s issue that there’s no denying that October has brought out some familiar heroes. Chen writes that “few things in sports are more alluring than the idea of a clutch gene—the notion that some athletes are wired differently, with an innate ability to perform their best when the pressure is the greatest.” (PAGE 32)

This October has already produced a highlight reel of clutch moments, from the Marlon Byrd home run in the NL wild-card game, to David Ortiz’s two homers in the Red Sox’ ALDS Game 2 win, to Stephen Vogt’s walk-off single for the A’s in Game 2 of their ALDS against the Tigers, to the stellar outings by rookie pitchers (the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole and the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha).

In the playoffs David Ortiz has a .538 OBP and 1.282 OPS in 52 career late-and-close plate appearances. And Carlos Beltran’s two home runs in the NLDS have brought his career postseason total to 16. Miguel Cabrera hit .348 with a 1.078 OPS this season, but those numbers jumped to .397 and 1.311 with runners in scoring position. “Miguel is a great hitter all the time, no matter the situation,” says Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski. “But with men in scoring position you just see the intensity. Can you measure this? Maybe not.  But if you watch him on a daily basis, you see it.” (PAGE 33)

Sabermetricians largely view clutch hitters as a myth. “Clutch hits exist, clutch hitters do not,” James Click, a former Baseball Prospectus writer and now the head of the Rays’ analytics department, wrote in 2005. “There is no statistical evidence to support the idea that some hitters consistently perform better in situations defined as ‘clutch’ as compared to normal situations. Good hitters are good clutch hitters; bad hitters are bad clutch hitters.” However, in a 2006 study Nate Silver said “clutch hitting ability exists more than previous research would indicate.” (PAGE 33)

Bill James, the godfather of baseball statistics, has even questioned the arguments against clutch hitting. James recently wrote that the discussion in the sabermetric community “has been fouled up for a long time,” and that he no longer had faith in the data that had backed up the arguments against clutch hitting. (PAGE 34) Chen clarifies that this was James saying that clutch hitting could exist.

Chen finds that “much of what think of as clutch hitting could be considered smart situational hitting.” The 2013 Cardinals hit .330 in 1,621 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, good for the highest in baseball history.  The team worked on improving their approach at the plate in spring training. “Their approach is impressive,” says Dombrowski. “You’d see them all the time getting the big hit, and where do they get most of their hits? The opposite field.” (PAGE 34)

The debate won’t end this October, but Chen says “little about baseball at this time of year is fair. A hit, you’re a hero. An out, and you’re the goat. That’s the beauty and the cruelty of October.” (PAGE 34)


Pirates Star Andrew McCutchen on Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

37COVv18_PIR_PromoTo a generation of Pittsburgh fans, September has always been about school, football and the irrelevance of the Pirates. But with the franchise’s 20-season losing streak ending last night, senior writer Lee Jenkins says in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED,  on newsstands now, that a reawakened baseball town is asking: Are yinz ready for October? Pirates’ All-Star centerfielder and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI. His first SI cover appearance marks the second time this season the Pirates have been featured on the cover.

Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, the son of former Pirates pitcher Tom Walker, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia and is part of what locals call the Lost Generation – anyone born in Pittsburgh after 1984. “It was the Steelers, the Penguins, Pitt, Penn State—and then the Pirates,” he says. “Going to the ballpark was never an activity for a group of friends. It was lost.” (PAGE 61)

Jenkins takes readers through the heart of Pittsburgh and its diverse fans, all of whom are ready for fall baseball. “Meaningful baseball after Labor Day,” says local pastor Scott Stevens. “That’s all I ever really wanted.” (PAGE 59) Linda McGary, whose family has had season tickets since the 1940s, will finally count all the way down to a winning season. Seeing her playoff invoice made her “realize that we’re getting close.” (PAGE 60) Jim Coen’s sports merchandise store once carried no Pirates jerseys—and no one complained. Now the Bucs and the Steelers split his sales 50-50.

“The Pirates were something you never thought about,” says Ike Taylor, a Steelers cornerback since 2003. “You never paid any attention to them. Now I go home at night and I watch the Pirates on TV. I’m on the bandwagon. I’ll tell you what I want to see: middle of October, us in a game at Heinz Field, them in a playoff game next door.” (PAGE 61)

Since 2008 the Pirates have spent more money on the draft than any other team, and after some growing pains, the Pirates’ investment, says Jenkins, has paid off. In 2010 the Bucs lost 105 games, 90 in ’11, and last season they were a respectable 79–83. TV ratings jumped 20% last year; this year they’re up another 15%; and the Pirates are on pace for the second-highest attendance in club history.

Jenkins caught up with former Pirate Sid Bream, who is best known for his years as an Atlanta Braves first baseman and the player who scored the winning run for the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS against the Pirates. That year was not only the last time the Pirates made the playoffs, it was also their last winning season. “The agent for 20 years of losing,” says Bream, who lives just outside Pittsburgh, about his score. “I want more than anyone for them to break the Bream Curse. I pray that they’re the ones celebrating this time.” (PAGE 58)


The Swing

The SwingThree years after batting .192 with one home run and receiving two demotions to the minors for the Texas Rangers, Chris Davis has developed into an All-Star first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and one of baseball’s most devastating power hitters. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Tom Verducci takes a look at the struggles Davis faced as a member of the Rangers’ organization and how advice from Yankees star Robinson Cano would change his hitting style all together. Verducci also breaks down the stages of Davis’ rebuilt swing.  Davis is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI.

After torturous 2009 and 2010 seasons with the Rangers that included advice from coaches, instructors and teammates, Davis finally said, “I’m going to have to figure this out for myself.” (PAGE 28) While playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Davis ran into Cano who had only one thought for the struggling first baseman. “For you to handicap your power the way you’ve done it the past two years, that’s just wrong,” Cano told Davis. “Here in the Dominican people talk about your power and how they don’t see that kind of power very often. You’re a power hitter, not a contact hitter.” (PAGE 29)

It was at that point that Davis began to ignore all of the old-school training he had become accustomed to hearing from the Rangers’ staff and made his swing his own. He began to pump his hands lower while pulling them inside of the ball and what resulted is a swing that embodies MLB elite caliber power. “What [Cano] said,” recalls Davis, “was like a revelation in my life.” (PAGE 29)

After being traded to the Orioles and working with hitting coach Jim Presley, Davis hit 33 home runs last season and leads the majors this year with 45. “Learning my swing last year was a huge foundation,” Davis says. “Last year set up this year. I found something that I could repeat on a daily basis and have success and relax and play the game.” (PAGE 33)


Where Are They Now? – The Sandlot

sandlotTwenty years ago nine kids took to a makeshift diamond to tell a story about baseball and capture the essence of youth in 1962. Two decades later, the actors from The Sandlot have scattered professionally and geographically, but some remain close and all are connected by the same experience and the same iconic line: “You’re killing me Smalls!” SI writer Matt Gagne takes a look at what the actors who played the nine main characters have been up to since the movie came out – from acting and playing poker to saving lives and running a pizza shop.

Patrick Renna – Ham:

Known as the pudgy, freckled-faced kid who spoke the infamous line, “You’re killing me Smalls,” Patrick Renna discusses his post-Sandlot athletic success from mastering slow-pitch softball to earning a hole-in-one during a difficult shot at a California golf course last July. The 34-year-old Renna, who is married and lives in L.A., continues to pursue acting, but recollects his fondest memory from the Sandlot days when he and fellow co-star Chauncey Leopardi went crazy feasting on ice cream and ordering other room service items from a Ritz-Carlton during a publicity tour.

“We probably spent $5,000,” Renna says. “I think they forgot we were teenagers.” (PAGE 64)

Chauncey Leopardi – Squints:

With his memorable glasses covering most of his face and wide, toothy grin, Chauncey Leopardi, who played Squints in the movie, hasn’t forgotten the scene when he was lucky enough to be the one who kissed lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn. Leopardi claims his ear-to-ear smile seen in the movie wasn’t just acting. “That wasn’t Squints,” he says. “That was me. I still have that smile.” (PAGE 65)

His smile is not the only thing Leopardi, 32, still has. He was able to captivate a new kind of audience with his acting skills through a recent gig as a telemarketer in the Los Angeles area. “I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s just reading from a script, and I’ve been doing that my whole life.’” (PAGE 65) Acting also helped him survive as a successful professional poker player from 2009 to ’12 (he tells SI he lost nearly all of his earnings one night in Las Vegas last year). Leopardi currently works as a project manager at a friend’s air-filtration company and operates a property-management company with friends.

Mike Vitar – Benny the Jet:

From Sandlot hero to real-life hero, Mike Vitar, 34, is a 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Although his character Benny the Jet made it to the big leagues as a Los Angeles Dodgers player in the movie, Vitar has to settle for playing third base and occasionally catcher for his Los Angeles Fire Department’s baseball and softball teams.

“I’m just an average guy with a family,” says Vitar, who played in as many as three overlapping baseball leagues before he and his wife, Kym, had three kids. (PAGE 66)

Vitar had a chance to live out his movie character’s dream by playing a game for his men’s league’s championship at Dodger Stadium in 2004. Vitar tells SI he was initially reluctant to play Benny. Spotted by a casting agent while waiting in line for bumper cars at a carnival, Vitar was not interested in the agent’s offer, but Vitar’s brother Pablo (an L.A. police officer who died of colon cancer in 2008) convinced him otherwise. Vitar said his brother persuaded him to take the role, saying, “Hey, dummy, you can play baseball all summer long if you do this.” (PAGE 66)

Tom Guiry – Scotty Smalls:

Tom Guiry, 32, is probably the one who hears “You’re killing me, Smalls,” more than any of the other guys from the movie, which makes sense, considering Guiry played awkward new-kid-on-the-block Scotty Smalls. Guiry, who is now a patient transporter at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Jersey, still has 30 and 40-year-old somethings, who grew up with The Sandlot, run up to him and ask for his autograph and to speak the famous line – including one memorable incident with a patient he was transporting.

Although his days at the sandlot might be over, Guiry still pursues acting in the New York area, but his true passion is helping the patients he transports and works with at the hospital.

“I’m really polite to people, because when you’re sick it’s hard to be nice,” he says. “It’s always nice to put a smile on someone’s face. And if I can’t do it acting, maybe I can do it this way.” (PAGE 66)

Marty York – Yeah Yeah

Since his days playing the hyper-active kid who constantly said, “Yeah, yeah,” to everything – dubbing his name in the movie – Marty York, 32, has had somewhat of a troubled past since then. From a tragic car accident in 1997 that left him in a coma for a week to a jail sentence for domestic battery in 2009, York, who currently resides in Valencia, California, is working to get his life back together.

“I’m moving forward—trying to get away from all that.” (PAGE 67)

Grant Gelt – Bertram

From serving as the head of operations at Uprising Creative, an artistic agency in Los Angeles to traveling the world and managing the blues-rock band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Grant Gelt, 33, has come a long way from his Sandlot days. With tattoos from various places around the world covering his body, Gelt admits he has become tamer since his younger days.

“The 16-year-old punk-rock me would be so pissed at the grown-up me… All I want to do is golf.” (PAGE 67)

Looking back, Gelt’s 12-year-old ways might not be so happy with his grown-up self either. Some of Gelt’s fondest memories from filming the movie include pretending to puke during the infamous chewing tobacco scene and the old props used on set.

“Being 12 and getting to play with fake barf… Everything was great,” Gelt says. (PAGE 67)

Victor Dimattia – Timmy

Victor Dimattia, 32, moved from Delaware to San Francisco in 2004 with hopes to make it big with his punk rock band, but after a couple years, he decided to pursue the film program at the Academy of Art University to study directing and screenwriting. He also now works as a bartender in L.A. His role in the Sandlot, however, still gives him perks. Out recently with his co-star Marty York, he was allowed VIP access at a nightclub in L.A. because the bouncer recognized them from the movie.

Dimattia says,“This guy recites the entire thing off the top of his head and then says, ‘Get the f— in here, come on.’” (PAGE 67)

Shane Obedzinski – Repeat

Known for reciting the same words and phrases as his brother Timmy in the movie, “Repeat,” or Shane Obedzinski, 30, tried his hand at becoming a drummer for hard rock bands in his early 20s. Obedzinski eventually quit the music business and started opening and managing pizza chains. However, he,“got tired of doing it for rich people” (PAGE 67) so he and a friend decided to open their own chain in Braden, Florida and have owned and operated it ever since.

Obedzinski is at his shop seven days a week, but when he finds time off, he and his girlfriend enjoy using their year-long passes at Disney theme parks.

Obedzinski’s surprised reaction to co-star Leopardi kissing the life guard was singled out in the movie, yet to this day, still doesn’t know why.

“I don’t know why my face was singled out in the movie,” he says, “but it was a legit reaction.” (PAGE 67)

Brandon Quintin Adams – Kenny

Although he has made appearances on other well-known TV shows and movies (The Mighty Ducks movies, The Fresh Prince of Bell-air, Moesha), Brandon Quintin Adams, 33, is most known for his role as the young pitcher of the Sandlot who declares, “Here comes my heater” (PAGE 67). Adams stays busy these days by acting, writing, directing and rapping in the L.A. area and spends time with 7-year-old daughter on the side. “I’m nonstop, always trying to find somewhere new to spark my mind.” (PAGE 67)

In 2002, his life was forever changed when his best friend and fellow actor Merlin Santana was shot dead at 26. Adams says, “I’m adamant about not being fearful, not wasting time.” (PAGE 67)

“Do what makes you happy. Not for money, not for fame, but for yourself.” (PAGE 67)


The Endless Summer of Bob Uecker

Image In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Luke Winn (@LukeWinn) takes a trip inside the beautiful mind of the Milwaukee Brewers’ first fan: Bob Uecker. From his playing days as a back-up catcher to what he is most known for – announcing games for the Brewers – Winn tells the story of a Milwaukee legend who still has plenty to say.

Playing baseball and being a full-time announcer hasn’t been the only gig for Uecker. His one-of-a-kind comedic tendencies have landed him appearances on TV shows and most famously playing the role of Harry Doyle, the ill-mannered announcer from the Major League movies.

Winn finds that he is not as extreme as Doyle in real life – although his colleagues have shared stories of Uecker’s “cough-button stories,” (PAGE 52).

“There’s a lot of Uke in Harry Doyle, but that’s clearly a character… is he this crass drunk like Harry Doyle? Not from what I’ve seen,” says Joe Block, Uecker’s current broadcast partner. (PAGE 52).

He may not be crude, but he is entertaining. Winn describes Uecker’s way of calling games as getting a “golden-age baseball call with a few dollops of nonsense” (PAGE 53). According to Winn, those dollops of nonsense include anything from using sunscreen as a condiment to a fictitious story about a company that owns a warehouse near Petco Park that Uecker intertwines with his play-by-play.

Ad copy is another avenue for Uecker’s creativity and comical nature to shine through. “’Enjoy Mt. Olympus in Wisconsin Dells,’ he said plugging a water park during a Brewers losing streak. ‘That’s where I’m going – to jump off’” (PAGE 52).

The witty announcer’s age is also a topic of conversation. With various health issues and surgeries in the past, Uecker jokingly declares to Winn that he “changes his diaper” (PAGE 53) to kill time between innings.

With his name located in the Miller Park Walk of Fame and a statue of himself outside of the ballpark, it is clear Uecker is a big part of Milwaukee. Despite all of his accolades, Winn writes that Uecker is “still a player at heart” (PAGE 55) who has the ability to captivate audiences and act as the connector between the Brewers and their fans.


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