There are certain figures who stand out above the rest in Red Sox history. David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Dustin Pedroia are obvious examples in recent history. They are the faces of the franchise. The guys who Red Sox fans of the future will be keenly aware of even if their entire careers took place before the fans in question are even born, much as we are with, say, Tris Speaker (you select few nonagenarians aside).
I am not here to talk about them, however. Today, I'm interested in the supporting cast. The guys who stop by for a few years, and then find their way to other teams. There's no exact definition here, mind. Manny Ramirez, for instance, was here for eight years, which is just as long as my #5 was in the organization as a whole. But Manny? Manny's one of those team-defining guys, and it really wouldn't seem right to have him in the mix. Ditto Jon Lester. This is based on feel more than numbers.
And really, I think that's appropriate. After all, these aren't the best players. Just my personal favorites. And I'm well aware there's some serious competition that didn't quite make the cut. Sorry, Mike Napoli. You're great, and the shirtless personal parade down Boylston will live forever. There's just no accounting for my bad taste.
With that being said, here are my five favorite Red Sox part-timers of the past decade:
5. Daniel Nava
It's going to be a long time before the Red Sox produce a better story than Daniel Nava. Hell, it's going to be a long time before this entire league produces a better story than Daniel Nava. He was an equipment manager in college just to stay around the game, an $1 independent league signee, and he just kept on hitting until he hit a grand slam in his first MLB at bat and played 134 games for a World Series winning team.
Daniel Nava has a World Series ring and not just because he rode the bench for a great team! If it weren't for the unfortunate ending to the story, Hollywood would already have the movie in production, and I'd have him further up the list.
4. Mike Lowell
Another guy whose ending drags him down, and interestingly enough, the only representative of the 2007 Red Sox. To be honest, they were perhaps the most technically excellent Red Sox team I've seen in my life, but the guys that are unique to 2007 (at least in terms of championship teams) were just not the most charismatic bunch. Papelbon is choking out Harper, Beckett is...well, Beckett, and as much as I love J.D. Drew in a sort of stats-obsessed counterculture way, it's not for his winning personality. He seems like a nice enough guy, but definitely never made a show of it.
Of course, this is about Mike Lowell, and not J.D. Drew. It's just that they make for an interesting comparison that speaks to what we baseball fans value. At the end of the day, neither were Pedroia-like balls of energy, or larger-than-life figures like Ortiz. And when you really parse the numbers, Drew was the (slightly) better performer during his tenure in Boston.
Where, then, does the difference lie? In a few places. Expectations, for one. Lowell was the throw-in contract dump in a deal made for an ace, and he ended up a bargain. Drew was the high-priced free agent who would have to have been a world-beater to truly satisfy Red Sox fans. Timeliness, for another. Drew's really great years came in 2008 and 2009, and he got off to a slow start in a Boston uniform, making a bad first impression. Lowell was a bright spot in 2006, and then had his best season in Boston the year they won it all, earning World Series MVP honors. Really, were it not for that one Drew Grand Slam against Cleveland, this would be a landslide.
But even as I logically tell myself that there's not so much separating the contributions of these two to Red Sox history, and even as one of Drew's more ardent supporters, I can't put him on a level with Mike Lowell. He spoke with his bat and glove at the exact right time, and we loved him for it. I'll never forget the "Re-sign Lo-well!" chants in Boston during that victory parade, even if that didn't prove the best idea in the long run.
3. Shane Victorino
Alright, none of these stories are going to end well, are they? That's the sad fact about most professional athletes, and the reason why David Ortiz is perhaps wise to call it quits when he's still hitting like a monster.
Except he isn't and shouldn't. Never retire, Papi. Never!
But I digress. Shane Victorino was the perfect combination of effort, production, and an almost memetic nature. He was welcomed to the Red Sox with skepticism, dispelled it in a hurry by producing like the Victorino of old, and cemented his sudden popularity by playing with the sort of fire no fanbase can ignore. How many times did he run down a distant fly ball at top speed only to limp back after recording the out? How often did it seem like he sought out the wall in his attempts to chase down a potential home run?
And so we serenaded him with "Three Little Birds" every time he stepped up to bat. And celebrated his successes online with cries of "SHANF" (yes, Shanf) when we weren't able to do it in person. His grand slam in the ALCS comes in a close second to David Ortiz' in terms of 2013 postseason moments, and when he wept in his departure press conference, so did I. He only had one great season in three, but that season will not be forgotten anytime soon.
2. Koji Uehara
I omitted something in the Victorino bit because I had to save it for this one.
I feel like i could just end this right here. But hell, let's mention that Koji is still pitching with this team at 41 years old. He has 234 strikeouts and 29 walks in 185 innings which would be ridiculous for a 28-year-old. And the way he looks right now I'm dangerously close to putting him right in that Ortiz "never retire" camp.
Really, though, Koji's popularity is strange. I probably couldn't have much of a conversation with the man. He shows up once every couple of games for a total of one inning. NESN doesn't even show his high fives on camera anymore because they are terrible and hate fun. But I know they're probably happening over in the dugout. Never has there been a player so unbelievably excited about recording three outs, particularly when that act is so standard for him. He doesn't even touch 90 on a good day anymore and it just doesn't matter because his splitter is so hilariously unhittable that it's always a surprise that anyone even tries.
Except when it's not. But let's not talk about Monday.
I know I should want him to go out on top, but dammit, Koji, keep pitching until the splitter doesn't split (again, don't talk about Monday), and the high-fives aren't warranted anymore. You're a strange and marvelous phenomenon and I'm not ready to say goodbye yet.
1. Adrian Beltre
There are a few players in Red Sox history who have taught me lessons. Carl Crawford: don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole. John Lackey: a few weeks is a small price to pay to see if a player can recapture past glories. Alfredo Aceves: DO NOT RESIST HIS POWER CONSUMES ALL THERE IS NO HOPE EVERYTHING IS--
Sorry, where was I?
Right, Adrian Beltre. Adrian Beltre, and the lesson learned:
If a player is an honest-to-God delight just to have around, do whatever you can to keep him.
Beltre was, of course, allowed to leave because the Red Sox wanted to swing a trade for Adrian Gonzalez while moving Kevin Youkilis to third. It was a move which turned out to be regrettable for a half-dozen reasons, but seemed largely reasonable at the time. Hell, they even got Blake Swihart as their compensatory pick.
Robbie Ross' quiet, unique value to the Red Sox
Robbie Ross isn't the flashiest pitcher on the Red Sox, but he brings a valuable skill set to the table.
And yet...over the last five years, I've never stopped wishing Adrian Beltre was around. When the Rangers extended him for another two years the other day, it was a nail in a coffin I'd always knew would never be opened. Adrian Beltre will never wear a Red Sox uniform again, and that is just...depressing.
Of course, some part of that has to do with the production. He was an MVP-caliber player in Boston when he was here, hitting .321/.365/.553 with exceptional defense at the hot corner in 2010. Since joining Texas, he's hit to a 133 wRC+ while being the same old Beltre at the bag. That's obviously enviable given the Middlebrooks and Sandoval debacles the Red Sox have experienced (to say nothing of Xander's 2014).
Really, though, that's not the point. Yes, Beltre would've been a huge contributor, but even if he'd just been average, he still would've dramatically improved the experience of being a Red Sox fan from 2011-2015. it doesn't seem to matter so much what your record is when half the team is aggressively attempting to pat Adrian Beltre's head. It doesn't matter if you're destined for the playoffs or a protected draft pick when Beltre is pointing down to first base on his own check swings, or going down to one knee on a home run.
Here he is calling time because a pitch was just so bad he had to laugh at it:
I love Adrian Beltre, chapter 219. pic.twitter.com/9vKjLwASjY— Joon Lee (@iamjoonlee) April 15, 2016
Oh my God, he's just the best.
The 2010 Red Sox didn't make it to the playoffs. They were the first Red Sox team to miss out since 2006, in fact. Adrian Beltre is the reason I can still remember 2010 fondly.
I miss Adrian Beltre, and I will until he retires, and even after that. He was here for one year, and then gone to Texas, but he stands out as the one Red Sox player who just could never quite be replaced.