With the baseball season right around the corner, many believe that the three best teams in baseball reside in the AL East, and only two of those teams can make the playoffs. So for a Bostonian point-of-view we went to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. So follow along as Cafardo talks to us about the Red Sox off-season moves, what he has seen from Rocco early on and Manny being Manny.
AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK CAFARDO OF THE BOSTON GLOBE
RI: The Yankees and the Red Sox took very different approaches in the off-season, with the Yankees spending a kazillion dollars and the Sox signing some high-risk, high-reward types. Do you feel the Red Sox did enough this offseason to keep pace? And which acquisition do you see having the biggest impact for the Sox this season?
NC: For the Red Sox it’s all about the post-season so acquiring a proven post-season competitor like John Smoltz, providing he can still pitch at a high level, was a stroke of genius. In Smoltz the Red sox are trying to replicate what Curt Schilling gave them in ’04 and ’07. If he can win a big game in the playoffs and World Series the signing was brilliant.
RI: What has been your impression of Rocco Baldelli so far and what is the general feeling of what he can contribute to the Red Sox this season?
NC: There aren’t many five-tool players out there and he’s one of them. Of course the channelopathy disease really limits some of those tools, but through spring training you see flashes of all of them. He probably doesn’t run as fast as he did when he first came up, but he’s still fast. He has a great arm, runs the bases well, has power and the ball jumps off his bat. So far, it appears he can play in the field more than he did with Tampa. The Sox would love to see Rocco be a co-third outfielder rather than just a fourth outfielder. The huge boost for the Red Sox would be if he could play centerfield against tough lefties so you wouldn’t have to expose Jacoby Ellsbury to tough left-handed pitching. Here’s the other thing to watch for: if he can play more and prove he can be everyday player again he could replace Jason Bay next year if the Red Sox determine Bay’s free-agent price tag is too high.
RI: Of course it is too much to ever expect the Rays to challenge as a rival to the Red Sox the equal of the Yankees, but considering what happened in 2008, how are the Rays perceived by the Red Sox players and the organization? And outside of Jonathon Papelbon, I expect most of the Red Sox players to say the politically correct things about respecting the Rays, but deep down do you think they believe that or do the players still think the Yankees are the team to beat in the East?
NC: I remember Theo Epstein saying two years that the Rays were going to be a major force for years to come starting this year. He admits he was a year off. But now they’re here and I know that the Red Sox don’t like facing that pitching staff. This isn’t about being politically correct. Red Sox players have felt this was a legitimate threat to them going back two years ago.
RI: Along the same lines, what do you feel is the perception of Red Sox Nation towards the Rays? One-hit wonders or a team to be reckoned with for years to come?
NC: It’s always going to be about the Yankees. That will always be the major rival, but the Rays are going to be like the Orioles back when they were good. There were tremendous games and matchups like Tiant vs. Palmer and now there are great matchups like Beckett vs. Shields or Lester vs. Kazmir. So I think Red Sox Nation eats that up. There isn’t the same passion or hate of the Rays as there is for all things New York, but this is a pretty solid rivalry that fans look forward to watching. And now it’s also become a competition of who’s got the best young players? So Red Sox fans know that the Rays are in this for the long run.
RI: From what you know and what you have seen and read, compare and contrast the front offices of the Sox and Rays as well as Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman.
NC: I think they’re pretty similar. They both use the new-wave statistical analysis as well as old fashion scouting to find their players. Obviously Boston has a lot more money to work with so they’re probably able to gamble more and are not as afraid to make a mistake on a player because they can either eat the contract or hide the player and find another one. Tampa has to be very precise in all of their player signings so Friedman has to really be perfect in finding a low-budget alternative that he feels will fill a role. The Rays have had to build their team with an emphasis on player development and the Red Sox are going about it the same way but with the added bonus of being able to spend a lot of money on a position if they feel they don’t have it ready in their minor league systsem.
RI: The Red Sox and Manny Ramirez seem to be like the couple that went through a nasty divorce and still can’t stop saying nasty things about the other parent to the kids. Does this risk being a distraction during the season? And does Manny being Manny make life easier for Jason Bay or is there still pressure to replace Manny’s production at a position that is very special in the history of the organization?
NC: The only one who said anything was Papelbon and he made those comments over the winter when the Manny story was still fresh for Esquire’s April edition. This is over for the Red Sox and to Manny’s credit he didn’t react to Papelbon’s comments. So the answer is, no there’s no distraction. As for Bay, a consistent 30-homer, 100-RBI guy, I think he handles this very well. Even he knows he’s not Manny. Only Albert Pujols is Manny. But Bay is really the anti-Manny in that he’s a good left-fielder, who plays every play hard and Boston fans appreciate the effort and the production even though he’s not the feared hitter Manny is.
RI: Have Red Sox fans universally turned against Manny? Or is there still a lot of love for him in Red Sox nation? Take it a step further, if Manny ever steps foot in Fenway Park again wearing a baseball uniform, would we hear more cheers or boos?
NC: I think Manny will always have his hard-core followers who will always look the other way on his indescretions, but I know a lot of people who were fans who turned after he shot his way out of Dodge.
RI: Tell us a great Manny story that has never been portrayed in the media or is not well known.
NC: I think I’ve written all of them. There are some funny stories I’ve heard but can’t verify them so I can’t put them in print.
RI: Who was/is your favorite Red Sox player to cover? And was there a player that gave you an especially hard time? Any memorable encounters?
NC: Been a baseball writer since 1983 so lots of players, lots of stories and a few verbal scuffles. I think Oil Can Boyd was the most memorable character. Everyday brought a new story and a new chapter to one amazingly bizarre career. You always remember the characters – the guys who were a little bit different like Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Jack Clark, Mike Marshall, Matt Stairs, Tony Pena, Lee Smith, Mike Greenwell, Mo Vaughn, Ivan Calderon, Matt Young, Jose Canseco, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans. From a personal point of view, Marty Barrett was tremendous because of the way he was to able break down the game. He had a great mind for baseball. My favorite coach was always Tommy Harper – off the charts incredible baseball mind. I remember Jack Clark threatened me once over something I wrote and then he got the team to stop talking to me for a few days. I had to meet with team leaders Clemens, Greenwell and Vaughn to straighten things out. Clark and I got along fine after that.
RI: Boston has always been to sports journalists what Pennsylvania has been to quarterbacks. You are working in the presence of a who’s who of baseball and sports writing with Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy and Bob Ryan to name a few. How does that impact your writing? And give us a good story about one (or more) of those guys.
NC: Gammons was my idol and I learned everything about baseball writing from him. We worked at the Globe together for a while. He opened doors for me and introduced me to so many people. We would have hour-long phone calls about baseball almost on a daily basis after Peter had gone to ESPN but was still doing our Sunday notes column. He’s the Babe Ruth of baseball writing. I’ll never forget some of the call-waitings: “Ah, Nick, gotta go….Bush is on the other line.” Dan is the most courageous baseball writer and columnist I’ve ever been around. He was never afraid to write the tough story and he was always there the next day to face the music and he never backed down. He’s also a great writer and tremendous human being who has helped so many young journalists. Ryan is the most passionate columnist I’ve ever been around. He’s never lost that. He has a great sports mind and always full of opinions. I have so much respect for him.
RI: The Rays are exploring the possibility of installing a retractable roof at The Trop…As a visiting journalist, what is your perception of The Trop? Is the public perception accurate or is it underrated? And would a retractable roof improve the atmosphere and perception?
NC: I like the Trop the way it is. For a reporter, excellent working conditions. I’ve never heard a complaint from people I know who attend the games there.
Now let’s play a little pepper with some quick Q-and-A’s…
RI: Your AL East prediction for 2008?
NC: Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Jays, Orioles..
RI: Your favorite baseball writer(s)?
NC: Gammons, Jon Heyman, Jayson Stark, Ken Rosenthal, Joel Sherman, Bob Nightengale, Scott Miller, Tim Kurkjian, John Lowe, Tracy Ringolsby, Kevin Kernan, Jack Curry. I’m leaving out a thousand names.
RI: Your favorite non-baseball writer(s)?
NC: Bob Duffy.
RI: Favorite place to eat in Boston?
NC: Grille 23
RI: Favorite baseball stadium?
NC: Camden Yards
RI: What is one place you always make sure you visit in Tampa/St.Pete?
NC: International Plaza
RI: Fight between Theo Epstein or Andrew Friedman, who are you betting on?
NC: Epstein has the reach advantage.