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Popularity contest

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 21, 2011 10:25 AM

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Pedro and Loooouie. Now that's a tandem. I'll take them 1-2 at the top of my all-time Red Sox starting rotation -- Bruce Hurst, you get the ball for Game 3 -- and you can have Cy Young, Roger Clemens, Pat Mahomes, and the rest.

That picture of perhaps the two most entertaining pitchers in franchise lore serves as the entry point to a whimsical Sox topic I was discussing with a colleague the other day, a discussion fueled by 59-year-old Dwight Evans finishing second in our poll on who should be the Red Sox right fielder the rest of the season:

Who are the most universally popular or beloved Red Sox players in recent history?

There is, of course, a loaded word in that question: universally. Superstars who felt the wrath of the fans for a time in their careers are immediately disqualified.

Yaz was and is beloved . . . yet at one point in the early '70s he had to tuck cotton balls in his ears to drown out the booing. One down.

There are few players who were adored by the fans like Nomar in the late '90s . . . and yet his legacy is largely that of the guy who had to go to make the 2004 championship possible. Two out.

Mo Vaughn helped change the culture of the Red Sox in the mid-'90s . . . and yet his brutal honesty and affinity for late-night egg and cheese sandwiches didn't always help his cause with the patrons. The side is retired.

Then there are those other great Red Sox who have a "yeah, but" attached to their accomplishments.

Jim Rice? Number on his uniform: 14. Number in the scorebook: 6-4-3.

Johnny Damon? A money-grubbing traitor in pinstripes.

Curt Schilling? Doesn't he have a mute button?

Wade Boggs? Addicted to . . . his own statistics.

Roger Clemens? . . . in the showah!

Even Pedro has his detractors, particularly among certain disingenuous sports-radio bloviators who give you the sense that they aren't entirely explaining the reason for their disdain for him. As someone who will forever miss watching him pitch in his heyday, it's as inexplicable as it is disappointing. But that's the way of our world. We're finicky and demanding, and the media too often magnifies the emphasis on the negative. Riling up the masses is much more lucrative than writing or speaking with reason and sincerity.

Man, now I feel like I'm ripping on these guys by jostling the memories of their flaws and disappointments. You know that's not the intent. We're looking for the players who appealed to fans of all demographics and levels of dedication, those of whom a disparaging word was rarely if ever uttered. You remember them well, and you always will.

I've spent more time setting this up and explaining the parameters than writing about those on our Universally Popular list. Before I finally get to it, here were some near-misses, which begins in 1978, the first season I followed the Red Sox.

Jerry Remy was a well-liked player, albeit one with a .656 career OPS; his broadcasting career has enhanced his popularity retroactively. Dave Henderson was here so briefly he's more a guest that you remember fondly than a member of the immediate family, and his clutch moments were somewhat dulled by the ultimate devastating defeat. Jon Lester, a cancer survivor who has 71 wins in 100 career decisions, is close, though his understated personality has kept him in the shadows somewhat. If the next 6 1/2 years of Adrian Gonzalez are anything close to as mesmerizing as the first 1/2 season, he will make the list.

Here are the seven who I say already did:

Thumbnail image for fiskcarlton718.jpgCarlton Fisk: When our resident Dirt Dog, Steve Silva, put together his position-by-position "most beloved" galleries and polls that ran on Boston.com before this season, Fisk edged Jason Varitek in the voting at catcher, 49.1 percent to 47.3 percent. The argument can be made that Varitek, who debuted with the Sox in 1997 but seems like he's been here for about five years prior, belongs on this list as well. I respectfully vote no because of some deserved backlash about his reputation as a pitcher whisperer, but that doesn't mean his popularity isn't deserved. It doesn't and shouldn't match that of Fisk, the New Hampshire native who with his stoic demeanor and deliberateness in making sure the job was done right embodied so much of what New Englanders see in themselves. The 162 homers hit for the Boston cause and roughly as many fistfights with some of the more dastardly 1970s Yankees didn't hurt Pudge's rep, either.

Dwight Evans: If you could watch one once-great athlete do the one thing he did best one more time, who and what would you choose? Bobby Orr accelerating end-to-end? Ted Williams getting his pitch, flashing that slight uppercut, and sending the ball sailing toward the red seat? A no-look from Larry to a cutting DJ? No matter what your choice, if you are Boston fan, watching Dewey cut down a foolish baserunner trying to go first to third must be near the top of the list, no?

tiantfinn76.jpgLuis Tiant: He appears to be throwing sidearm on this card, one of approximately 67 angles from which he delivered his array of hypnotizing junk. There are many words that describe El Tiante -- charismatic and clutch are two standards for the cigar-chomping righty who had ample guts by any measure and meaning. But the writer George Frazier turned to Tiant's first language to find the perfect one: duende. Said Dwight Evans, "Unless you've played with him, you can't understand what Luis means to a team." Oh, but he fans fortunate enough to watch him had a pretty good idea.

Dustin Pedroia: The adulation for the hilariously cocky second baseman through the first four-plus years of his career reminds me of how fans felt about Nomar in his early seasons. But Pedroia's personality ensures that popularity will last long after his playing days are done. Hopefully sometime around 2025, conservatively.

Dave Roberts: You see, he stole a base this one time. Second base. During a playoff game of some importance. Perhaps this jogs the memory, yes?

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I demand to see this image bronzed and in full, larger-than-life statue form on Van Ness Street no later than 2014. No, make it October 2013. And should the sculptor accidentally disfigure Jeter ever so slightly, all the better. That's what he gets for nearly getting away with that sweep tag.

muellerbillfinn720.jpgBill Mueller: The sad thing about Roberts's steal, as we all know and as I hate to bring up with the drought being what it is, is that he was left stranded there on that second-base island while the Yankees celebrated their four-game humiliation of the Sox just a few feet away. If only the great Mariano hadn't mowed down Mueller, Mientkiewicz, and Damon in order in the ninth inning. If only he hadn't been so damn invincible with that stupid buzz-saw cutter. If only . . . ah, heck, I can't drag out this dismal imaginary parallel universe any longer. Mueller, of course, beat Mariano that day, just as he did during the landmark (if not quite pivotal) Mitt To The Twit game earlier that season. Mueller's stay here was just three seasons, but his legacy is permanent. He played hard, played hurt, produced to the point he won a batting title, and yes, beat the great Mariano. Twice. The praise Theo Epstein deserves for signing Mueller is tempered only by his inability to figure out a way to clone him.

David Ortiz: Imagine how much different Red Sox history would be if
Theo Epstein, early in the 2003 season, decided that Ortiz and Jeremy Giambi were redundant and gave the vote of confidence to the latter? If, as I've often written and still believe, that the day they acquired David Ortiz is the pivotal moment in franchise history, then the days that Shea Hillenbrand was traded to clear a logjam so Mueller and Ortiz could play more and the day that Grady Little saw fit to start giving Ortiz steady at-bats at least belong in the footnotes. I know he heard a smattering of boos during his slow starts in 2009-10, and maybe that means he doesn't meet the criteria for this exercise. I'll let you decide that. Me, I don't want to recognize a Red Sox universe in which anyone with a recollection of 2003-04 has a problem with the man who made this . . .

. . . and so much more . . .

. . . happen.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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