Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Connie Mark Was A Smart Man.

Memorial Day can be cold and wet. Kids still have a month of school to go. The ocean won't be warm enough for swimming until the 4th of July at the earliest.

No, the only sure indicator of when New England spring has become New England summer is that's when the Red Sox decide they didn't really have enough pitching after sll. Summer is here. It'll arrive officially some time after 7 p.m. when David Pauley, just up from AA, makes his first major league start as the Sox play Toronto.

All ballclubs have their cultural quirks, and after 35 years of living in the Sox' neighborhood, yours truly has become accustomed to theirs-except this one. Every March, otherwise rational people, both fans and actual members of the Boston organization, fret that the Sox might have too many capable pitchers for their staff. And somewhere between the 50 and 70 game mark of every season, some kid Pauley comes up to signify the Sox don't have and never did have enough hurlers to go around.

The sadder but wiser ending to this annual morality tale doesn't baffle me. All 31 other major league teams come to the same conclusion at approximately the same point of their season or even earlier (For the Yanks, summer arrives with Carl Pavano's first trip to the DL). The mystery is what clouds Sox' minds in March. There has never been such a thing as a team with too many quality pitchers. There never will be, either. Since lack of pitching is the primary reason the Sox went 86 years between world titles, it's impossible to see why anyone think they'll be the first team to experience that happy predicament.

Adding a special piquancy to Pauley's start tonight is that three starting pitchers who were vital contributors to the Sox' 2004 championship run could very well make the 2006 All-Star team-the National League All-Star team. Pedro Martinez of the Mets, Derek Lowe of the Dodgers, and Bronson Arroyo of the Reds all have ERAs lower than any Red Sox starter. Oops.

Martinez and Lowe left as free agents after the Series win. Getting outbid for a player's services is not the same thing as letting them go, a fact one wishes "disrespected" free agents would figure out. The Sox traded Arroyo to Cincinnati before the start of this season for raw young slugger Wily Mo Pena. That's on them.

God knows Theo Epstein is smarter than I am and knows more baseball in the bargain. It's a fluke of spring that Arroyo is 6-2 and leads the NL in ERA for the Reds. He was a useful back of the rotation guy for Boston, and by September Arroyo's numbers in Cincinnati almost surely will drop to the same performance level. Pena, apparently never coached at any level, has the potential to be an excellent outfielder in a few years' time.

General managers can live in the future. Spectators cannot. We're stuck with the three dimensional reality of the here and now. That's a reality where plugging an overweight, over 40, contemplating retirement David Wells into the Sox rotation was a triumph of hope over sanity.

When a veteran pitcher starts to drop off a little, as Curt Schilling has, or a lot, as Randy Johnson has for the Yankees, it's not a surprise, it's the actuarial tables in action. Ditto for when a veteran pitcher gets hurt, as Mike Timlin was last week. For that matter, it's no accident when young pitchers get hurt. Kerry Wood has gone from phenom to 30-year old with the Cubs, and his stints on the DL are as regular as the phases of the moon.

Nobody has enough pitching. That's why pitchers are almost always traded for other pitchers. The only famous trade of a competent starter for a position player that worked out for the team dealing the pitcher was when the Orioles got Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas. In other words, if the Reds had dealt Ken Griffey to the Sox for Arroyo, it might've been a good deal.

One would like to think that reports the Sox were unhappy that Roger Clemens will likely re-sign with the Astros were inaccurate. What organization would willingly seek the services of the highest-paid temp in labor history, a $3.5 million-a-month mercenary who'd appear in its clubhouse once every five days, and who'll turn 44 on August 4? What team would plunk down that much dough for a man no one has seen pitch since last October?

The answer to both questions, of course, is all of them. Thirty-two teams would be delighted to add Clemens to their rosters this very afternoon, and the only regret of most is Clemens doesn't want them.

OK, he's Roger Clemens, the greatest pitcher of the last 30 years, maybe the greatest pitcher ever. That was just as true last winter, when Clemens had "retired" for the second time. His spring suitors could've wooed Clemens then. They didn't. It was easier to imagine Clemens finally reaching the end of his trail on their tens of millions of dimes before the games began to count.

Spring's over. Summer's here. Front offices now imagine the Clemens who dominated the National League at ages 42 and 43 the last two seasons. They also see he can't do much worse than some of their other starters.

Connie Mack said baseball was 75 percent pitching. That's one of the proofs he was a smart man. It's also why Clemens will soon become a richer one.


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