Dorchester, Massachusetts — For a moment, Jeremy Peña is happy that the traffic rushing southbound on 93 drowns out the reporter’s question. It’s a question he’s heard before — one that every member of the New England National Baseball Team has heard before — and one that he’s sick of. No, he doesn’t know whether this version of the Lone Pines can stack up to the glory teams of the mid-to-late-90s; yes, he believes they have enough talent to compete for the World Baseball Classic title; no, the fact that they are once again using the batting cages at Boston Bowl in Dorchester as their primary training center will not have a negative effect on their preparations for the upcoming tournament — if it was good enough for Mo and Baggy back in the day, it’s good enough for him. He jabs a fork into his stuffed quahog one last time, tosses the now-empty shell into the trash, and grabs a bat. It’s time to get to work.
The ghosts of the late-90s-era New England teams still linger over camp. How could they not? A lineup anchored by Mo Vaughn and Jeff Bagwell. A rotation fronted by Tom Glavine and Charles Nagy. The two Pauls—Sorento and Konerko — providing thump down the lineup. Walk into The Burren in Davis Square or the Brendan Behan Pub in JP and you’ll still hear people talking about those teams.
The 2023 edition of the Lone Pines appears to be a significantly more mediocre lot. While the lineup will likely hold it’s own — the Yaz-Springer-Pollack outfield is one of the better ones New England has fielded in recent memory, and the Peña-Ahmed double play combination should be outstanding — the pitching is a major question mark.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. Just a few seasons ago, New England fans were certain they’d had an ace worthy of stepping right into the Glavine-Chris Carpenter lineage of top-of-the-rotation horses. But things have not gone according to plan for Groton, Connecticut’s Matt Harvey. A career that once seemed certain to end in enshrinement in Pittsfield (the birthplace of baseball and home of the New England National Baseball Hall Of Fame) now hangs in the balance. It’ll be Rich Hill, not Harvey, taking the ball for Rocco Baldelli’s Nine when the WBC opens up next month, with Harvey likely slotting in behind him, hoping to regain some of his magic.
In a way, it’s fitting that 42-year-old Rich Hill is being called upon to anchor the rotation. Outside of Peña, most of the New England regulars are on the wrong side of the aging curve. Chris Iannetta and Ryan Flaherty even came out of retirement to fill in some holes in the starting lineup, while 42-year-old Rajai Davis, who hasn’t played in the bigs in three years, will be counted on pinch-run off the bench.
There is one glaring siren of youth on the roster, though, Vermont’s Owen Kellington. The selection of Kellington, a teenager in the Pirates system who has yet to pitch above rookie ball, shocked most observers. But Baldelli is standing behind his controversial decision to bring the 19-year-old south for the tournament. “Owen is the future of this rotation,” says Baldelli, double-fisting a Del’s Lemonade and a pint of coffee milk outside the cage where Matt Barnes and Steve Cisheck are throwing. “He’s going to be an important part of this team, and we want him here now.”
Kellington, pouring maple syrup over a bowl of Green Mountain snow and sipping a Heady Topper, seems unfazed. “It’s baseball,” he says, “the same game I used to play back home in Montpelier, when we were too poor to buy real equipment and had to use a ball made of sharp Vermont cheddar. I’ll be ready.”
For what it’s worth, his teammates believe in the kids. “Owen is a talented dude, and Jeremy Peña is a star,” said Mike Yastrzemski, mixing a spoonful of clam chowder into this Dunkies. “Peña brings a whole new energy to this team. I, for one, think he can be the best shortstop New England’s ever had.” This he says with a smirk, waiting for an angry reaction from infield coach Gary Disarcina, who is leading a game of pepper with Nick Ahmed and Matthew Batten nearby. But Disarcina doesn’t bite. “He’s worlds better than I ever was,” he says, stuffing his face with a slice of Regina pizza “We’re going to go as far as Jeremy takes us, and hopefully that’s all the way to a parade.”
Imagine that: the Dropkick’s singing Chester down Boylston, Prime Minister Menounos presenting George Springer with the Cod Of Honor, Peña giving the World Baseball Classic trophy a shower of Trillium beer. It’s a seemingly impossible dream.
But, as national poet laureate Steven Tyler says: dream on.
- Jeremy Peña, SS, Providence, RI
- AJ Pollock, LF, Hebron, CT
- George Springer, CF, Avon, CT
- Mike Yastrzemski, RF, Andover, MA
- Nick Ahmed, 2B, East Longmeadow, MA
- Chris Ianetta, C, Providence, RI
- Eric Campbell, 1B, Norwich CT
- Dave MacKinnon, DH West Hartford, CT
- Ryan Flaherty, 3B, Portland, ME
P.J. Higgins, C, Wallingford, CT
Mason Williams, OF, Pawtucket, RI
Matthew Batten, INF, Trumbull, CT
Rajai Davis, OF, New London, CT
Rich Hill, Milton, MA
Matt Harvey, Groton, CT
Aaron Civale, Windsor, CT
Packy Naughton, West Roxbury, MA
Steve Cishek, Falmouth MA
Matt Barnes, Bethel, CT
Tyler Beede, Groton, MA
Sean Newcomb, Middleborough, MA
Dominic Leone, Norwich, CT
Jesse Hahn, Groton, CT
Jeff Belliveau, Warwick, RI
Paul Campbell, Malden MA
Owen Kellington, Montpellier, VT