Band of brothers: Garciaparra and Conigliaro

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Band of brothers: Garciaparra and Conigliaro

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

We rarely mention them in the same breath, and why would we? One was home-grown Massachusetts, the other a transplanted Californian. One was an outfielder in the 1960s and '70s, the other a shortstop in the 1990s and 2000s. One sprinted toward the bright lights, the other sprinted away. Most of us see almost no connection between Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Conigliaro, other than their shared Red Sox legacy and their lost opportunity at immortality.

We should look closer.

The careers of Garciaparra and Conigliaro run on almost parallel tracks with a similarity that's eerie. Ignore the differences in their hitting styles -- Nomar was a line-drive machine in his prime, Tony C. a launcher of fly balls. Ignore the raw statistics, most of which are contextual; put Garciaparra in the dead-ball '60s or Conigliaro in the hitter-happy '90s and their stats would even out.

Instead, follow the broad strokes. You're talking about two guys who almost seem separated at birth, albeit decades apart:

Both broke in with bad teams -- the '64 Sox went 72-90; the '97 crew was the last Red Sox team to finish under .500 -- and became matinee idols, taking the fans' attention away from the carnage on the field.

Both blazed through their first four seasons: Tony C. won the home-run crown at age 20 in 1965, the youngest player ever to lead a league in homers, and Nomar won back-to-back batting titles in 1999 and 2000 with averages of .357 and .372.

Both shared the stage -- and in Conigliaro's case, jostled for attention -- with future Hall of Famers: Carl Yastrzemski (who's already there) and Pedro Martinez (who will be).

Both suffered career-altering injuries when they were hit by pitches, injuries that would prove to be the death of their (up to that point, legitimate) Hall of Fame arguments.

Both were sidelined for all (Conigliaro, 1968) or most (Garciparra, 2001) of their fifth seasons.

Both returned for two more full years with the Red Sox, and while they enjoyed success -- Tony C. hit 36 homers, fourth-best in the A.L., in 1970; Nomar batted over .300 twice and drove in 100 or more runs both times -- their post-injury talents were pitched at a lower level.

Both were traded in their eighth seasons: Conigliaro before it began, Garciaparra in the middle. Both deals were prompted by Sox worries about the deterioration of their skills -- the club knew Tony C.'s eyesight had never fully recovered from the beaning, and Nomar's defensive abilities had shattered -- but both had off-the-field elements attached, too. In Conigliaro's case, the Sox were trying to break up a clubhouse that had, in the words of author David Caetano, "congealed into tribes." As for the tightly-wound Garciaparra, he had become the skunk at the Cowboy UpIdiots garden party.

While the analogy seems to break down here -- Tony C. retired midway through a miserable 1971 with the Angels, while Nomar became Nomad as he bounced around the bigs for his final five years -- both came back to Boston to finish things off: Conigliaro in a futile attempt to return as a player in 1975, Garciaparra to say he retired as a member of the Red Sox.

And, finally, both left baseball for careers in television.

Told you it was eerie. And there's more. Both dated actresses as young men. Both had brothers who played professional baseball. The list goes on. And on.

And what makes it even eerier is how different they were as people. (Or, to put it another way: Contrast and compare Nomar's eventual partner, America's sweetheart Mia Hamm, with the woman Tony C. is most remembered for, Hollywood sexpot Mamie Van Doren.) You'd never see Conigliaro pushing the Red Sox to lay red tape around the clubhouse as a buffer between the players and the media. Nor would you ever find Garciaparra on stage belting out "Little Red Scooter."

It was if the Gods created these baseball twins and then messed up by placing each of them in an era that was made for the other.

Tony C. reveled in the spotlight; he would have thrived in these athlete-as-celebrity times. The 247365 news cycle was made for a 247365 star. Nomar, on the other hand, ached for the sort of shadows that existed back when the focus was almost solely on what happened between the lines. When television was only around for 50 or 60 games a year. When sports-talk radio was a contradiction in terms. When Webs were just parts of fielding gloves and only birds tweeted. When reporters and athletes a) liked and b) protected each other.

It all came to mind on Wednesday when a smiling Garciaparra signed a one-day contract in order to retire as a member of the Red Sox.

It was unnecessary; he'll always be remembered as a Sock, same as Conigliaro. But his reconciliation with the organization closed the circle, just as Tony C's unsuccessful attempt to become the Sox' DH in 1975 -- unfortunately for him, the team had just promoted a future Hall of Famer, Jim Rice, who took that very role -- erased some bitter memories of his 1970-71 departure.

Yet another link between two men who, on the surface, weren't linked at all.

Art Martone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Art on Twitter at http:twitter.comcsnne1

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

NEW YORK - There won't be any wild pitches on intentional walks this season.

The players' association has agreed to Major League Baseball's proposal to have intentional walks without pitches this year.

"It doesn't seem like that big of a deal. I know they're trying to cut out some of the fat. I'm OK with that," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.

While the union has resisted many of MLB's proposed innovations, such as raising the bottom of the strike zone, installing pitch clocks and limiting trips to the mound, players are willing to accept the intentional walk change.

"As part of a broader discussion with other moving pieces, the answer is yes," union head Tony Clark wrote Wednesday in an email to The Associated Press. "There are details, as part of that discussion, that are still being worked through, however."

The union's decision was first reported by ESPN .

"I'm OK with it. You signal. I don't think that's a big deal," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "For the most part, it's not changing the strategy, it's just kind of speeding things up. I'm good with it."

There were 932 intentional walks last year, including 600 in the National League, where batters are walked to bring the pitcher's slot to the plate.

"You don't want to get your pitcher out of a rhythm, and when you do the intentional walk, I think you can take a pitcher out of his rhythm," Girardi said. "I've often wondered why you don't bring in your shortstop and the pitcher stand at short. Let the shortstop walk him. They're used to playing catch more like that than a pitcher is."

Agreement with the union is required for playing rules changes unless MLB gives one year advance notice, in which case it can unilaterally make alterations. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope Tuesday that ongoing talks would lead to an agreement on other changes but also said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract.

Some changes with video review can be made unilaterally, such as shortening the time to make a challenge.

"I know they were thinking about putting in a 30-second (limit) for managers to make a decision," Francona said. "I actually wish they would. I think it would hustle it up and if we can't tell in 30 seconds, maybe we shouldn't be doing it anyway."

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

As if there weren’t enough storylines with the 2017 Red Sox, there figures to be the lingering possibility that, at any point, one of the franchise’s greatest hitters will return to make a push for his fourth World Series title.

As Pedro Martinez keeps saying, he won’t believe David Ortiz is retired until season’s end.

And with that possibility comes a good ol’ fashioned sports debate: You’re maybe the biggest lunatic in the whole wide world if you’re hoping for the latter.

There are exactly two potential downsides to Ortiz coming back. One is that the team would be worse defensively if it puts Hanley Ramirez in the field, a tradeoff that seemingly anyone would take if it meant adding Ortiz’ offense to the middle of the order. The other is that we would probably have to see Kenan Thompson’s Ortiz impression again . . . which, come to think of it, would be the worst. Actually, I might kill myself if that happens.  

All the other drawbacks are varying degrees of noise. It basically boils down to the “what if he isn’t good?” fear. Which may be valid, but it shouldn’t be reason enough to not want him to attempt a comeback.

Ortiz is coming off a 38-homer, 127-RBI 2016 in which he hit .315 with a league-best 1.021 OPS. It's probably the best final season of any hitter over the last 50 years.

We also know Ortiz is 41 and dealt with ankle and heel injuries so vast in recent years that he was “playing on stumps,” according to Red Sox coordinator of sports medicine services Dan Dyrek. There is the possibility that he was almost literally on his last legs in 2016 and that he doesn’t have another great season in him.

Unless Ortiz is medically incapable and/or not interested in returning, what would the harm be in rolling the dice? Is it a money thing? It really depends on just how intent the Sox are on staying under the luxury-tax threshold, but it’s hard to imagine that holding them up given that they’ve bobbed over and under the line throughout the years.

The one unacceptable argument is the legacy stuff, which expresses concern that Ortiz would tarnish his overall body of work if he came back for one last season and was relatively ineffective.  

If you think that five years after Ortiz is done playing, a single person will say, “Yeah, he’s a Hall of Famer; it’s just a shame he came back that for one last season,” you’re absolutely crazy. The fact that one could dwell that much on a legacy shows how much they romanticize the player, meaning that in however many years it's the 40-homer seasons, and not the potentially underwhelming few months in 2017, that will stand the test of time.

But he’ll have thrown away having one of the best final seasons ever for a hitter.

Oh man. That’s a life-ruiner right there. A 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion totally becomes just another guy if you take that away.

Plus, the fact that he’s a DH limits how bad it could really be. You won’t get the sight of an over-the-hill Willie Mays misplaying fly balls in the 1973 World Series after hitting .211 in the regular season. Ortiz will either be able to hit or he won’t, and if it’s the latter they’ll chalk it up to age and injuries and sit him down. Any potential decision to put him on the field in a World Series would likely mean his bat was worth it enough to get them to that point.

The Red Sox, on paper at least, have a real shot at another title. Teams in such a position should always go for broke. Ortiz has absolutely nothing left to prove, but if he thinks he has anything left to give, nobody but the fans who dropped 30-something bucks on T-shirts commemorating his retirement should have a problem with that.