As the weeks turn into months and the months into years and the years into decades, all those regular-season afternoons and nights start to blend together. Another day, another game, another win or loss. Repeat.
May 1, 2006, was a little different for the Red Sox. It was a Monday, and they were set to play the Yankees on ESPN. It was Johnny Damon’s first time back at Fenway Park since leaving Boston for the Bronx as a free agent the previous offseason. The stage was a bright one, as far as the spring goes.
The Red Sox won, 7-3, but the game was far more memorable for what happened in the hours leading up to it. That day, 10 years ago this weekend, marked backup catcher and knuckleball whisperer Doug Mirabelli’s return to the Red Sox.
The December prior, the Red Sox sent the 35-year-old Mirabelli — long Tim Wakefield’s personal catcher — to the Padres for second baseman Mark Loretta. They acquired Josh Bard from the Indians (in the Coco Crisp deal) a month later to replace Mirabelli.
April 2006 was a period of adjustment — Mirabelli adjusting to San Diego, Bard to Boston, Wakefield to Bard. It wasn’t going well. Bard had 10 passed balls in five Wakefield starts, including two in their first inning together and four in Bard’s final start on April 26 in Cleveland, the middle stop of a three-city road trip for the Red Sox.
Then-Sox general manager Theo Epstein was on that road trip. The game against the Indians motivated him to move on perhaps the most famous trade for a backup catcher in the history of baseball — a trade he now considers the worst he’s ever made.
“No offense to anyone involved in the deal, but I point to that trade because it was the worst process I’ve ever had,” Epstein said. “We were faced with a challenging situation, Bard not being able to adjust quickly to handling the knuckleball.
“Instead of being patient and coming up with a creative situation, we got caught up in some of the panic that was enveloping our clubhouse. I got too close to the situation and made a really reactionary move.”
As the Red Sox finally returned to Boston that Sunday night, with a chance to sleep in their own beds before the Yankees came to town, Epstein was on the phone with then-Padres GM Kevin Towers. By the next morning, they agreed: Mirabelli back to Boston, Bard and relief prospect Cla Meredith to San Diego.
This is the story of that day.
The deal was all but done Sunday night, April 30, with one hangup: Towers wanted Meredith. So did Epstein. Epstein slept on it.
Doug Mirabelli: Every chance I got, I was keeping an eye on the Red Sox. I felt like I was still part of that team in some ways, just because I had so many friends on it. I kept in contact with Wakefield and Jason Varitek and those guys, just to see how everything was going.
Kevin Towers: Our guys would give him a hard time. Because we play on the West Coast, during BP or after BP we can watch east coast games go off. Guys used to razz him all the time. “Give it a break. Put the Red Sox in your freaking rearview mirror.” He really missed the Red Sox.
Tim Wakefield: You usually don’t have that conversation with a general manager. “Oh, I miss Boston,” when you’re in San Diego. That’s Doug, though. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. That’s what I love about him.
Mirabelli: Kevin Towers mentioned to me that there had been some talk about maybe me getting it back [to Boston]. As far as what day or when it was going to come, I did not know.
Towers: The way teams tried to extract the most out of the Red Sox at the time was to somehow get my good friend [and Yankees GM] Brian Cashman involved in it with interest in Mirabelli as well, to drive the price up. Theo wasn’t willing to part with [Meredith] at the time. I knew that if I got the Yankees involved, they’d probably step it up.
Pushing for Meredith, it turns out, was straight out of the playbook of Larry Lucchino, former Padres president and then-Red Sox president.
Towers: He used to always tell me in every deal, try to get an arm, regardless of who it is. You never know with an arm. I was basically using a little bit of the old Larry formula on him.
Theo Epstein: I was trying to do it by including Jermaine Van Buren as the second player instead of Meredith.
Towers: We probably would’ve done a one-for-one.
Epstein: Another process mistake was I was on the road with the team. When you’re on the road with the team, it feels like there’s always a crisis around a big league team. I didn’t do a good job of keeping good perspective. People were panicking about it.
Towers: I knew they needed Mirabelli, because he was the only guy who could catch Wakefield.
Epstein: I think Towers knew he had us. He could probably sense the desperation.
Towers: Theo’s a pretty good poker player, but having worked with him [Epstein worked in the Padres baseball operations department from 1998-2002 under Towers], I know when he really wants something. I could sense in his voice, you know what, I might be able to extract a little bit more, especially if he really believes me that [Mirabelli was] going to the Yankees.
Mirabelli to the Yankees, however, was never a realistic possibility.
Towers: Negotiating ploy. Smoke signal. I owe Cash one for that. But I knew if Theo perceived that they had interest, he’s going to do it at all costs, because I knew that he needed Mirabelli.
Brian Cashman: I don’t think I was talking to him about acquiring Mirabelli, but I was participating in driving the price up. I would be there. Anything to make our rivals pay a higher price. I think we were both — Theo and I — always trying to go above and beyond, on behalf of our fan bases.
Epstein: It’s hard to make a trade in April. As a rule, you don’t want to. It means something’s gone wrong, and you usually have to overpay.
Towers: So that’s how we ended up getting Meredith at the last minute. Bard and Meredith, to prevent Mirabelli from going to the Evil Empire.
Epstein: I was going to call the players involved. I went into my phone, J-o-s-h. J-o-s-h B. I was going to call Josh Bard and tell him he was traded — which is never a fun call to make. So I called him, I clearly woke Josh up. I said, “Hey man, it’s Theo. This is a tough call to make, but we made a trade and I have to let you know that you’re in it.” And he goes, “Really?!” I said, “Yeah, we felt like we needed to get somebody in here who has experience catching Wakefield.” He goes, “Theo, Theo, Theo. This is Josh Beckett. You sure you traded me?” I called the wrong Josh B. in my phone.
Wakefield: I loved Josh [Bard], and he was a great friend and a great teammate. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. And I felt bad for him. I felt like I ruined his career.
Towers: Our guys that year were big poker players on the plane. Mirabelli lost his meal money every single road trip. The guys were crushed Mirabelli was leaving, because he helped supplement their meal money on the road. We were no longer going to have him on the plane. They used to call it “Mirabelli Bucks.”
Mirabelli: To say I was excited would be an understatement.
After Epstein pulled the trigger at roughly 10 a.m. ET, he wanted Mirabelli in Boston — ASAP. That night’s 7 p.m. ET game was a big one, and Wakefield was starting.
Towers: The toughest part was, how are they going to get him there in time for the game? I remember Theo said he had a private plane that’s picking him up.
Mirabelli: It was about a six-passenger, mid-size private jet that left out of San Diego at about 10:15 a.m. [1:15 p.m. ET]. It was just myself, the pilot and the co-pilot. They came back to tell me, “Look, I think we can make it gas-wise, but if not we’ll have to land.” I’m not sure I really want to run out of gas trying to make it to a game. I’m sure they didn’t either, right?
Jack McCormick, Red Sox traveling secretary: It was a struggle because of the six-hour, five-hour flight and the three-hour time change.
Josh Bard: I was in my place in Boston with my 8 1/2-month pregnant wife and 2-year-old son. I got the call around noon that I was traded and had to leave my wife, which was very hard, and go to the airport to get a flight to San Francisco.
Wakefield: I came into the park that day around 2 o’clock. Terry Francona called me as soon as I walked in the door. “Hey Wakie, come here.” Uh oh. What’s going on? I never get called into the manager’s office the day that I’m pitching. Normally. That’s a no-no. He said, “Hey, your boy Dougie is on his way here. We just traded for him.”
Mirabelli: It’s a six-hour flight, they told me. Maybe 6:20. I’m like, “We can’t even make it.” We’re landing at 7:30, 7:45 p.m. I’m just kind of chilling at this time. I’m relaxed in the back going, “I don’t see how this even works out. I’m sure glad I’m on this plane heading back to Boston, but there’s no way we can make up that much time.”
Then Mirabelli’s jet started making good time.
Mirabelli: They cleared us straight over Cleveland. I guess with airplanes they typically don’t go over other airspace, they have to go around it. But for this occasion, they cleared us straight over Cleveland.
Towers: I had heard stories about clearing airspace. I’m like, “My god, Doug Mirabelli?” Mirabelli, man. They must really want this guy bad if they’re sending a private jet to pick him up and clearing airspace over Boston.
Mirabelli: The pilot said to me after we got cleared over New York, “I don’t even know who you are, but I’ve carried hearts and lungs and never had this much clearance over airspace.” And I’m like, “Well don’t tell them who I am. You go over New York and all of a sudden they’re going to clear us around Canada or something.”
Bard: While in line at the airport the guys in front of me were just crushing me, talking about how bad I sucked at catching the knuckleball. I didn’t say a word. They had no idea I was standing behind them. And they were right. I did stink at catching the knuckleball.
Wakefield: I went through my normal routine, my normal day, thinking OK, Mirabelli might not make it. It’ll be good to see him and we’ll get him next start.
Mirabelli: There is a — and I’m not kidding — line of planes lined up to land at Logan all the way back to Providence. There’s like 20 planes lined up to land, and they cleared us in front of all of them.
Wakefield: I went through my normal routine and go down to the bullpen and Tek is catching me. Doug is nowhere to be found, nowhere in sight. Didn’t know where he was or how long he was going to be.
Mirabelli: We come in [to Logan], we hit the ground, we don’t even really hit the brakes. We land and we take a left turn like we’re in a sports car, and we get to the private section at Logan. We land at 6:48 Boston time. There’s a state trooper there with a Ford Explorer SUV.
Epstein: We regularly use police escorts to get the team in and out of Logan, so the traveling secretary [Jack McCormick] had an idea. He set it up.
Towers: I remember guys glued to the TV in Boston that night. The clubhouse was like, “Is Doug going to make it there in time? We have to watch this. Maybe he’s going to parachute down into the bullpen.”
Mirabelli: I changed into my uniform as we were driving, from Logan all the way into Fenway. It was funny. We had a helicopter over the top of us. It was nuts. It was really nuts. It was nuts.
Mirabelli — well, his driver, Sgt. Dave O’Leary — took Storrow Drive during part of their six-mile journey from Logan Airport to Fenway Park. At 7 p.m. on a gameday, Storrow is, um, packed. A parting of the seas of sorts ensued.
Mirabelli: I’ve used that term many times. People were pulled over on the side of the road. They saw the police car. It was bumper to bumper, and they were pulling over letting us through. It’s a Red Sox-Yankees game, [many drivers were listening] on the radio. They knew I was coming in. Somebody who worked for the private jet company called into one of the talk shows and told everybody I was coming in that day.
McCormick: [O’Leary] kept me abreast of where he was. The tunnel, Storrow Drive, Boylston Street.
Mirabelli: We were pushing it. Unfortunately I think the state troopers took some heat over taxpayer-money stuff. I felt bad about that.
Massachusetts State Police (via a statement): We wouldn’t do something like that again, certainly not with lights and siren. As a public safety agency, that was not an appropriate use of our assets.
Towers: Maybe I should’ve asked for more than just Bard and Meredith.
Wakefield: Varitek warmed me up in the bullpen and I was done with warmups and it was game time. Let’s go.
Cashman: Didn’t they delay the start of the game?
Mirabelli: They did, like, seven ceremonial first pitches that night. “Here’s Joey from Brockton, going to throw out a first pitch.” They just dragged it on and on.
McCormick: I was right in the parking lot [on the corner of Van Ness Street and Yawkey Way], waiting, waiting on an update from Sgt. Dave O’Leary. I said, “Oh boy, we gotta do it.” Theo was calling me. I was saying, “He’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming. If we can get him in time, Dave will get him here in time.”
Wakefield: Tek and I did a fist bump after we warmed up and he’s like, “This is going to be fun. I haven’t done it in a while.’”
McCormick: We alerted [security] to let this guy in — of course, he was going to get in anyway with the flashing blue lights — but everybody was anticipating his arrival. Everybody.
Cashman: We all heard what was going down. It’s somewhat out of our control. We were just waiting for the game to start. You heard rumblings about it behind the scenes: They were waiting for him to get here, he was getting a police escort.
Mirabelli: We get to Fenway, it’s 7:02 p.m., somewhere in that area. I did not have any cleats. When I got in there, Wily Mo Pena gave me his cleats.
McCormick: We met him right at Van Ness. We waved him through. He walked through the gate, and we got him into the clubhouse.
Wakefield: I walk into the dugout, and I walk into the tunnel right before the national anthem, and who do I see? Mirabelli — full uniform, full gear, full everything, just walking at me. I gave him a big hug and welcome back.
Mirabelli: That’s when it hit me. It kind of hit me like holy schmoly. We’re about to do this.
McCormick: It was fantastic.
There wasn’t much time for pleasantries between Mirabelli and his former/brand new teammates. First pitch, originally scheduled for 7:05 p.m., eventually happened at 7:13 p.m.
Mirabelli: I remember going out on the field and going through warmups. Wakefield always threw two fastballs, a curveball, four knuckleballs and a throw-down. I catch the first ones easy, and then the first knuckleball he throws me, it hits my glove and bounces out. The crowd is like, “Ohhhh.” I can remember going, “You gotta be kidding me. Is it going to be like this all night? Every pitch?”
So the next one. He throws the knuckleball and I catch it and — I’m not kidding you — 37,000 people are cheering because I caught a knuckleball.
Wakefield: He hasn’t caught one pitch of mine all year, and he gets off the airplane, in the state trooper’s car and here we go.
Mirabelli: Then Johnny Damon comes up. He’s the first hitter that day. He says what’s up, a quick “Hey, how’s it going?” And we’re on.
Mirabelli caught the first inning without a rather important piece of equipment.
Epstein: I think he caught the first inning without his cup. Which is hilarious.
Wakefield: I didn’t know that until after the inning was over with. I’m like, “Dude, great job! It’s like you never left!” He’s like, “Dude, I didn’t even get a chance to put my cup on.”
Mirabelli: I forgot my cup. It was in the police car. I didn’t see it, and it was floating around in the back of a police car. I went through the first inning without a cup, and [before the] second inning I ran in and put one on.
Mirabelli: It worked well because the Yankees swung at a lot of early pitches early in the game to let me get settled in and get my confidence back of catching that thing again. They swung at a lot of early pitches and by the third or fourth inning I started feeling like, “OK, I kind of got this again.”
And so had Wakefield. After taking the loss in his three previous starts, including the aforementioned four-passed ball game on April 26 when he allowed five runs in 5.2 innings, Wakefield was back on his game with Mirabelli steadying him. He tossed a quality start — seven innings pitched, three runs allowed — and would post quality starts in his next two outings as well, including a nine-strikeout effort in the Bronx. Everything had worked out.
MSP: It was a bit of serendipity, perhaps, that it fell into place that night for the Sox. Sort of like the way a Tim Wakefield knuckleball would look like it was way high and then float into the strike zone. So call it luck or karma or whatever you want. Glad it worked out for the Sox that night, but we wouldn’t do that again.
Wakefield: Dougie was a great catcher. To be able to do what he did, to catch me — he had the best hands I’ve ever thrown to. Unbelievable.
Mirabelli: And then we win to cap it all off. No passed balls. It was in our grasp the whole time. It didn’t seem like anything. The only thing that could’ve been better is if I had gone deep.