The frustration in John Lackey’s beet-red face was all too visible during his first start of the homestand.
In the first inning, a foul ball caromed off the padding on the wall that juts out at the corner of the left-field box seats, landing 30 feet in front of Josh Reddick. Twenty-five seconds later, Reddick had finally retrieved the ball and returned to his position.
In the third, a twisting liner short-hopped the cement bottom of the wall near the camera well on the first-base line, rolling right past a 16-year-old local varsity softball star and settling into no-man’s land in shallow right-center. Forty seconds later, play resumed and Lackey was finally allowed to throw his next pitch.
Certainly, some of the more surehanded, veteran ball boys and girls around the majors may have scooped up the same chances with relative ease, sparing Lackey the disruptions. But these are the hazards of employing high school youths from the Greater Boston area to man the scarce foul territory that horseshoes around the baseball diamond inside Fenway Park.
Normally a pillar of stoicism on the mound, Lackey is finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the deficiencies of the ball girls and boys stationed down the left-field and right-field foul lines at Fenway Park.
Earlier this week, the pitcher finally broke his silence.
“I’m not trying to show anyone up, but I mean, c’mon. These kids are pretty much just waving at these balls as they carom off the padding of the walls into the outfield,” he told reporters during batting practice earlier this week.
“As a pitcher, it can really affect my concentration when I have to hold the ball and wait for Darnell McDonald or J.D. Drew to retrieve some errant foul ball that makes it into the outfield.”
Baseball scouts agree that foul ball caroms in Fenway are a significant problem – particularly when Lackey is on the hill. Opponents have routinely been peppering both fair territory and foul ground with loud, ringing hits off the righthander for the better part of his Red Sox tenure.
“The line drive rate tends to be pretty high when major league hitters are seeing 91-mph fastballs grooved into the upper-middle part of home plate,” said one scout. “If Jose Canseco or Bo Jackson were still in the league, I’m convinced we would be talking about some gruesome fatality in the left field stands during a Lackey start.”
Lackey, however, refuses to let the team-chosen ball girls and boys off the hook.
“They are on a major league field and they’re wearing gloves – they need to catch the baseballs. It’s not complicated. I can tell from where I’m standing on the mound that these plays are routine. The team had some honorary ball boy here last month and I swear his UZR must have been like negative-a-hundred…pathetic.”
The pitcher was understandably not interested in acknowledging the small sample size or doling out any leniency based on gender.
“Look, these kids are afraid to get in front of the baseball. They don’t respect the fundamentals. I’ve never seen one of these kids leave his or her feet to make a play on a ball. They sit in chairs all game, they don’t look grounders into their gloves. They are the most lackadaisical fielders I’ve ever seen.”
Club officials balked at the idea of making a trade before the July 31 deadline to fill the holes Lackey speaks of with such rabid disdain.
“At this point, we think it would be best – given the amount of money we have invested elsewhere – to continue to develop some of the younger ball girls and ball boys within the organizational ranks,” said ever-diplomatic general manager Theo Epstein. “If another club were willing to, say, absorb the remaining three years of John Lackey’s contract, we might have more wiggle room for a deal and our outfielders could probably stop worrying about retrieving errant foul balls in the middle of at bats.”