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

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

BOSTON -- Every year it seems like there are major issues or question marks to start spring training where the answers are up in the air.

In 2015, the Red Sox lacked an ace, had Hanley Ramirez moving to left field and Pablo Sandoval coming to town.

In 2016, Ramirez was moving back to the infield, but at a new position, and his bat was in question. Sandoval was coming off a year where he couldn’t hit his weight (he hit .245 and he last weighed in at 255 pounds). How would the starting rotation look after David Price?

This year, there seem to be three questions, but in a way, they’ve already been answered.

How will the Red Sox make up for David Ortiz’s absence?

Well, for one, the Red Sox have three Cy Young-caliber starting pitchers (Price, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello) in their rotation.

And two, Hanley Ramirez is coming off a career year with his highest career output in RBI (111) and second-highest home run total (30). And while Mitch Moreland isn’t the greatest hitter, he’s good for 20 or more home runs. Plus, it seems he’s holding a spot for a certain Red Sox prospect who’s bouncing back well from an injury.

 

Will Sandoval earn the starting third base job back?

The weight loss is a good sign, not only for the physical reasons, but it shows he’s mentally committed to being better.

However, that doesn’t guarantee he gets his job back.

“I’m not going to say [third base] resolved itself,” John Farrell told CSNNE.com, “but you know Panda’s done a very good job of committing to get himself in better shape and we’re looking forward to seeing that play to in spring training.”

Even if Panda can’t put it all together, Farrell told reporters before Thursday’s BBWAA dinner, both Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge would be competing for the job as well.

Holt as plan B -- in the infield? Who wouldn’t take that?

Who’s going to start at catcher?

Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart each have their pros an cons.

Leon did it all last year, but went from hitting .383 in his first 39 games to .242 in his last 39.

Vazquez has Ivan Rodriguez-esque abilities behind the plate, but couldn’t keep the staff under control last year and cannot hit.

Swihart, who turns 25 April 3, is the youngest of the three, has the most potential at the plate, but is far and away the worst of the three defensively at the most important defensive position -- excluding pitcher -- on the field.

They all have their drawbacks, but they’ve all shown at some point why they can be the Red Sox starting catcher in the present and future.

Everywhere else, the Red Sox seem to be in a comfortable position as pitchers and catchers reporting to camp draws ever nearer.

“I think the fact that we’ve got veteran players that have done a great job in staying healthy [and] young players that are getting more establishing in their return, we’re in a pretty good place in terms of the overall status of our position player group,” Farrell told CSNNE.com.

And it seems some players are confident in the team’s options as they ready for camp.

“We’re looking good in a lot of areas,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts told CSNNE.com. “Especially the pitching staff, [since] we just got Chris Sale one of the best in the game.”

“Pablo’s definitely going to bounce back, especially with the weight he’s lost."

Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

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Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

BOSTON -- “I didn’t feel that love after I made a pitching change in the sixth inning,” Terry Francona said after a 45-second standing ovation from Boston fans upon receiving the MLB Manager of the Year award from the BBWAA Thursday.

It’s without question the love for Francona runs deep in the city. Why wouldn’t it? He was the leader in breaking the 86-year old curse, and wound up winning another World Series title for Boston three years later.

Actually, he was more of a co-leader, working alongside the same person who won the MLB Executive of the Year honors from the BBWAA for 2016.

Theo Epstein -- who received an ovation 17 seconds shorter than Francona, but who’s counting -- reminisced about the Red Sox ownership group that took a chance on a young kid who wasn’t necessarily the ideal candidate to take over as GM of a team, but now that’s helped him build the Chicago Cubs into a winning franchise and establish a great working environment.

This October marks 13 years since the ’04 championship, 10 years since ’07 and six years since the pair left Boston. Without question they’ve left their mark on the city and forever changed Red Sox baseball.

And while the fans showed their undying gratitude for Francona with an ovation almost as long as his acceptance speech, the Indians manager recognized the favor the current Red Sox brass has done for him.

“I’d like to thank Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox for getting Chris Sale the hell out of the Central Division,” Francona said.