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Life After Death

So this is what it was supposed to look like. Now I get it.

Heading out for the week for three games against the Twins followed by another trio in Kansas City, Robin Ventura's bedraggled crew appeared poised to return home with its collective tail between its legs. The only positive aspect was that no one would be watching because of the Cubs and the start of the football season.

And after dropping the first two to the Twins including a limp 3-0 shutout on Wednesday, Jeff Samardzija fell right into his August doldrums on Thursday in his initial September start. Given a 1-0 lead, Samardzija served up a waist-high fastball to Twins' rookie outfielder Eddie Rosario in the third inning with the bases loaded. The kid deposited the offering high into the right center-field stands. Here we go again!

But wait. Something unexplainable happened as Samardzija shut down the Twins the rest of the way, pitching into the seventh inning after pinch-hitter J.B. Shuck walloped a two-run triple to left center in the top of the frame, giving the Sox a 5-4 lead. Three relievers including closer David Robertson took over from there, blanking the wild card-contending Twins as the Sox triumphed 6-4.

On to Kansas City for more of what-could-have-been. Terrific starting pitching by John Danks (complete game) and Jose Quintana (seven shutout innings) was backed by lots of hits and solid defense as our - dare I say resurgent? - fellows blasted the league's winningest team 12-1 and 6-1 on Friday and Saturday.

Following Rosario's grand slam, Sox pitchers allowed just two earned runs in the next 24 innings. Ohhh, if this were only June!

Yet there was more good news on Sunday. Right-hander Erik Johnson, the huge flop a season ago when he vied for a starting spot in the Sox rotation, made his 2015 debut after being named the International League's Most Valuable Pitcher.

Johnson was a different guy than the one who was gone by May in 2014 due to five shaky starts and a 6.46 ERA.

This time Johnson worked quickly and threw strikes. Sixty of them to be exact, compared to just 26 balls. Included were plenty of first-pitch strikes. The 25-year-old product of the University of California-Berkeley was poised and apparently confident against the Royals, who lead all of baseball with a .272 team average.

The Sox kept up the offense, staking Johnson to a 6-1 lead. Johnson wound up leaving after six innings, giving up three solo home runs as the Sox weathered a late Kansas City rally and won their fourth in a row 7-5.

Better yet, Johnson escaped serious injury when the final hitter he faced, Alex Gordon, sent his broken bat right at Johnson's head. The kid threw up his hands to protect himself as Alexei Ramirez made a nice play to nail Gordon, who initially was ruled safe before the call was overturned.

Johnson had done his job. Matt Albers eventually came on to clean up a mess created by Jake Petricka before Zach Duke and Robertson nailed down the victory in the eighth and ninth. Something tells me that this was according to the original plan concocted by general manager Rick Hahn months ago when snow was covering the ground.

As long as we're focusing on the What-If Department, you couldn't help but wonder what the year would have looked like if he Sox had opted to sign Kansas City's designated hitter Kendrys Morales instead of Adam LaRoche.

Hahn inked LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million deal back on November 25 although Morales also was available, having been released by Seattle at the end of October. As we are all too aware, LaRoche has struggled all season with his .213 batting average, 12 homers, and 44 knocked in.

Last weekend, each time Morales' stats were flashed on TV, Sox fans could be excused for groaning. The switch-hitting Morales is leading the Royals with 99 RBI (he drove in their only run on Friday) while hitting .292 with 17 home runs. The Royals are shelling out $10 million less for Morales than what the Sox are paying LaRoche for two seasons.

Despite what has transpired, signing Morales was a risk. Perhaps Morales is best known as the ballplayer who hit a walkoff grand slam back on May 29, 2010, and then badly fractured his lower left leg in an attempt to leap onto home plate and into the arms of his grateful Angels teammates.

Morales didn't play again until 2012 because of complications from surgery for an extreme injury. Walkoff home runs continue to be celebrated, but don't be misled. For each celebration the athletes have the memory of Kendrys Morales in the back of their minds. They are ecstatic to be sure, but they're also careful.

Returning from his injury, Morales still could hit - 22 homers and 73 RBI in 2012 - although the Angels traded him to Seattle where he had a solid season in 2013. But Morales slipped last year playing for Seattle and Minnesota, hitting just .218, far below the numbers put up by LaRoche in 2014. Being able to play first base to spell Jose Abreu also contributed to LaRoche's appeal.

Morales is a former Cuban baseball star who fled the country on a raft in 2004. Prior to that he had been jailed because Cuban authorities alleged that Morales had contacted an agent while playing for his country's national team in Olympic competition in November 2003. He would never be allowed to play again in his native country. According to his Wikipedia entry, Morales tried to flee Cuba as many as eight times before he was successful. To say that Morales has experienced adversity is like saying Hemingway could write. At 32 and healthy, you can understand why Royals general manager Dayton Moore took a chance on Morales. Needless to say, it's paid off handsomely.

Another intriguing player in Kansas City over the weekend was 22-year-old third base prospect Cheslor Cuthbert, who filled in for the injured Mike Moustakas on Friday and Saturday. What makes him interesting in addition to being the Royals' 11th top-rated prospect is that Cuthbert grew up on Big Corn Island, about 40 miles off the coast of Nicaragua.

My lifelong friend Tom Weinberg bought a strip of property on Corn Island about 40 years ago - he discovered the place in the book Bargain Paradises of the World - and today he has a home there with basic necessities and nothing more.

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Getting to Corn Island is easier today than when Tom first visited. A flight into Managua and then another smaller plane to the island does the trick. But Tom used to travel from the mainland by boat, which could be an adventure in rough seas.

I've never been to Corn Island, but Tom has regaled me with stories and descriptions of life on the island - it measures just 3.9 square miles - including the fact that the 8,000 inhabitants love their béisbol.

"There's a tradition of playing baseball [there]," Tom told me. "Why I don't know. But they have a nice ballpark. Everyone, including the players, walks to the park for games on Sundays. Sometimes they have doubleheaders. Maybe even a tripleheader. Anywhere from 100 to 300 fans might come to the games. They practice during the week."

Corn Island ballpark.jpg

There are six or eight teams in a league on Corn Island that play from October to June. Players range in age from their teens to their 40s. An all-star team from the island won the Nicaraguan championship a few years ago, and Tom thinks that this is where Cuthbert was noticed. The son of a lobster fisherman, the Royals signed him for $1.35 million in 2009 when he was just 16. That's a lotta lobsters.

"A guy gets a name like Cheslor Cuthbert because of the many generations of island people whose ancestors were originally slaves and/or pirates," Tom wrote in an e-mail. "The island was a British colony for a long time in the 17-1800s."

When I see a guy like Cuthbert coming to the major leagues, I think about all the corners of the U.S., Central and South America, the Caribbean, Australia and who knows where else that are scoured for talent. When I heard that a kid from Corn Island was playing third base for Kansas City, I was amazed that such a remote island paradise could produce a big-league ballplayer.

Then consider all the emphasis that we place on developing our children - the vast majority of whom have little of the natural ability of a Cheslor Cuthbert - with travel teams, expensive instruction, and thousands of dollars in equipment and support.

Cuthbert and others like him grew up without all the bells and whistles, but they have one thing that money can't buy: talent. And it always seems to rise to the top regardless of where it comes from.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 22, 2021