A Pox on this Bullpen

Originally published May 13, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


In a world where we often tolerate contemptible behavior by those we’ve known for years, it is weird how so many people — like me — hate complete strangers.

Here’s how Webster’s defines hate: “Intense hostility toward an object (as an individual) that has frustrated the release of an inner tension.”

Here’s how I define hate: “A deep, self-destructive, long-lasting dislike of these incompetent slob relief pitchers who keep coming out of the Red Sox bullpen to toss absolute meatballs that even Ray Charles could hit.”

I don’t know Heathcliff Slocumb. I have never met Rich Garces. Never shook hands with Ricky “Serial-Killer Face” Trlicek, OK?

I hate them. Hate them all.

Believe me, I understand that this is illogical as well as immature. I also understand that it is quite real.

For example, let’s return now to 3:55 p.m. Saturday afternoon: Slocumb the undertaker is on the mound doing his best impression of Little Stevie Wonder trying to find home plate.

He walks a couple guys. Botches a perfect double-play ball. Bases loaded. Juan Gonzalez in the box.

Gonzalez is a big, strong guy who plays for the Texas Rangers. With his swing, if he played for the Red Sox he would absolutely hit 107 home runs a year here.

While Slocumb struggled with the dog bone in his throat, Gonzalez could not wait for his turn. In seconds, it was three balls, no strikes and everyone in North America knew Gonzalez would be swinging at anything that came close.

Ever see a kid toss a beach ball? Ever witness a loving parent throwing underhand to a child just learning how to hit? Ever set up a T-ball stand?

Slocumb, making millions for his effort, enabled Juan Gonzalez to establish a new land-speed record for the time it takes a ball to travel from Back Bay to Central Square, Cambridge. A Polaris missile takes longer to get to target than the rocket that came off his bat took to clear the wall.

I hate Slocumb. I hate his set-up guys, too. Calling them “relief” pitchers is like calling Timothy McVeigh a prankster.

By 4:05 p.m. on a chilly Saturday, 28,000 spectators were ready to put on their Nikes and cover themselves with a purple shroud. The spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet will get here before these clowns save a baseball game.

Just so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m sure Heathcliff Slocumb, fat Garces, Trlicek, and Jim Corsi are all very nice human beings. I bet they like kids and dogs, brush after every meal and stop for old ladies in the crosswalk.

But I hate them.

I do not hate Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Mr. Rogers, Johnny Cochran, Sally Jesse Raphael or some of these truly loathsome individuals who clutter the corners of our lives. I don’t hate Saddam Hussein, Albert Belle, Dennis Rodman, Ulf Samuelson, Rudy Giuliani, Lamar Alexander, Peter Jennings, Ricki Lake or any of these other semipublic dolts who can be so incredibly annoying.

I hate the bullpen. All of them. Because they are not getting it done. Because they are stealing my summer right here in the heart of spring. Because they are lame and predictable. Because they have gotten me to the point where I automatically tune out as soon as they are called in. Because I know what the ending will be. Because they are right out of a Stephen King horror story. Because they stink.

I love Jimy Williams. I love the third baseman, the shortstop, the first baseman. Hey, I’m so soft I even love Joe Kerrigan, Wendell Kim and Dave Jauss, coaches all.

And I am willing to wait till next year to love Suppan, Rose and Pavano, who might provide us with starters capable of going beyond the fifth inning. I love you, man.

However, I’m never going to make it to next year with these dopes on the mound. I’d rather see Dick Radatz out there; he’s almost 80 years old now with a waist size bigger than Route 128, but he is still better today than what we saw yesterday.

Hate is a bizarre emotion. If allowed to prosper, it can consume us. Here in the second week of May, I am totally obsessed with guys I don’t even know.

I understand that I have no life. I hate a pack of perfect strangers who can’t throw strikes.

Call it stupid, ridiculous or juvenile. Call it whatever you want. Just don’t call the bullpen.


Public Servants Step to the Plate

Originally published March 12, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Last word about the man on first. And it comes from the type of public servant we see all around us but who, oddly enough, remains invisible due to our take-it-for-granted society.

Bob Kilduff is a Boston firefighter assigned to Ladder 23. A few days ago he reported for jury duty in Norfolk County and quickly found himself sitting in judgment of Mr. Maurice Vaughn, Red Sox first baseman.

Vaughn, of course, was found not guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol. And as soon as the verdict was rendered, people from Ashmont Station to Albany, New York, had their own opinions of the decision.

Here’s Kilduff’s, contained in a letter sent to the newspaper: “I don’t like overpaid, often obnoxious men who play kid’s games for a living. Not even a little bit.

“But last week, eight men and women — of which I was one — were asked to decide the fate of a baseball player who had been charged with drunken driving. I can honestly say that not one of us cared the least about Mr. Vaughn’s celebrity.

“It had no effect on us, even with the zoo atmosphere the pathetic media created around the trial. All we knew was the Commonwealth summoned us to do a job and we simply wanted to complete our duty and go home.

“But since the verdict much of the print and electronic media in the area has second-guessed our decision and in many cases painted us as a pack of simpletons. From something called the Two Chicks to the sports radio get-a-lifers to the sports writers who clearly have no clue that there’s a big difference between watching a ball game and watching a real judge, a real jury, and a real defendant sitting in a real courtroom, I have a message: Try attending a trial and not merely listening to sound bites before self-righteously passing judgment on people and talking like fools. Trials are about a bit more than ratings!

“We were asked to determine NOT whether the defendant had been drinking, but had he consumed a quantity of alcohol sufficient to impair his ability to operate a motor vehicle. The conflicting testimony absolutely did not meet the Commonwealth’s burden of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“As a result of our verdict, we were accused of selling out. All sorts of ridiculous reasons were hurled around, too: Vaughn got off because he’s a celebrity or because he’s rich and had enough money to hire an expensive lawyer. Race was even included in the discussion of why he was acquitted. Well, guess what? If we found him guilty based on what we heard and saw, we the jury would have sold out.”

“It’s not a whole lot different from being a firefighter,” Kilduff added. “When the alarm goes off, color, money, nationality, religion — none of it matters. We go out the door to do the job. And that’s exactly what the fine people who served with me as jurors did: their job, which is part of living in a country where a Mo Vaughn has a right to a trial and the media have a right to make asses of themselves.”

Dan Greaney isn’t a whole lot different from Bob Kilduff. He is another municipal employee — Boston Housing — who simply goes about the daily business of doing his job, honorably and well.

Last week, Jack White, a Jamaica Plain insurance man, took a deposit bag to his branch bank on Centre Street. But when he got to the bank, White figured he must have misplaced an envelope containing $3,700 cash so he went back to search his office, his house, the front seat of the car. Nothing.

He was sitting at his desk, sick, when the phone rang. It was Police Captain Bill Parlon from E-5 in West Roxbury, asking White if he’d lost anything lately. Sure, Jack White told him, figuring Parlon probably had a bag filled with receipts, not money.

“Is there anything left in the bag?” he asked the cop.

“$3,700,” Parlon told him.

Greaney had found the bag White dropped on the street as he walked from his automobile to the bank. Greaney had taken the bag to the police station at Holy Name Circle before Jack White even discovered that his money was lost and, he figured, gone forever.

“An honest man,” Jack White was saying. “It restores your faith in human nature.”

It does, too. And so does a firefighter sitting in a jury box, doing the same thing so many do all the time to no applause and hardly any notice: their jobs. What they’re supposed to do.


Overreaction Is a Bad Sign

Originally published May 10, 1998, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe


Somewhere this afternoon — a gray, drizzly Mother’s Day — a pack of children will be playing baseball, many of them during the ritual of Little League, an idea that has flourished for nearly 50 years.

And that’s great because baseball is our best game. It teaches kids patience as well as perseverance. It teaches them how to win and how to lose.

Because nobody goes 4-for-4 all the time. And there isn’t a soul alive capable of throwing strikes forever.

Plus, life sort of mimics baseball. Good days, bad days, errors, and home runs all mix together in games as well as across a career.

You can play smart on Monday then come up dumb as a stone 24 hours later, get caught off base or miss the obvious meaning of a simple sign. Kind of like a bunch of people in Newton did when they overreacted to a harmless billboard ad that’s been hanging on the wall of Gordon Field for the last five years.

The sign is one of 20 that adorn the fence. Each sign means $250 to the league treasury. The money goes to maintain the field at a cost of $5,000 per summer because that task falls to a handful of grown-ups who make sure the place is always in decent condition for games.

Here’s what offended a few touchy-feely, politically correct busybodies to the point where they called the news media before they called anybody who volunteers to help other people’s children: The sign was donated by a beer company and carried a logo along with the message that “Our beer is carefully aged before drinking. You should be too.”

Wow! It’s a wonder the Newton East Little League isn’t assembling intervention teams rather than ball clubs or meeting in halfway houses instead of on the bench. Little League lushes.

Yet a teeny-tiny segment managed to scream loud enough so that the sign quickly came down as TV stations clamored for a picture of a billboard a few adults actually figure could turn their kids into drunks. They sure must have a lot of confidence in their ability and prowess as parents, huh? Days of wine, roses, and a few foul tips.

“It’s really kind of silly,” Terry Sack said yesterday. “If they had a complaint they should have called me or the league. The sign has been there for the past five years. It is not telling kids to drink. Just the opposite.”

Sack is 31. He’s a coach in Newton Little League. His father Jerry is 55; he’s a coach, too. They are two of the reasons a lot of kids who can’t play baseball — either don’t know how or lack ability — continue to play.

Even though it took five years to notice the sign and get suitably aggravated, some people got honked off because, to them, it symbolized a breakdown in morality. Good grief. If kids have problems due to a sign then it’s a pretty safe bet their difficulties are rooted at home, not home plate.

Newton is no different than other cities with Little League. Each league has its share of nutcake parents and kids who need a kick in the pants. And every team usually has at least one playing because dad or mom, sometimes both, figure coaches like Terry Sack are there to serve as baby sitters while they build careers and then walk around in a daze later when their kid — ignored or simply dropped off — has pink hair, six nose rings, and no clue.

The thing that does set Newton apart, however, is that certain wards and precincts are so precious that saving whales is a higher priority than cheering their kids. That’s because Newton is home to a lot of people who go to bed hoping they’ll be lucky enough to wake up in Brookline, where you’d have to assemble a clinic of shrinks and constitutional lawyers to decide whether baseball ought to be called a game or an activity.

One thing is for sure. It’s a bad sign when adults figure their own kids are such weak little simpletons that they might commit an error based on a billboard when any sane liberal knows: Ads don’t drink. People do.