Thursday, February 24, 2005

Dr. Strangeglove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bellhorn


From Chris Snow's fine article today in the Globe:

. As Mark Bellhorn walked from home plate to the Red Sox dugout late in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series last October, having struck out for the fourth time in four at-bats, the fans' criticism and anger flowed. His average had reached a stultifying .087 (2 for 23) in the playoffs.

He'll never forget, he said, one voice amid the masses.

"Some guy said, `Take yourself out of the lineup,' " Bellhorn said this week. "I'll always remember that."

It was a point that most fans and media in Boston thought or voiced that week. About that time, Terry Francona pulled Bellhorn aside. The Sox manager, sensing his second baseman had the self-confidence of Eeyore, passed along a simple, reassuring message.

"I said, `Bell, you're going to play,' " Francona relayed yesterday. " `The only thing I might do is move you out of the two-hole. You're going to play. So go play good.'

"He goes, `OK.' "

Self confidence of Eeyore? Mark's got his demeanor as well. And several other more positive charecteristics.

I'll admit, I was one of those voices amid the masses during that time. (Though in my defense, I wasn't feeling too hot about any of our boys just then. And we see how that turned out.) But he started to win me back with his homer in Game 6, and by the time he clanged one off Pesky's Pole, I was sucked in again.

You see, that's the thing with Mark Bellhorn. He's not goofy like Manny, or jovial like Papi, or just plain nuts like Kevin. He's not an obvious leader like Tek or Trot, or the "aw shucks" type like Billy Mueller. He's quiet, unassuming, steady, predictable, and eventually indispensable. Mark is an aquired taste, like...well, like Indian food. (Yes, that's a really bad analogy, I know.) But once he's won you over, you never really get over him. He's like a stray puppy dog that just sort of shows up one day, you start feeding it, it hangs around and before you know it, you can't imagine life without him.

Sure, his style of "walk- strikeout-strikeout-strikeout-walk-walk-strikeout-strikeout-HOMERUN!-strikeout-walk" can get frustrating. And when he first showed up on the Fenway green, he was just this unknown replacement guy, overshadowed by the amazing defenseman on the other side of the diamond. And then when he stuck around, it was because the aforementioned amazing defenseman was hurt, and all we heard was "When's Pokey coming back? And who is this guy with the permanent 5 o'clock shadow who strikes out all the time?"

But game by game, day by day, he won us over. We got used to the strikeouts. Because he walked nearly as much, and could occasionally whack taters with the best of them. Because the Bellhorn Scruff was not even in the top ten of interesting sartorial choices made by the 2004 Sox. Because, instead of "whatisname at second base", he became "Mahky" ,"Bell", "Horny" , whatever you called him.

It was a late September evening when I realized just how much he really meant to the team, how much he meant to me as a fan. The Orioles, as usual, were refusing to go down quietly. Foulkie had blown a save in the top of the ninth, and the game was tied. Johnny was at second, Mark came to the plate, and my mind was occupied with thoughts of "OK, Mark can walk here, and bring up Papi or Manny." And then, outta no where, Mark whacks one into deep center field for a double. Johnny scores, and the team mobs Mark on the basepaths. And for one brief moment, a bright, sweet grin intrudes upon our second baseman's usually placid countenance. It disappears, just as quickly, but it was there.

That smile brought me more joy then I would have thought it would. I liked seeing him finally smile, I like seeing him do well, I liked knowing that he was having fun doing his job. He wasn't a robot, but just a sweet quiet guy who didn't talk too much, and won his way into our hearts.The postseason only solidified that.

In a way, he is like Eeyore. Would Pooh be the same, if it was just hyper Rabbit and nervous Piglet and goofy Pooh? Would the 2004 Sox have been the same without the unsung, unassuming, but wholly endearing hero named Mark Bellhorn? Didn't think so.

I almost hope Kevin doesn't draw him fully out of his shell. I've gotten used to having Mark just the way he is.

Borrowing from the great Aaron Sorkin...

"Dude, this is like the scene from the Godfather, where Al Pacino tells James Caan he's gonna kill the cop. Only, I'm James Caan, Manny's Al Pacino, and David, you're the guy who teaches Pacino how to make tomato sauce."