An inside-the-park home run is a neat little thing to have on your resume.
“I’m a speed guy,” said Pokey Reese. “It’s good for me to have at least one inside-the-park job.”
When Mr. Reese came to the plate in the fifth inning of yesterday’s 9-1 conquest of the Kansas City Royals, he had zero career inside-the-park home runs, as in never, anywhere, not that he could think of. And he wasn’t trying to hit the baseball anywhere in particular, not with one out and none on in a 1-1 ballgame. He was just trying to get on base.
Pokey took one of Jim Gobble’s pitches and - hey, how can I not say it? - poked it down the right-field line. Juan Gonzalez, a veteran only too well aware of Fenway’s historic right-field treachery, came ambling over, and the worst happened. The ball bounded off the low-lying angled fence and began an excursion toward the Red Sox bullpen, or thereabouts.
Pokey can run. This was going to be good.
“When the ball left the bat, I was thinking two,” Reese said. “Then when it got by Gonzalez, I was thinking three. And when I saw Sveumer waving me on, I thought he was kidding. I really had to kick it in.”
Third base coach Dale Sveum wasn’t kidding. He was betting on Pokey Reese doing what he could do better than Gonzalez and second base man/relay man Desi Relaford doing what they could do, and he was vindicated. Relaford’s relay was only a little off, tailing a bit up the line. Benito Santiago caught the ball and lunged back to his left, but he was a fraction late with the tag.
Pokey Reese now has one career inside-the-park home run.
It gets better.
Care to guess what Pokey did when he came to bat in the sixth? Yup. He put a 1-and-0 pitch from reliever Jason Grimsley over the wall and into the Monster seats. New milestone. It was now Pokey Reese’s first major league two-homer game.
“I was ahead in the count and I was just looking for a fastball in,” said Reese. “And he left the fastball up and in and I got some good wood on it, and it went out for me.”
Now, as everyone knows, they don’t pay this man to hit home runs. They pay him to inhale ground balls, make tricky double plays, and track down batted balls, both on the ground and in the air, that other people only wave at. He was supposed to be the starting second baseman, and he will be. He’s been playing short because Nomar Garciaparra hasn’t begun his regular season yet, and let’s just leave it that the least anyone can say about the way he’s handled that position is that he has been an utter comfort for the pitchers and a complete pleasure for the rest of us to watch.
The man can really, as they say, “pick it.”
“He is the best defensive player I’ve ever played with,” said Kevin Millar. “I played with [Florida Marlin] Luis Castillo, and I thought he was good, but not like Pokey.”
If you’re just getting into the season, be advised that Pokey Reese is the first official folk hero of the 2004 baseball season. The fans have caught on to his entire package, which may give new meaning to the phrase joie de vivre. Nobody on this team loves playing baseball more than Pokey Reese does, and it shows.
Yes, it’s basically about the glove, but the man isn’t as bad a hitter as some people think. “I saw him in Cincinnati,” said Millar, “and it’s not like he can’t hit. He’s got a nice little plan at the plate.”
He’s been putting some very good swings on the ball of late, and he attributes it to the work he’s been doing with batting coach Ron Jackson, who has been drilling him on the virtues of keeping his left, or lead, shoulder in there.
“You’ve got to make the shoulder and the knee work together,” explained Papa Jack. “The key is finding out how. In Pokey’s case, it was in getting him to take his hands up, and then down. He’s been doing that. I just hope he can keep doing it for the rest of the year.”
A guy such as Pokey gets a reputation, and it’s hard to shake. But the record does bear out the belief that he shouldn’t be that bad of a hitter. He hit as high as .285 in Cincinnati, and he’s twice had double-figure home run seasons. Good hitting can be contagious. The Red Sox have not yet begun to hit as a team the way most everyone thinks they will, and when Garciaparra and Trot Nixon return to the lineup, the trickle-down effect on Pokey at the bottom of the order should be significant.
Whatever transpires down the road, Pokey Reese won’t soon forget this Saturday afternoon at Fenway. You want to talk milestones? How about getting your first two Fenway standing ovations during the same at-bat? The fans rose to their feet in appreciation when he came up to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, and they gave him a second standing O as he returned to the dugout after striking out against righthander Nate Field.
“These fans just like you to go out and play the game hard, and that’s what I try to do,” he said. “When you go out and give 100 percent, they’re going to back you. Playing in Boston is great, knowing that you’re coming to the yard and there’s 35,000 people behind you from the first pitch to the last pitch. As a player, that’s the type of situation you want to be in, and it’s been great so far.”
And the fans don’t know the half of it. Wait till they see this guy play his real position.