NEW YORK — They gave out baseball’s biggest hardware at the New York baseball writers dinner tonight, and retiring Astros second baseman Craig Biggio was the fitting pick to present Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with the AL Rookie of the Year award. “What is there not to like about the guy?” said Biggio, another hard-nosed little guy who turned 42 last December and played 20 seasons in the big leagues before deciding to call it quits. “His last name ends in a vowel, and Tommy Lasorda always said you always had to love a guy whose name ended in a vowel. He was obviously the cream of the crop. The thing that epitomizes him the most, is that every time I flipped on SportsCenter, the man’s uniform is dirty. From what everybody tells me, he plays the game right, runs through first base every time, doesn’t dog it…”
Pedroia, who sat between Mets manager Willie Randolph and the gargantuan C.C., Sabathia, the Indians pitcher who could have stuffed the Sox rookie in the breast pocket of his tuxedo, was smiling broadly when he accepted the trophy from Biggio. “That’s awesome, man,” he said to Biggio. “I’ve loved watching you play forever.”
Pedroia thanked his wife, Kelli, and his parents, Guy and Debbie, who were sitting together at a table at the New York Hilton, along with one of Pedroia’s agents, Bobby Witt, the former big leaguer from Canton, Mass., who remarked on how apt it was for Biggio to be the one giving the award to Pedroia, who takes a similar approach to the game.
“Thank you guys for not booing me,” said Pedroia to the assemblage of roughly 1,000 fans, the vast majority of whom were Yankee fans. Pedroia had mentioned earlier in the day that he expected to be booed, the way Jonathan Papelbon had been at last year’s event. Papelbon was invited back this year to accept an award as the New York writers’ choice as Series MVP, but he was a no-show. Paps was booed in absentia when they showed a video clip of him in action.
All the major award winners attended last night’s event, where Johnny Damon, of all people, provided the night’s most emotional moment. Damon was given the Joan Payson award for community service for his work with the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports severely wounded men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mets GM Omar Minaya and a veteran who had lost an arm in Iraq when his vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade jointly presented the award to Damon, who was visibly moved by the soldier’s remarks. “Wow,” he said, fighting back tears. “I’m not that emotional of a person. But for the freedoms we have, we all should pay more attention to gentlemen like Tony who go out there and fight for it…I’m going to try to keep spreading the word, to help these guys come home and help them to live normal lives.” Damon has brought wounded GIs to Yankee Stadium and visited them at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, as well as spearheaded fundraising efforts. The charity, for those interested in learning more, can be found at www.woundedwarriorproject.org. The organization’s motto is, “The greatest casualty is being forgotten.” In a similar vein, two Sox players, Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez, pledged donations tied to their performance to Strikeout for Troops, the organization started by Giants pitcher Barry Zito.
The night’s other emotional charge came when Bobby Murcer, the former Yankee center-fielder and broadcaster who 13 months ago was diagnosed with brain cancer, received the writers’ “Milton Richman You Gotta Have Heart Award.” Murcer, despite undergoing both chemo and radiation treatments, returned to the broadcast booth by Opening Day last season, and embraced the man who presented him his award, new Yankee manager Joe Girardi.
Luis Tiant was hilarious in presenting C.C. Sabathia the American League Cy Young Award. “I don’t know much about (the award) because I didn’t get one,” said Tiant, who noted that fact a few times. My friend Denny McLain stole it from me. He won 31. I won 21.”
That would have been in 1968, when Tiant led the AL with a 1.60 ERA while pitching for Cleveland but was trumped by McLain, a 31-game winner for the Tigers that season who won not only the Cy Young but the AL’s MVP award that season. McLain, who later did time in prison for drug trafficking, gambling and embezzlement charges, was at the head table last night, too, as he, Tiant and Bob Gibson (a no-show) were given the writers’ Willie, Mickey and Duke” award, which honors players who share a noteworthy connection. In this case, it was their performance in ’68, which was known as the Year of the Pitcher, when Carl Yastrzemski was the only AL player to hit over .300, and he just made it at .301. After that season, they lowered the pitcher’s mound by five inches to 10 inches, and narrowed the strike zone, swinging the advantage back to the hitters.
Tiant referred to Sabathia as the “Big Bull.” That man is big, let me tell you,” Tiant said. “He can get anything he wants. He asks me for something, I got to say OK. I hope you win more, man, because you’re young and strong.”
McLain took out the needle for Tiant. “Luis, have you shrunk?” said McLain, who easily tips the scales at 300-plus pounds. “You used to be 6-4 or something.” He then turned on Rusty Staub, the former Met whose waistline has also expanded since his playing days. “You and I are going to a buffet together tomorrow,” McLain said to Staub, “and they’re going to give us 100 bucks apiece to go somewhere else.”
It was a great night for the two new Hall of Fame inductees, Goose Gossage and Dick Williams. Gossage called Williams the greatest manager he ever played for, and reminisced about how, in the ’84 World Series when Williams was managing the Padres, the manager had signalled Gossage to issue an intentional walk to Kirk Gibson. Gossage kept shaking his head no until Williams hustled out to the mound and asked Gossage what he was doing. Goose assured him he’d had success in the past against Gibson and wanted to go after him. “No sooner does he get back to the dugout,” Gossage says, “then I throw the ball and it ends up in the upper deck. Dick, I should have listened to you.” Cracked Williams: “What Goose didn’t say was that ball to the upper deck broke three seats, one behind the other.” Williams also noted that the last time he’d been at the NY writers dinner was in 1968, the year after the Sox won the pennant, and though he sat at the head table, he wasn’t introduced, an oversight about which the Sox raised a stink. “Thanks for giving me a chance (to speak) after 40 years,” he said.
Alex Rodriguez presented the NL MVP award to Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies’ shortstop who thanked his mom “for teaching me to talk trash.” Rodriguez then received the AL MVP award from Yogi Berra, who like A-Rod was a three-time MVP winner. A-Rod, gracious in his remarks toward Rollins, received a pretty tepid response from the crowd after his own stilted acceptance speech, in which he told Berra he was jealous of the 10 world championships the Yanks won with Berra on the team.
Eric Wedge, on his 40th birthday, received the AL Manager award from baseball CEO Bob Dupuy, who also gave the NL Manager award to Bob Melvin. Melvin, in turn, presented Ryan Braun of the Brewers the NL’s Rookie of the Year Award.
The most relaxed speaker of the night had to be Mets manager Willie Randolph, even though Randolph is on the hotseat after the Mets’ shocking collapse last September, when they blew a 7-game lead with 17 to play.
“Luis, no stogie tonight?” Randolph called to Tiant. He then turned to Gossage, his former teammate on the Yankees. “Goose, now you can stop whining (about not being in the Hall). You’re in brother, you’re in.” To Rollins, who last spring famously proclaimed that the Phillies, not the defending champ Mets, were the team to beat in the NL East, Randolph said: “How you doing, Jimmy? Want to make some predictions tonight? You want to talk smack, go ahead, but you’re on my turf.” And to Biggio, to whom he presented the “You Could Look It Up Award,” Randolph noted that Biggio had been hit by a pitch 285 times. “Get out of the way, bro,” he said. “I know you’re taking one for the team, but get out of the way.”
It was a relaxed night of celebration for baseball, a night in which the word “steroids” was not uttered once from the dais. The Sox were represented by VP of media relations John Blake and Susan Goodenow, who tomorrow starts her new job as the team’s Vice President of Public Affairs, inheriting some of the responsibilities that once belonged to Dr. Charles Steinberg. Steinberg has gone to the Dodgers, and this weekend sent friends pictures of him posing on the Great Wall of China with Joe Torre, the new Dodgers’ manager. The baseball writers took a rare night off; one of the ground rules of the dinner being that the media are denied access to the head table honorees.