All-Time Favorites

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Maybe rumors haven’t taken the week off, but actual moves seem to have. With that in mind, I wanted to take a day and ease off the speculation. Instead, I’m going to bore you all with more lists of players that (for the most part) don’t matter anymore. Or, in some cases, never did.
With all the Nomar talk of recent days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to love or hate a player. I still love Nomar; not for the last .0001% of his Boston career, but for the other 99.999%. That all led me to think about who my all-time favorites have been. And now, I’m going to make all of you think about who my all-time favorites have been.
Top Ten Favorite Red Sox of All-Time
10. Troy O’Leary
How can Troy O’Leary, of all people, open this list? First of all – and maybe last of all – It’s impossible not to like a guy who’s big masculine sports nickname was ‘Yummy’. That’s right. ‘Yummy’. As it goes, O’Leary liked sweets to an almost unholy degree, and his teammates, in an act of unparalleled brilliance, bestowed that hallowed name upon him.
O’Leary played with the Sox for 7 seasons, and was a regular in all seven. During his peak, from 1997 to 1999, he hit 66 homers, posting OPS’s of .837, .782, and .838 – slightly above league average. He wasn’t exactly noted for his fielding either. So why is he on this list? Simple. In addition to the nickname, O’Leary lays claim to two of the greatest ‘back at you’ homers of all time, both coming in the same game: Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS vs. Cleveland. In each instance, with first base open and men in scoring position, Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove opted to put Nomar Garciaparra – Boston’s only impressive offensive weapon – on base and pitch to O’Leary. Each time, Boston’s pre-Manny LF deposited a pitch into the right field bleachers; a grand slam and a 3 run homer, each of which were key to the Sox eventual 12-8 victory. According to Mike Holley’s column in the Globe the next day, during the champagne-drenched celebration in the Jacobs clubhouse, the Red Sox crowded around O’Leary, chanting one word, over and over: Yum-my! Yum-my! Yum-my!
So I ask you: how could Troy O’Leary not be on this list?
9. Arquimedez Pozo
Arquimedez Pozo played exactly 25 games with the Boston Red Sox, and then never played another game in the majors. He was truly awful; the owner of a lifetime .526 OPS, a .189 BA, and exactly one MLB homer (with the Sox). He appears on no leaderboards… except one: Pozo owns what I sincerely believe to be the single greatest name in major league history. Better than Urban Shocker, better than Dick Pole, better even than the immortal Hiram Bocachica. I once wrote of Pozo that his name contained “a timelessness, a nearly spiritual quality of pronunciation that links the greatest thinkers of ancient Greece to the greatest dreamers of the Latin world, a fun and exciting alternate spelling, two z’s… the things of which great names are made.” Arquimedez Pozo can’t say much in this world, but he can say that. And we can say his name, over and over and over again.
8. Tom Bolton
I have absolutely no explanation as to why, in around 1990, Tom Bolton became my favorite Sox pitcher (he’s since been supplanted, naturally). But there he is. Seriously, I probably shouldn’t even write more about this, because it’s completely and totally incomprehensible.
7. Randy Kutcher/Kevin Romine
Yeah, so it’s a cop out, but honestly. I’m not even sure their teammates could tell them apart.
Romine played 331 MLB games over 7 seasons, all with the Sox. He hit a grand total of 5 homers, with a career OPS of .631. His best season – at least, of those in which he appeared in more than 10 games – was 1989, in which he hit .274/.327/.332 and hit one of those five homers. Kutcher? He was, amazingly, even worse. In 5 MLB seasons split between the Giants and the Sox, Kutcher hit an even 10 homers – with 7 coming in his rookie season. Kutcher never posted an OPS over .700; the first season in which he got on base more than 3 times out of ten PA’s was his final MLB season.
For me, more than any other players, these two defined the absolutely horrid Sox teams of my youth, especially those 1989 Sox (who somehow managed a +.500 record despite giving 113 AB’s to Ed Romero). And for some reason, I still love them for it. Them, and all 15 of their career dingers.
6. Ellis Burks
The first (of two) great CF’s I’ve ever seen in Boston, Burks was part of what was billed as the new Gold Dust Twins when he broke in alongside LF Mike Greenwell in the mid-1980’s. Both he and Greenwell played their first full seasons in the majors in 1987, at the respective ages of 22 and 23. Burks had a solid debut year, hitting .272/.324/.441 with 20 homers, excellent for a CF of the period. He went on to play another 5 seasons in a Boston uniform (not counting his 2004 return, which I’ll talk about in a moment). He left Boston as a free agent, his value depleted by knee injuries that would wind up sidelining a very promising career. He played with the White Sox for a year, before re-establishing himself with the expansion Colorado Rockies in 1993. After his time in Denver, he played a couple seasons with the Giants, then moved on to the Cleveland Indians before finally returning to end his career where it started, in the Fens.
Burks was one of my favorites before that final year, but his presence – during what became the Sox’ greatest season – meant a tremendous amount; to him, to the city, and to me. Burks had dropped hints over his career that Boston’s racial atmosphere had soured his impressions of the city earlier in his career, but the response he received in his return surely washed most – if not all – of that away. He retired at the end of that season, receiving his first and only World Series ring. I probably clapped louder for Burks when he emerged from the Red Sox dugout to accept it; his presence somehow did as much to link that team with the futility of the past as Johnny Pesky did.
5. Tim Wakefield
Has anyone defined the Red Sox over the last several years than Tim Wakefield? Never flashy, never the star, but always reliable, Wake has done everything this team has asked of him for over a decade in Boston. From starting to closing to relieving to bouncing between those roles, Wake has thrown his signature flutter in any inning against any opponent. He’s never predictable – he himself has said that once he throws the ball, even he doesn’t know where it’s going to end up (though that is, I expect, as much gamesmanship as it is honesty).
During the Sox’ 2004 playoff run, Wake pitched some of the most selfless innings in the history of baseball, in relief in the cataclysmic Game 3 of the ALCS. Without his willingness to take the punishment and eat valuable innings, it’s nearly certain that the Sox pitching staff would not have been able to extend itself over those next 4 world-changing games. Add to that that only a year earlier, it was Tim Wakefield who threw one pitch and slowly walked off the field as Aaron Boone circled the Bronx bases, and you have a redemption story that’s impossible to ignore. I felt as bad for Tim that night as I felt for anyone, myself included. The Red Sox, to their unending credit, recognized Wake’s service with a contract that is as much a plaque as it is an agreement. Tim Wakefield will be a Red Sox for life, and there’s no other way anyone should want it to be.
4. Jody Reed
I was in 4th grade during Jody Reed’s rookie season, 1988. In the previous two seasons, the Rookie of the Year in the American League had gone to A’s; Jose Canseco in 1986 and Mark McGwire in 1987. This year, I knew, was the Sox year; Reed was an astoundingly good SS in 1988, and no one could have touched him. .293/.380/.376 may not look like much today, but in 1988 it was a revelation. If I’d been writing Sox articles that summer, a) they would have sucked, because I was 10, and b) they all would have been about how Jody Reed should win the ROY. I became obsessed. There was, frankly, no other possible outcome.
So, you can imagine how crushed I was when the award went to another A, shortstop Walt Weiss. This is how upset I was: I just now looked up Weiss’ stats in that 1988 season and got really mad all over again. Weiss hit .250/.312/.321 in his rookie season, but got a massive bump due to his team. The A’s steamrolled that season, and Weiss took 17 1st place votes, to Reed’s 6. In an additional injustice, Angels pitcher Bryan Harvey (who?) took only 3 1st place votes, but still amassed enough support to edge Reed for second by one lousy point.
Reed was a solid ballplayer in his 11 season career, but his best years were those first 4 with the Red Sox. After he left Boston, he bounced around for years, his numbers slowly slipping until 1997, when he played his final 52 games with the Detroit Tigers. Until my dying day, I won’t forget that award vote; it may have been the first time I was really truly torn up by injustice, as sad as that may be.
And now… Now we come to the holy trinity. The next three players, aside from being awesome talents, embodied what I wanted players to be: brilliant, gifted, gutty. I find it hard to believe that any one of them will ever be supplanted from this list.
3. Pedro Martinez
Sit back and remember what it was like to watch Pedro Martinez pitch on a summer night in 1999. Was there anything else you wanted to watch? I don;t know about most of you, but in general, if I absolutely HAVE to miss a half inning of a ballgame, I choose the Sox defensive half. At best, nothing happens, at worst, bad things do. It was never so with Pedro; you wanted nothing more than to see how he’d retire those three batters, 1-2-3. Not if. Never if. You knew he’d do it. Every time he took the mound, you knew something amazing was about to happen, and something truly astounding just might. There was electricity in the air every pitch.
Pedro Martinez – with a large assist from my father – taught me how to appreciate good pitching. He taught me to respect the one-on-one battle that is the core of baseball; how to set up a hitter, how to get in his head, how to get him thinking, and how to sit him down. With three exquisite pitches – not to mention the apparent ability to simply invent new ones when needed – Pedro was the man with binoculars in the kingdom of the blind. He seemed to know everything a batter was thinking. He almost toyed with him. And if any of them were lucky enough to do some damage? Well, just ask Chili Davis what happens then; Chili Davis had the only hit off Pedro one evening in the Bronx, a homer to right. After that homer, Pedro proceeded to mow down 17 Yankees in one of the most dominant and incredible pitching performances you’ll ever see. He was, simply, a god.
Nothing that’s happened since can disavow me of my love for Pedro Martinez. He was all things. He was possibly the most gifted and successful pitcher, in his prime, of any that has ever worn a uniform. When he was off the field, he was the best cheerleader in any dugout; mirthful, ridiculous, and fun. He probably got more camera time than many players during his off-days, just by clowning around in the dugout. Many people remember the famous shot of Pedro duct taped to the dugout beam, but I’ve never heard anyone mention how happy he looked, with that trademark smile peeking out from behind the gag and his head nodding to music only he could hear. And as almost cuddly as he was off that field, who in their right mind would ever want to see him on it?
2. Nomar Garciaparra
I’ve already discussed the day I fell in love with Nomar Garciaparra on these pages. In the acrimony that defined Nomar’s departure from Boston in July of 2004, I think a lot of people have forgotten their moments; we’ve forgotten exactly how much Nomar meant to this city for so many years. Nomar? Nomar WAS Boston. Not just the Sox, not just Boston sports, but the whole city. He was our answer to Derek Jeter, except he was so much better. He was our answer to Alex Rodriguez, except he was more likeable. Hell he was our answer to whatever the hell we wanted, his name was so much fun to say. We watched liner after liner after liner, without really understanding how one man could move that much, yet stay still enough to get every inch of every ball. Or, for that matter, how he could bolt to his right, leap fifteen feet in the air, and sling a (usually) perfect strike to first. Maybe Yaz was more popular in his prime than Nomar was in his, but it couldn’t have been by much. And no one – not even David Ortiz – has come as close. Hell, Nomar transcended time; his relationship with Ted Williams was like a benediction from the baseball gods.
But that’s all almost secondary, because for those few years, Nomar was a truly brilliant ballplayer. Ready for this one? Between 1997 and 2000, every single season for 4 years Nomar had a higher OPS than Alex Rodriguez. Every single season. In 1999 and 2000, he had an OPS higher than any David Ortiz has ever posted. How he failed to in an MVP in any of those seasons remains one of the world’s greatest mysteries. If he hadn’t been injured… the biggest ‘if’. He was on the fastest track of his generation for the Hall of Fame, A-Rod or no. He was, simply, the best guy on the field, no matter who you were playing that day.
1. Jason Varitek
I almost don’t need to write anything, because you all know why. He’s the Captain of this club for a reason. Selfless, gutty, talented, and fiercely loyal. Doesn’t hurt that he’s arguably the best catcher not named Victor Martinez in the American League.
Varitek came to the Sox in what remains one of the greatest trades of all time, with the Sox sending Heathcliff Slocumb for Varitek and Derek Lowe at the 1997 deadline. Varitek slowly took over the everyday catching duties from Mike Stanley on those late 90’s Sox teams, and by 1999 was the Sox everyday catcher. He made an impression in those years, but it was during the first half of the 2001 season that he provided the first hints of his true talent. In 51 games, Varitek hit .293/.371/.489 with 7 homers, 3 of those coming on the same day in Seattle. That season, which promised to be his first truly great one, ended prematurely when Varitek dove for a foul liner in a blowout game and shattered his pitching elbow (for the record, he not only caught the ball, but also got up and rifled a throw to third in case the runner on first decided to try anything). He missed the rest of the season, but it confirmed what a lot of people already knew: Varitek was willing to sacrifice himself for his team, no matter the circumstances.
That willingness became key to the Sox championship run on July 24th, 2004. Not only was Varitek the catalyst of the fight that allegedly turned the season around, he was also the reason the Sox even played a game that day. When John Henry walked through the Sox clubhouse, it was still raining and damp. Varitek caught up with him, and asked if they were going to play; with the Sox mired in an awful stretch, many thought maybe a rain-out would do good. Henry replied that t looked like the game would be called, but Tek convinced him to get it going. Hours later, as Bill Mueller deposited a Mariano Rivera cutter into the glove of the Sox bullpen catcher and Tanyon Sturtze sat in the trainer’s office nursing a sore cheek, the Sox had their first inspiring win of the season, and a symbol that would carry them all the way to October 27th. Of all the people behind that win, Varitek was the motor. He still is.
If there’s justice in this world, Jason Varitek will catch Boston pitching as long as he’s able, and then – when he no longer is – he’ll coach. And he’ll manage. If anyone deserves to be the next Johnny Pesky, a Red Sox lifer, it is Jason Varitek.
So, as with any list, this one’s personal. Who’s on yours?

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