The Monday Baseball Column: A World Series MVP's Tom Brady conundrum

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By WEEI 93.7

Tom Brady’s decision last week led to another tough choice by another Boston sports hero.

Steve Pearce, the 2018 World Series MVP, had settled into his new life as a recently-unofficially retired baseball player, enjoying the extra time with his young children. Then came the news — Brady was moving down to Pearce’s neighborhood, Tampa Bay.

Normally, such a transaction would garner passing interest from someone who lived their life playing a completely different sport. But even though Pearce is Florida born and bred, his family’s sports fanaticism begins and ends with the Patriots. It’s why Pearce’s younger brother Chad, whose wallet has “Patriots” imprinted on it, named his son “Brady” but calls him by the nickname “Tommy”.

So when word came down that Brady was switching uniforms, Pearce knew what he had to do.

“I’m a Tampa Bay season ticket holder as of three days ago,” the former Red Sox texted WEEI.com.

The unusual path taken by Pearce is seemingly paying off, with the 36-year-old getting the kind of opportunity those Pats fans raised on Brady’s dominance would cherish: Get the opportunity to continue to watch the QB do his thing in person at least eight games a year while rooting for New England from afar.

But the decisions didn’t stop with a rooting interest. There is also that matter of what Pearce’s wardrobe will look like at these games in Brady’s new home. After all, Patriots’ garb has been a game-day staple for years. So, Tampa Bay Brady jersey or Patriots Brady jersey?

“TB Brady jersey,” Pearce responded when asked the question.

“But I’m still rooting for the Pats. He’s been my QB for the last 20 years. I’m just glad I get to see him still playing. He’s the GOAT. I’m a Tom Brady fan, as well. But … Go Pats!”

THE AUDIBLE CALLED BY THE RED SOX

The last two weeks have presented plenty of chaos for everyone. But for the Red Sox organization, one task within the recent coronavirus-induced bedlam stood out as more challenging than most.

Getting its minor-leaguers home.

Not only was the Red Sox front office dealing with a sea of teenagers and players in their early 20’s, but so many came from different pockets in the world. They could stay if they wanted, but in such a time of crisis it was going to be understandable if the youngest wave of the professional ballplayers wanted to return to the comfort of their home countries.

“It was about determining logistically what made sense where to send these guys,” said Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero. “Our American players, a lot of them had places to go. But even with them it was an uncomfortable situation. We had a lot of guys who wanted to go home internationally. We had Taiwan. We had Panama. We had Colombia. Venezuela. The Dominican. So we were able to set into motion with the green light from upstairs to get these guys home as soon as possible.

“We were able to get the majority of them where they wanted to go.”

There was one roadblock, however.

The 15 or so Venezuelan players who had expressed an interest in leaving Fort Myers, Fla. and returning home were facing an issue players from the other countries weren’t. It became clear early in the process that because of the travel ban to Venezuela getting the group to its home nation wasn’t going to be an option.

“We ran into a few complications with Venezuela,” said Romero.

So the team of Red Sox executives being charged with executing the minor-league mobilization — farm director Ben Crockett, assistant farm director Brian Abraham, assistant general managers Raquel Ferreira and Romero, director of major league operations Mike Regan and coordinator of minor league operations Patrick McLaughlin — had to get creative.

“We have a pretty significant number of Venezuelans in our system so we ended up realizing the best situation for them was that we were to accommodate them at our Dominican (Republic) facility,” Romero said, “which very fortunately had just been renovated over the past years and is much more comfortable. So we were able to guarantee everybody a room there.

“Those guys are safe and sound over there. They are able to go out to the field. That’s secondary right now but at least they are able to go out and while we can’t have any organized activities, they can go out. We explained to them the social distancing. But at least they can go out and throw a ball around somewhat which I’m sure helps them mentally. … Given the alternative I think that is one of the better places they can be.”

While some Venezuelan Red Sox minor-leaguers chose to not make the trip to the Dominican Republic — with a smattering visiting friends in the locations of Sox minor-league affiliates, or find places to stay in among a heavy South Florida Venezuelan population — the Dominican option has proven to be a Godsend.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, that situation proved to be the biggest hiccup when it came to placing the minor-leaguers where they wanted to go, whether it was in the United States or abroad. 

The two players from Australia — Dan McGrath and Jack Bowins — chose different paths, with McGrath staying with friends in Massachusetts while the 18-year-old Bowins flew back to his native country.

A TOP PROSPECT’S WHIRLWIND WORLD

When it comes to relocating, perhaps no member of the Red Sox organization has had more of a unique situation than Chih-Jung Liu.

The 20-year-old pitching prospect first was held off on joining his new team after flying from his homeland of Taiwan to Fort Myers out of precaution due to the coronavirus. Then, for a few days, Liu finally got the chance to don his new uniform and head out to the backfields at Fenway South with coach Mickey Jiang (the only person other than Tzu-Wei Lin in camp who spoke mandarin).

But then organized baseball activities were halted, leaving Liu with a tough decision. 

“He came here and he was progressing,” Romero said. “We got him out on the field a little bit. He was acclimating quite well obviously with the huge help of Mickey Jiang. He decided he wanted to go home. Taiwan is not a Level 2 or Level 3 country so we ended flying back home.

“Just imagine being thrown into Taiwan or Japan and playing baseball over there with just one confidant on the field. Nobody speaks mandarin outside Liu and Micky. And watching him through PFPs and the fundamental work, he’s definitely not scared. He has tried to engage and interact. It was obviously a short look but I think he has acclimated him really well. I don’t see any problem. He’s a likable kid and social and Mickey has done a heck of a job.”

Liu’s decision to return to Taiwan was based in large part because of his comfort level when it came to finding reliable place to workout, having returned to his former team at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

“We wanted a slow ramp up with him anyway,” Romero said of the pitcher whose fastball touches 98 mph. “It took him a while to get his Visa. We were fortunate to get it. Whenever we can get through this we can bring him right back and ramp him up again He said he had a safe place to work out in Taiwan with members of his old college team. And of course that’s secondary in making sure he’s safe. …With a lot of these guys we are going to have to start over from scratch.”

The most productive thing I did during this clubhouse-free morning: take a photo of Taiwanese Red Sox prospect Chih-Jung Liu whose entry in camp was delayed due to coronavirus precautions pic.twitter.com/I6ifGIJ22G

— Rob Bradford (@bradfo) March 10, 2020

THE 1995 LESSON MLB SHOULD LEARN FROM

Aaron Sele remembers that 1995 season well. He was, after all, the Red Sox’ Opening Day starter, giving up just one hit over five innings while getting the win.

But what the former pitcher also recalls is how spring training shook out that year and what can potentially be learned when baseball starts back up this time around.

“It’s so different than this. What that work stoppage was was just business. It’s a whole different thing,” Sele warns. “But …”

While the current coronavirus crisis is much different than the work stoppage 25 years ago, the similarity is that both will have led to a race to power through a delayed spring training long enough prepare the players for the season. In the case of 1995, the first day of workouts was April 7 with the opener taking place 2 1/2 weeks later.

“As a young player you didn’t really know what was going on,” recalled Sele, who got the Opening Day nod because of Roger Clemens’ groin injury. “It was start, stop, start, stop, go. That’s what I remembered about it. Hey, we’re going to go. No, we’re not. Hey, we’re going to go, No, we’re not. Hey, we’re going to go … Start.

“Major League Baseball really doesn’t matter compared to everything else that is going on, but once it starts they need to be well aware of the injury risks of the shortened spring training. And that is what everybody has fought for years. Why is spring training so long? Well, you need it for pitchers.”

The hasty preparation came back to haunt Sele, who ended up making just six starts before being shut down for the season with a shoulder injury.

“I was 23 years old. I used to think I could just pick up a baseball, play catch for a couple of days and be ready to go,” See said. “Because you’re so young it’s kind of what you did. But that was going to be my first full season. As a player, I wasn’t prepared for the grind of a full season because I had never played a big-league season. 1994 was shortened and ’95 you’re trying to get ready to go, so personally, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I was ready and obviously making six starts and then blowing out and missing the rest of the season I wasn’t ready.

“The biggest key MLB has to worry about is obviously the safety of its fans and its workers. But the players? I would suggest a longer version than probably what they’re going to have. Obviously, you don’t need all of spring training, but you need consistency of when it is going to start. That’s what I remember them saying we’re going to go on this date and then we didn’t. We’re going to go on this date, and then we didn’t. And then you eventually go, ‘They don’t know who their going.’ And then they say to go and you’re like, ‘Crap! Here we go.’ At 24 years old you’re like I’m fine, whatever. But obviously it didn’t work.”

BASEBALL IS BACK … IN SOUTH KOREA

If you want your baseball fix the only place to get it these days is from South Korea, where teams have started back up with spring training games in preparation for their KBO season.

The league was initially shut down in the middle of its spring training, some of which was taking place in Australia, due to the coronavirus. But thanks to universally-praised protocols — along with easy-to-get coronavirus tests — the KBO made its return with some intra-squad scrimmages. Such activities were made possible because not a single player from the league has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. (Although they aren't out of the woods yet, as is pointed out in this recent report.)

"Everybody is watching those practices like the Super Bowl," noted Romero.

Three masks in this screenshot... pic.twitter.com/UwDZBQUEKt

— Dan Kurtz (@MyKBO) March 23, 2020

One familiar name who will be participating for the LG Twins for a second straight season is former Red Sox first-rounder Casey Kelly.

Kelly was training with his team in Australia and then Japan when it was determined foreigners such as himself should return to the United States while things were sorted out. So the pitcher — who turned in a 14-12 record and 2.55 ERA in 29 starts with his KBO team in 2019 — ventured back to Arizona where he has spent the last two weeks working out with his cousin, Arizona State pitching coach Jason Kelly.

“Now I’m just kind of waiting to find out when the season is going to start, go over there and start practicing for the season,” Kelly said by phone.

“When we started spring training at the end of January, we were in Australia and during that time was when it started getting bad in South Korea. I feel like they are two or three months ahead of us where we are at right now. They are doing a great job of containing it. The (coronavirus) numbers are going down every day.

“We were keeping up every day in camp in Australia seeing the numbers go up and up in South Korea. We actually took a vote to stay or go to Japan. I know guys were concerned about their families, but fortunately, everybody on our team is fine and nobody has gotten sick.”

The original schedule put the KBO opening next weekend, with many in the league now surmising it will kick off in mid-April. 

For Kelly, the excitement of a baseball season is building. For a second straight year he will have fellow former big league pitcher Tyler Wilson on his team, with a better understanding of what to expect. It’s a comfort level that made him prioritize returning to South Korea instead of exploring MLB options.

“I would say the depth probably isn’t as deep as where the big leagues are,” he said of the league. “So if a couple of guys get hurt on your team the replacements … They aren’t as deep as they are in the big leagues. There are still a lot of great hitters. It took me a little bit to get to know them and know the hitters, so I felt the second time through I had a better idea. But I definitely got my butt kicked a bunch of times last year. It was a learning experience for me. … Just knowing I was going to be able to get 30 starts and 100-110 pitches every game and try to win the game, I learned how to pitch and learned how to turn over lineups and face them three and four times.”

As for remembering his time with the Red Sox — who took Kelly with the 30th overall pick in the 2008 draft before including him in the 2010 trade for Adrian Gonzalez — the 30-year-old Kelly sees it as a distant memory.

“Thinking back on it knowing it was 12 years ago, it makes me feel old a little bit,” said Kelly, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2018 when he 3.04 ERA in seven appearances with the Giants. “I was such a kid back then. I was just trying to figure out how to be a professional athelte, trying to make my way to the big leagues. The concerns were different. Growing up, maturing and figuring out what kind of pitcher I trying to be really good at the things that I do … Getting past some of the injuries, the last couple of years have been some of the best of my career. I’m only getting better each year.”

AN IDEA OF CHRIS SALE'S TIMELINE

Jay Groome is 10 years younger than Chris Sale, but he has experienced something the Red Sox pitcher hasn't as of yet -- coming back from Tommy John surgery.

While the age difference doesn't make this an apples-to-apples comparison, there are some interesting parallels considering Sale will likely undergo his operation around the same time Groome had his done in 2018. Like most pitchers, Groome's return to pitching in games took plaee about 1 1/2 seasons out from surgery. But this Instagram post from Nov. 2018 offers an idea of when actually throwing a baseball might take place.

November 19th 2018-wow what a ride it’s been to get to this day. So many mixed emotions day in and day out. It’s been 240 days since I’ve injured my arm and 188 days since my surgery, I know this is just another step closer to the comeback but today is a day I’ve been working so hard to get to! Thank you to everyone whose been by my side up until now.. Until then just #waitonit⏰

A post shared by jaygroome (@jaygroome) on Nov 19, 2018 at 12:00pm PST