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22 May 2008

I never can say goodbye - a multimedia birthday tribute to Julián Tavárez1

I. It's the narrative, or How Life Imitates the Boston Red Sox

Why do we follow certain players avidly while others hold little interest? Certainly there is some kind of pure pleasure in watching a fellow human being perform a difficult task skillfully. There is enjoyment to be had in witnessing a game played well by people who are very good at what they do.

But isn't there more to our enjoyment of the game than this, even for the most VORPy among us?

There is drama in the game. Drama not only in the question of which team will win and which will lose. Every pitch, every play, every moment on the field is a little story. Can this pitcher get inside that guy's head? Will that game-saving catch turn into a career-ending injury? What kind of a person gets his tendon stitched to his anklebone so that he can help his team win the World Series? And is this admirable or crazy?

We all choose (if "choose" is the right word) the players whose fortunes we follow and perhaps identify with, on the basis of these narratives, however much we try to tell ourselves that we're objectively picking the "best". And after all, some or even many of the players we love to follow are not, in any objective sense, the "best" - but they have stories that grab us, something about them touches us, something is them makes some kind of a human connection, and baseball, like literature and the arts, is also a place we go to feel that "I am not alone", that someone else goes through what I go through, although on a stage which presents itself as clearer, bigger, more meaningful than I feel my own life to be.

I have wanted to write about a few of these players who have meant so much to me, to explore that phenomenon. And, like talking about falling in love, it has turned out not always to be so easy to say why I am moved by this one's narrative while this other one I can take or leave.

However, in a few cases I can remember clearly the moment at which I said to myself, "I really love this guy". And first and foremost among those funny valentines, the pitcher with the bad reputation who turned Red Sox Nation around 180 degrees by virtue of his personality and performance in his first year with the team, and whose status as I write is unclear (although it appears he will leave us soon). I refer to the man who is 35 years old today, Julián Tavárez.

II. A Tale of Two Juliáns, or Thème de Yoyo

Thème de Yoyo by the Art Ensemble of Chicago featuring Fontella Bass

Many bloggers2 have written about the sea change that occurred over the 2006 season in our attitude to then-newly acquired veteran pitcher Julián Tavárez. He joined the Red Sox for the 2006 season and, along with Rudy Seanez, was intended to fill the role of middle relief. Now middle relief is a problem, there is no getting around that. And for awhile, those two were nearly interchangeable in our minds as we dreaded seeing them warming up in the bullpen.

What was worse, Tavárez came with a reputation as something of a loose cannon, a reputation he seemed to confirm by getting himself a ten-game suspension for a fight in a spring training game just as he joined the Red Sox. Teammates told the press that this gave a misleading picture, that he was actually very popular among his teammates and it took a lot to make him angry. But that did little to reassure us.

But then injuries and illness depleted the Red Sox starting pitching, and Julián Tavárez was asked to fill in as a temporary starter (or, perhaps, volunteered, based on what we know about him now). How much wailing and gnashing of teeth there was among the faithful of Red Sox Nation. Surely nothing good could come of this.

We were wrong, oh so wrong. He did just fine as a starting pitcher.

Then he pitched a 99-pitch complete game, defeating the Toronto Blue Jays on 22 September 2006.

This caused many of us to take a second look at the guy. Maybe there was more to Julián Tavárez than we suspected. He had just earned a little benefit of the doubt, hadn't he?

Jon Lester's battle with cancer meant that there was a spot in the starting roster that needed to be held for the first part of the 2007 season, and Tavárez ended up playing that role through the All-Star Break. And he distinguished himself not only by his performance8, keeping the team in contention for the Division Championship they eventually won, leading to the 2007 World Series win; he also held the distinction of being one of the players most willing to be interviewed, and who provided a rich supply of quotes and stories.

Now, I don't know if Julián has given as many, or as discursive, interviews to the press in the other towns in which he's played. On the basis of the evidence I have available at the moment (articles found online via Google) it appears not. I find only a few interviews or quotes, generally after he'd done something "batshit". I haven't found any of the kind of interviews we became so accustomed to during the 2007 season, in which Julián gave voice to whatever was on his mind about the games, the team, and anything and everything. And that is when we began to see a very different Julián Tavárez, perhaps a glimpse of the one his teammates knew.

III. As you yearn, so you learn

Earth Wind & Fire: Yearnin' Learnin'

I don't think the story of his childhood in the Dominican Republic had been told before then.

Teammate David Ortiz was the subject of a book which apparently describes the poverty of Ortiz's own Dominican childhood. I haven't read that book, but based on what others have written, as poor as Ortiz was growing up, the poverty (in material terms) that Julián described is on another level altogether. It is something that is very hard for those of us living in the USA even to imagine. And yet he describes it casually and vividly.

In fact, trying to think how to describe the style of Julián's interviews, I first toyed with saying they were stream-of-consciousness — but that is not quite right. They are, rather, unguarded. Julián speaks in a very unguarded way, saying exactly what enters his head without censoring it. This casual openness is one of the things that makes his interviews so charming. The other, of course, is their content.

So we learned that Julián Tavárez had grown up in an unimaginable degree of material want, but with a drive to make something of himself and a desire to be liked. He described running errands for his neighbors in order to get a little food to eat, and not having clothing for many years. He spoke of missing his father, a construction worker who had to be away from home on jobs a lot of the time. He spoke of his desire to play baseball (like so many young men in the Dominican, seeing it as a way out of poverty) and how happy he was to be offered $800 to sign with the Cleveland Indians organization (only to have his coach talk them up to $1000). There is another story to be told here, the story of the complicated relationship between MLB and the DR, but this is not the place to tell it.

He also told us that prior to his coming to the USA he had never been to school, not even for a day.

Some players make it into the major leagues by specializing. Manny Ramírez comes to mind, with his single-minded determination to be a great hitter. Julián decided early on, apparently, to be a "specialist in non-specialization". In a WEEI interview7 he described his major league tryout, playing every position and doing everything to try and impress the scout.

There's a feeling, in these interviews, in their openness, in their unguarded quality, that with Julián what you see is what you get. And what you see here is a man who is unassuming, thoughtful about the game, willing to do whatever he can to be a part of it and to help his team, and unfailingly generous to his teammates. Someone you would want to have on your side. Warm, and humorous at times. This is a guy you'd love to hang out with, just to hear him talk3. The tales he has to tell.

We can imagine that he learned to survive and thrive in his childhood by making himself likeable, amenable, funny (how many have taken on the role of jokester as a survival mechanism?)... wanting to be liked, willing to do whatever it takes. Being helpful. Doing the things no one else is willing to do.

IV. Flexible in every sense of the word

"He goes out there and he keeps us in games," Francona said. "Sometimes it looks like he bends but doesn't break. I think guys like playing behind him and he likes pitching and he gives us a chance."

“I’m just taking one day at a time and I’m ready for anything. I’ll do anything. If they say clean the office I’ll go clean the office. As long as I have my uniform I’m a member of the Red Sox.” [JT quoted in Boston Herald, no longer in archive]

V. Beautiful

Elvis Costello

And every once in awhile - not very often, but it's there - he lets slip a spark of reflexive defensiveness, a little bit of resentment at being viewed as a clown. Having more or less adopted that role for himself, he wants us to know there is more to him, that he is - in his own words - "dumb like a fox". From time to time there is a trace of something else: a trace perhaps of a certain resentment that being as accommodating as he tries to be seems only to result in being taken for granted. What is most notable about such moments during his time with the Red Sox has been their scarcity. Given his reputation, we would have expected that his hours of press contact would have yielded many tantrums and much anger, but those are almost completely absent. There is just, once or twice, a hint that he is not altogether happy with how he is seen. When these moments do occur, they give a sense of what may have lain behind the events which made his pre-Red Sox reputation, and provide evidence of his having grown as a person since that time.

On 10 June 2007 he was the starting pitcher against the Arizona Diamondbacks, a National League team. Without a designated hitter, he had to go to bat when his turn came up, something that American League pitchers rarely are asked to do. In his first at-bat he hit a blooping semi-bunt single4, quite unexpectedly (one has the impression that even the coaches didn't expect it). And here is his comment when asked about it:

"Anything to help this team win. People look at you as a clown, dumb and stupid. People, fans, players, teammates look at you as a clown, as stupid, as a dummy who always does something to make people laugh," he said. "They don't admit the truth and say, 'You know what, the guy who is stupid and a dummy, he's going to make something happen to win. Pain is nothing to him. He'll do something to find a way to win.' And that's me. Dumb like a fox."

VI. Under Pressure

He was pitching against the Diamondbacks that night with a blister on his finger. Legends would spread about his unique brand of blister remedy5. What tends not to be remembered is his uncomplaining willingness to pitch with an irritated blister, just as he willingly pitched on his birthday in 2007 against Wang and the Yankees, and just as he willingly pitched on a day when his heart wasn't totally into pitching, because he was missing his sons.

VII. Julián Tavárez: Dad of the Year?

“I wasn’t even in the mood to be here today,” said Tavarez [on 20 June 2007] after allowing just three hits in an 11-0 rout of the Atlanta Braves. “There’s nothing wrong, it’s just how it is. I’ve been in the major leagues for 12 years, and if a major league ballplayer tells you they want to be in the ballpark every day they’re lying to you because it’s not true. Sometimes you come to the park because you have to."

It seems he was longing to be with his kids instead:

“I live with myself. I have lived with myself my whole life and a lot of times I want to be with them,” Tavarez said. “I’m sure there are a lot of guys like that, because we travel so much we don’t have a chance to be with our families. It’s different with the married guys because they get to travel with their families all the time. A guy like me, it’s kind of hard because I have to go pick up my kids and bring them around myself and I can’t do that."6

VIII. Thanks for the memories!

One year ago today, Tavárez, suffering from a cold and not feeling his best, was the starting pitcher in a game at Yankee Stadium. Wang started for the Yankees. Listen to Julián explain why it was a good thing - a good thing, mind you - that he was not feeling 100% when he pitched that game, which ended up a win for him:

"Probably by feeling weak I was able to take the power away from those [hitters]. Cause if I feel very strong out there I'd probably try to give a little extra in there, start to leave the pitch in the middle of the plate. I think that helped me a lot, I was feeling so weak out there and the ball was moving a lot, I keep the ball low, keep the ball in the park and get a lot of ground balls."
[NESN interview 23 May 2007]

Last week, the Red Sox designated Julián Tavárez for assignment so that they could bring Sean Casey back up from the minors. There had been talk that the Red Sox had been trying to work out a trade for Tavárez, who has not had many opportunities to pitch this season. But he cleared waivers without a deal being made, and accepted assignment to Pawtucket. This was something of a surprise. (As a veteran player, he had the right to refuse assignment if he wanted and to become a free agent.) Apparently Julián preferred to have the opportunity to pitch, even in the minor leagues. As I write, it is not clear what the Red Sox' intention is. Room must be made for him on the Pawtucket roster somehow if he is to play there. There are hints that this is a way for the Red Sox to have more time to work out a trade, and of course it is possible that they will find themselves in need of his unique skills at some time in the future before such a trade can be made.

Whatever happens, Julián Tavárez has left us with some unforgettable moments. We know that he was an essential part of the team's success in 2007, and we wish him well in whatever his future holds.

Happy 35th birthday to you, Julián Tavárez, and may you enjoy many more!

And here's a little musical lagniappe, because I'm feeling a little sad tonight as well, thinking about the future without him on our team. Two songs by Massachsetts' own Tavares:

Tavares: She's Gone

Don't Take Away the Music

Notes - still under construction, I'm afraid.

This post is only part of a much longer post I've been working up. Circumstances have pushed me into posting it in something of an incomplete state. I hope to update it at some point in the near future, when I'm not suffering from L-function overdose.

1: This post, apart from these footnotes, was largely composed hands-free using MacSpeech Dictate. I wish I had preserved intact all the variations that program came up with translating my slurred pronunciation of his name. Among them my favorites that survive: "Chilean Florence", "chilling Tavarez" (love it!), and, somewhat oddly, "joint or its". Rudy Seanez became "Rudy CNN's car key" [car key???], which is strangely appropriate in a Dada sort of way.

2: Here's my favorite blogger account of our coming to love Julian story; and another one; and a poetic tribute to all the fun he brought us.

3: J.G. Herder once said "It is worth studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original.", and I can testify that it was well worth the few years I spent studying Russian to be able to read Pushkin (especially this one) in the original. I have refrained from playing this out metaphorically in the case of learning Spanish in this essay, so as not to appear to be comparing whatever fun one could have chatting with Julián in Spanish to the effect of reading psalms or great secular poetry. But who's to say it isn't so.

4: Temporarily giving him a batting average of 1.000 for the season, and then, when he drew a walk in his next at-bat, an OBP of 2.000. In this context one cannot help recalling Alex Cora's performance in the first month of this 2008 season. (more fun with small samples)

5: His blister remedy = Pop it, repeatedly swab with rubbing alcohol. Crush aspirins and mix them with Red Bull energy drink. Rub them on blister. Reference.

6 Boston Herald, via Surviving Grady

7: A lot of these stories are told, if only briefly, in this long [~22 minutes] interview with WEEI's Big Show. [downloadable] More interview links to come when and if I find them.

8: Another thing that is not sufficiently appreciated about his performance in the 2007 season is that, as fifth starter, he had to go up against some of the best pitchers in the American League (for example, Halladay, Sanatana,...). This makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Certainly his teammates and his manager appreciated it.

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