The Great Swihartening: Peter Gammons to Tweet the Future

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Peter Gammons is a Boston sports legend. He has been a journalist primarily covering the Boston Red Sox for the past 46 years. From Carlton Fisk in the 1970s, to Rich Gedman in the 1980s, and then Jason Varitek in the 1990s, Gammons has been there to predict their future as a MLB catcher. The signs and portents of Blake Swihart’s call up to the Red Sox caused Peter Gammons to tweet – a measly half a tweet, this makes Dan Ennis uncomfortable about Swihart’s career path.

When a Red Sox catcher is born, there are signs and portents. Thus it was when Blake Swihart was summoned to Fenway Park last week. He had been touted. Swihart has “athleticism” and “energy” according to Pawtucket Red Sox manager Kevin Boles. “Future impact player” declared Alex Speier of Baseball America. Sox catchers in this century trace a great declining arc from Jason Varitek through Victor Martinez, then Jarrod Saltalamacchia to A.J. Pierzynski, ending with a graceless thunk at Ryan Hanigan, he of the .222 average and shattered knuckles.

A savior is needed.

I may be imagining it all (and this season’s Sox squad tries the imagination), but there is something special about a Red Sox catching prospect – a bona fide catching prospect, not your could-be-maybes, like Steve Lomasney and Dusty Brown. After Swihart’s debut, Nick Cafardo asked, “When’s the last time you saw a Red Sox catcher run this well?”

It is a trick question – when has any catcher run this well? John Wathan of the 1980s Royals? Maybe that season Carlton Fisk swiped 17 bases for the White Sox? Catchers do not run, so Cafardo’s question was answered when asked. No Red Sox catcher has ever run like this. Are you implying something, Nick? Greatness?

Cafardo is a decent start in the signs and portents department, but the true revelatory press for Sox catching prospects has depended, for generations, on Peter Gammons. Gammons let our grandfathers know Fisk was coming. Gammons made sure our fathers knew that the AAA catcher netted in the 1998 Heathcliff Slocumb trade, strapping young Varitek, had “the catcher’s makeup” and was “someone to root for.”1

Blake Swihart prompted Gammons to tweet thusly on March 29, 2015:

Gammo! If a Sox catching prospect needs an imprimatur, do not settle for Cafardo—get thee to Gammons, who has seen them all since the Impossible Dream.

Gammons greeted the call-up of young Rich Gedman in 1980 by announcing that “you grow pennants down on the farm.”2 Gammons had been waiting for Gedman since March of that year, when he dropped a key quote into a spring training column: “Ted Williams thinks Gedman has a chance to be an extremely dangerous left-handed hitter.”3 With that endorsement, Geddy became the Swihart of the Atari 2600 era.

After the Sox drafted John Marzano in 1984, Gammons went to the kid’s old Philadelphia neighborhood. From there he filed a column full of hardscrabble authenticity. Marzano’s
father burst with pride at his son, the ballplayer: “He hasn’t even signed yet and everyone in the neighborhood knows Johnny Marzano. Just about everyone in South Philly knows my boy.”4
Gammons delivered the finishing move with a Jackson Browne allusion: “John Marzano’s dream home right now is Fenway Park because he is the Red Sox’ first draft choice. For the rest of the summer, he is traveling with the Olympic team on a barnstorming tour out of ‘Running on Empty.”4

Gammons does not waste such praise on every young Sox backstop. Pre-Moneyball Scott Hatteberg was dismissed as a “career minor leaguer.”5 When Manager Butch Hobson chose not to play young John Flaherty in a 1992 loss to the Blue Jays, Gammons assigned the decision to managerial acumen: “Hobson’s decision not to pinch run for Peña and use Flaherty was for the player, and came under one of a manager’s most important credos: never ask a player to do something he’s not capable of doing, physically or psychologically.”6 Flaherty lasted 14 years in the majors, but as a youngster he was merely evidence that Butch Hobson – Butch Hobson! – knew what he was doing.

No, the Great Swihartening has only one true antecedent.

Fisk.

Carlton Fisk was called up for his first cup of coffee in September of 1969, but up-and-coming Red Sox beat reporter Peter Gammons had first noticed him months earlier: “For Red Sox fans attention should be focused on catcher Carlton Fisk.”7 Attention should be focused is typical Early Gammons — that imperious modal would not fly in the newfangled Twitterverse, but back in the day Gammons had column inches to fill, and the superlative Fisk was worth the attention:

By 1972 Fisk had sufficient seasoning to stick with the big club, and Gammons announced his arrival in a blaze of admiration: “The thing is, he looks so damned good when he has his catching equipment on.”8 In those early days, Fisk was a sure thing as a defender, and Gammons does not stint, declaring, “He can throw. Oh, can he throw, like no catcher on the Red Sox has for a long, long time.”8

Fisk was so singular that rarely did Gammons compare a later Sox catching prospect to the Hall of Famer and Pride of New Hampshire; the burden was too heavy. To lay Fisk on any post-Fisk Sox catcher ‒ even Varitek ‒ would have been ink-stained malpractice. Gammons attempted it but once, and it backfired in a way that would have ruined the reputation of a lesser scribe.

One (presumably dull) day in 1981, Gammons tried to write about Marc Sullivan, who had been drafted in 1979 by his father, Red Sox General Manager Haywood Sullivan. The Red Sox did not have a first round draft pick in 1979 (it had been lost as free agent compensation). Thus, Sullivan was the top Sox pick that year, ahead of catchers Don Slaught, Tim Laudner, and Bob Melvin, not to mention future all-stars Joe Carter, Don Mattingly, Glenn Davis, Brett Butler, Orel Hershiser, and Tom Henke.

Today’s Gammons might have tweeted “Marc Sullivan more than just Daddy’s boy cacca tag sdddsat lGR @BostonGlobe @ JohnHenryWilliams.” But in the late 70’s Gammons was still more man than machine, so the columnist goes deep, quoting from Sullivan’s Single A manager about the burdens of Fiskian potential: “Marc’s going to hear it increasingly because he reminds me more of Carlton Fisk every day.”9

Gammons seconds that emotion: “Hey, when your name is Marc Cooper Sullivan, you’re 22 years old and in the summer of your blossoming, you’re relieved to hear the comparisons to Fisk. At least the references are performance oriented. At least they’re not about being Haywood Sullivan’s son.”9

Marc Sullivan spent three seasons in the low minors, but Gammons turns the prospect’s low ceiling into a gritty badge of honor: “He batted .225 last season at Winter Haven and made the All-Star team. That should tell you something.”9 This is Peak Gammons — that should tell you something. You, reader, are let in on a secret – Marc Sullivan made an all-star team, despite batting .225. That tells you something… vaguely Fiskian.

The New Fisk blossomed his way up to the bigs in 1982, thanks to an injury to Rich Gedman. Sox Manager Ralph Houk, company man (or closet ironist), claimed that GM Haywood Sullivan was against the promotion, and Gammons carries water dutifully, quoting Houk: “Haywood [Sullivan, Red Sox GM] wasn’t too keen on it, but [Red Sox Vice President] Ed Kenney insisted Marc had earned the chance.”10

Deep down, perhaps, Gammons may have realized that Fisking Marc Sullivan was unfair, and thus Sullivan’s career .494 OPS were the wages of sin. Since then, Gammons has avoided comparing Sox catching prospects to Fisk. Instead, Gedman got a Ted Williams seal of approval. John Marzano got Jackson Browne. Blake Swihart has thus far only gotten from Gammons a tweet, and really only half a tweet since some of the precious 144 characters were spent praising “a consummate bball journalist” in what appears to be a failed attempt to link to other content.

And that is my real disappointment with the convergence of Digital Gammons and the Coming of Blake Swihart. In another era, Gammons would have prepped us with a small mention in his Sunday Notes column…maybe a midwinter profile from a distant league (Venezuela?) wherein we learn that the future of Red Sox catching is in good hands. Now we get a tweet.

As of now, Gammons has not relayed for Swihart an endorsement from Ted Williams. The scribe has supplied no trembling, near-erotic description of how powerful Swihart looks in his chest protector. There is still time, however, for Peter Gammons to pound on his keyboard more than 144 times and give Swihart a proper Red Sox catching prospect column. Blake Swihart, this is the summer of your blossoming.

 

1Peter Gammons, SOX WILL BE OK, BUT WAIT ‘TIL NEXT YEAR, Boston Globe, Mar 22, 1998.

2Peter Gammons, YOU GROW PENNANTS DOWN ON THE FARM, Boston Globe,  Sep 5, 1980.

3Peter Gammons, QUESTION: PITCHING GOOD ENOUGH? Boston Globe, Mar 30, 1980.

4Peter Gammons, MARZANO’S A LEGEND IN SOUTH PHILLY, Boston Globe, Jun 29, 1984.

5Peter Gammons, Hot prospects dot the winter landscape, Boston Globe, Nov 6, 1994.

6Peter Gammons, Somehow, they manage. Boston Globe, Apr 24, 1992.

7Peter Gammons, 1946 Was Good Year for Lynn Baseball, Too, Aug 24, 1969.

8Peter Gammons, ‘Defender’ Fisk socks homer, and Red Sox make it 3 in row, Boston Globe, Mar 16, 1972.

9Peter Gammons, MARC SULLIVAN SHOWING HE’S MORE THAN HAYWOOD’S SON, Boston Globe, Jul 2, 1981.

10Peter Gammons, RED SOX NOTEBOOK; SULLIVAN EARNS CHANCE TO PLAY, Boston Globe, Sep 19, 1982.

In addition to wondering about Swihart’s career path, Dan Ennis has also looked at the folly of relying on the past in the making of Fever Pitch 2.

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