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.


Words With…Pedro Martinez

Pedro MartinezIn his new TV role as a commentator for TBS during baseball’s playoffs, Pedro Martinez has shown that he still can colorfully change speeds and bring piercing heat. The future baseball hall of famer sat down with senior writer Tom Verducci for a Q&A in this week’s SI to discuss why he tried TV, his transition away from the game, the return of the Red Sox to the American League Championship Series, beanballs and assorted other topics, including Derek Jeter’s impromptu, face-to-face pitch to become a Yankee.

On television: “I had too much time not doing anything at home,” Martinez says. “It was uncomfortable sitting at home and my wife questioning me, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s also a good opportunity to explore something different, because I really want to expand on what I learned in baseball. Some of the guys, like Kevin Millar, Barry Larkin, Manny Acta, they all know the knowledge in my head about the game and they all thought that as loose as I am, I would be a person that could do this.” (PAGE 47)

On missing the game: “I would get really cranky because I wasn’t going to seven hours to a gym and then to play a game,” Martinez says. “I was just a lazy cat at home.” (PAGE 47)

On moving guys off the plate: “You commit to that pitch,” Martinez says.  “You go into that pitch saying, I am making a statement here. If you don’t move back, you’re getting hit.” (PAGE 48)

Martinez tested the free agent market after the 2004 season. The Yankees had him in for a meeting before he signed with the Mets. While talking with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Martinez says, “Jeter walks by. He peeks in and sees me and says, ‘What are you doing here? Oh, Boss, please sign him.’” (PAGE 52)

On who the last person he wants to see in the batter’s box late in a close game: “Jeter,” Martinez says.

Why Jeter? “He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t get excited. He’s cold, like an icebox. You make a good pitch, and it seems like he bloops it all the time. You make a great pitch, and somehow he finds some area on the bat. I don’t know if he’s not strong enough to break the bat or the ball does not hit an area to break it. . . . And if you make a mistake, he will take you deep. It’s impossible to make him change his approach or his demeanor. The program that he has to approach you doesn’t change. He knew I would come after him. And I don’t think Jeter ever thought I would hit him in the head or put him in jeopardy. The most I could do was hit him in the ribs or something like that—and only in retaliation because I have a huge amount of respect for Jeter.” (PAGE 52)


Kate Upton Joins the Braves’ Upton Brothers on This Week’s SI Cover

41COVv22_PromoThe MLB postseason is under way, and in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—on newsstands now—senior writer Tom Verducci says it’s all about which team gets hot, because the playoffs are more random and chaotic than ever. Verducci writes, “With parity across the sport, no dominant team among 10 postseason entrants and four rounds of playoffs, welcome to Anybody’s October, a two-fortnight roll of the dice.” (PAGE 36)

SI’s Ben Reiter wonders if brothers B.J. and Justin Upton can get hot and power the Atlanta Braves to a World Series title. The Upton’s, along with SI Swimsuit model Kate Upton appear on the cover of this week’s issue. Kate Upton makes history as the first swimsuit model on the SI cover for a non-Swimsuit issue and joins celebrities such as Bob Hope, Brad Pitt, Stephen Colbert and Mark Wahlberg who have appeared on the cover.

***Visit SwimDaily.com for an album of photos and video from the Uptons’ cover shoot | Click here to view a gallery of SI celebrity covers

As for the Bravess World Series chances, Reiter acknowledges that they do strike out a lot and have been devastated by injuries, and their highest paid player (B.J. Upton) had a really bad debut season. However, in October that may not matter, since Atlanta demonstrated for extended stretches this season that the team can get as hot as any club in baseball. “No team has demonstrated the potential to get hotter than the as-whole-as-they’re-going-to-get Braves, their beleaguered centerfielder included,” says Reiter. “It will all come down to the timing.” (PAGE 46)

*** Click here for more info on Tom Verducci’s article and here for more on Ben Reiter’s article


It’s Anyone’s October

Anyone's OctoberAs baseball’s best teams duke it out for a World Series title, SI senior writer Tom Verducci says the MLB postseason is more random and chaotic than ever. Verducci writes, “With parity across the sport, no dominant team among 10 postseason entrants and four rounds of playoffs, welcome to Anybody’s October, a two-fortnight roll of the dice.” (PAGE 36)

A’s GM Billy Beane meticulously builds and runs his team through statistical analysis, but he too surrenders October to chance. The notoriously nervous GM can comfortably watch the A’s in October. “Like a 14-year-old Labrador in front of the fireplace,” Beane says. “It’s the one time I can sit with my wife and just watch.” (PAGE 36)

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, whose team won the NL West by the largest margin in baseball (11 games) and boasts the one-two pitching punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, says: “There is no clear-cut favorite. It’s not like you can say, ‘Well, jeez, this team won 106 games’ or ‘This team has two No. 1 starters and four guys with 30-plus home runs.’ An upset probably doesn’t exist. You shouldn’t be surprised if anybody from the pool of 10 teams winds up on top.” (PAGE 36)

One trend may suggest who the favorites should be this October: the importance of putting the ball in play. Baseball set a record for strikeouts per game this season for the seventh consecutive year and teams that avoid strikeouts have won more in the postseason as of late.

Verducci notes the offenses of the past eight teams to reach the World Series each ranked ninth or lower in league strikeouts and the four most recent champions ranked 15th, 16th, 12th and 13th. Conversely, in that same span, teams that ranked among the top five in strikeouts lost nine of 11 series. This would appear bad for the Braves (second in the NL in strikeouts), Pirates (third), Reds (fifth) and Red Sox (fourth in the AL), and good news for the Cardinals (14th in the NL), Dodgers (12th), Tigers (13th in AL) and A’s (ninth).

“That is a small trend,” Beane says. “You’re never going to predict anything with small sample sizes. You’ve got to be careful about drawing conclusions.” (PAGE 38)


Exit Sandman: Yankees Closer Mariano Rivera On the Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

39COVv21Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the template for what it means to be a pitcher, a teammate and a friend, says senior writer Tom Verducci in the cover story for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands Wednesday.  “Closing time for the game’s greatest closer has arrived,” Verducci writes. And as Rivera—baseball’s alltime leader in regular-season and postseason saves—ends his iconic career, Verducci presents an oral history of Rivera with commentary from coaches, teammates, opponents and fans whose lives Rivera has touched. The Yankees’ closer appears on SI’s cover for the fourth time, with the billing “Exit Sandman.”

“Probably not since Koufax have we seen anyone leave the game with so much respect,” says Joe Torre, Rivera’s manager with the Yankees for four of his five World Series championships. (PAGE 36)

Former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, a teammate of Rivera’s from 1997 to 2011, reflects on how good Rivera always looked, even when they were in the minors. Posada says, “He was always very tailored—even in the minors. We would blouse our pants, but he would always look perfect in his uniform. His jeans were perfectly tailored and he was always very well dressed. He would wear these leather sandals from Panama—I remember because he has ugly feet. Don’t tell him I said that. Now he gets manicures and pedicures.” (PAGE 38)

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, the Yankees’ manager from 1992 to ’95, admits that he wasn’t sure about Rivera’s future when he saw him throw in spring training in 1993, the year after Rivera had elbow surgery. That would change. Showalter says, “His hand and fingers were born to pitch. He has really long fingers and the perfect wrist; he can’t move his hand much side to side, but it’s very flexible up and down.” (PAGE 38)

Rivera and Derek Jeter played in a combined 26 All-Star games and 10 world championship rings. However, after a tough start to both of their careers, the Yankees sent both of them back to the minors on June 11, 1995. Jeter:  “We were devastated. You can say depressed. Once you come here, you never want to go back. . . . It wasn’t exactly current times back then, you know what I’m saying? We had the Boss then. You don’t do your job and he’ll trade you in a minute. Kids have it easy nowadays. Seriously. It’s so different now.” (PAGE 39)

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager, and Rivera’s teammate from 1996 through ’99: “In all the years I caught him, he never threw a ball in the dirt. I don’t ever remember having to drop to my knees to block a pitch in the dirt. I know he never threw a wild pitch that bounced. His control is that good.” (PAGE 39)

Mike Borzello, Yankees bullpen catcher from 1996 to 2007: “In 1996 he became the setup guy, and John Wetteland, our closer, started talking to him every day. Wetteland knew Mariano would take over for him the following year. The closer doesn’t usually take the next closer under his wing. Wetteland did, and Mariano did [the same] with every other reliever that came through.” (PAGE 39)

Joe Torre: “I’m not sure how long my tenure with the Yankees would have been if not for Mo pitching the seventh and eighth innings in 1996. He allowed me to manage just six innings of a game.” (PAGE 40)

Rivera has pitched in 96 postseason games and lost just once: Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. Luis Gonzalez dumped a broken-bat single over Jeter’s head, barely onto the outfield grass, to drive in the winning run. Gonzalez: “I was very fortunate to get that hit off one of the best of all time. I think a lot of relievers would have been crushed by that loss. With Mariano, that was just a small bump in the road that didn’t slow him down any.” (PAGE 40)

Phillies righthander Roy Halladay says that Rivera taught him how to throw a great cutter at the 2008 All-Star Game. “The biggest thing was his finger placement and how his thumb was under the ball,” says Halladay. “I was throwing a cutter, but it was inconsistent. Once he told me about the thumb, it became a big pitch for me.”

Halladay adds: “What he did for me was unbelievable. That to me is what great players do: They leave marks on the game, an impression that is about who they are and not just about their numbers and accomplishments. My favorite players of all time have done that—left a mark based on their character: Derek Jeter, Chase Utley and Mariano Rivera.” (PAGE 42)

CC Sabathia, Yankees lefthander: “This is what I would tell people about Mariano: Believe everything you hear about him, because it’s all true. You always hear nobody can be that nice, nobody can be like him, nobody can shrug off wins and losses the way he does. . . . It’s unbelievable. I never met or played with a guy like that. If you want to be a better player or a better person, you watch him.” (PAGE 42)

Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, psychologist, Yankees mental-skills coach from 1996 to 2002: “I have worked with elite performers ranging from Navy SEALs, U.S. Secret Service, NASA astronauts, to athletes. Mariano Rivera may be the single most impressive performer and leader I have ever known. He is the exemplar that I point to when I discuss the mental attributes of champions.” (PAGE 42)

In his last season, Verducci writes that in ever road season Rivera wanted to meet “behind-the-scenes” people who had dedicated their lives to baseball or had known illness or tragedy. On May 11, Rivera met with Ryan Bressette and his family in Kansas City. Bressette, a Royals clubhouse attendant from 1981 to ’94 dealt with tragedy when a flight-status display board fell on his family in the Birmingham, Ala., Airport. His 10-year-old son, Luke, was killed, while he, his wife, and son Sam all suffered serious injuries. Rivera met with the family and fulfilled a promise to Sam to give him the ball from the last out of the game. Ryan Bresette says, “This is something I haven’t told too many people. When Mariano came over to me, I stuck out my hand to shake his hand, and he gave me a hug, pulled me close and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re a stronger and braver man than I ever could be.’ ” (PAGE 43)


Buster Posey Featured on Regional Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

30COVv19poseyIn this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Tom Verducci profiles the game’s most indispensable player—Giants All-Star catcher Buster Posey. Featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI, Posey is the only player in MLB history to win the Rookie of the Year Award, the MVP and two World Series titles by age 25. This is Posey’s third SI cover appearance.

Posey is off to another great start for a Giants team that enters the second half 6-½ games back in the NL West. It’s no surprise that the Giants, World Series winners in two of the last three years (2010 and 2012), are a significantly worse team when Posey is out of the lineup. When his 2011 season was cut short in late May after he broke his leg and tore ankle ligaments, the Giants failed to make the playoffs. Verducci says, “Over the past four seasons, the Giants are a .561 team when Posey is in the starting lineup and a .510 team when he’s not—the difference between 91 and 83 wins over 162 games.” (PAGE 50)

On a team full of characters such as Pablo Sandoval, Sergio Romo, and Hunter Pence, Posey stands out with his stellar play and humble nature. “The juxtaposition of Buster with those guys enhances him,” Giants CEO Larry Baer says. “Buster is cut out of all-America land. What we find is the fans like all of them, but Buster is the glue.” (PAGE 50)

Verducci adds that it’s Posey—a fame-phobic country boy—who has become the face of the team in the nation’s most progressive city. Verducci says, “For all the costumes, the hats, the watercraft and the characters, however, it is a humble, self-confessed homebody from Turkey Farm Road in Leesburg, Ga.—an idyll even further removed from the maddening San Francisco crowd than its Carson McCullers–like name implies—who is the Giants’ best and most popular player.” (PAGE 50)

With his wife Kristen (whom he met in high school), and daughter, Addison, Posey enjoys the same quiet, family-centric life he enjoyed growing up on a farm in Georgia. “I don’t really get into the city much—just for the games,” says Posey, who lives in the East Bay area during the season. For the off-season, he has a home 20 minutes from Turkey Farm Road. “I think that’s the way I like it, the way my wife likes it and hopefully my kids grow up liking it,” he says. (PAGE 50)

Despite signing a groundbreaking nine-year contract extension worth $167 million in March, Posey remains a humble country boy on and off the field. When asked what about baseball brings him joy, Posey said, “I was just thinking today as I was driving here how fortunate I am that this is my job. . . . I enjoy being in the clubhouse with the guys. I enjoy batting practice before the games. I enjoy the atmosphere. I like all of it.” (PAGE 53)


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