Red Sox Memories: Three player tragedies from the past

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 05: The sun sets behind Fenway Park during the second inning of the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins on September 05, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 05: The sun sets behind Fenway Park during the second inning of the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins on September 05, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox have suffered player tragedies of different levels through their history. Three of my memories are now presented.

In the splendid game of baseball, disappointment abounds since only one team eventually saunters off with great bluster thanks to the collected efforts of winning a World Series. There is also another level that goes beyond disappointment and drifts into the realm of a tragedy that would test the skills of Plutarch or Aeschylus.

The Red Sox have an extensive list – as do all sports teams – of tragedies as a collective such as the infamous home run by Bucky Dent or the dismal end of the 1986 World Series. I will avoid the team and go to three players who are edged in Red Sox history with the first being one of the players I most admired as a baseball youth.

If you have heard the name “Golden Greek” then you have had passed down from others born well before you the name Harry Agganis. A nice connection to the previously mentioned Greek tragedies since his parents immigrated from Greece to Massachusetts where Agganis was born and raised in Lynn.

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Agganis was a high school multi-sport star with special emphasis on football. At Boston University, Agganis became a legend as primarily a quarterback and the schools first All-American. The talent was there and so was a first-round NFL selection by the Cleveland Browns. But Yawkey and $35,000 called and Agganis became a Red Sox.

Agganis was a lefty both ways and a first baseman by trade. A quick sojourn to the minors in 1953 and then to the Red Sox for the 1954 season. My memory may have dimmed with age, but Agganis was very special being a local kid and a football star of local prominence. Rooting against Agganis would be like pushing Mother Theresa in front of a Green Line trolley.

Baseball fans live for statistics especially in this day of advanced metrics. Looking statistically at Agganis’s first season would not lead one to believe superstar status was in the works with just a .251 average and 11 home runs in 132 games. Defensively in the pre-UZR days, Agganis led all first sackers in fielding percentage and assists.

Just who is Norm Zauchin? Zauchin was a tall (6’4”) right-handed power hitter limited to first base due to lack of mobility. The Red Sox of that era fell in teenage infatuation with any potential power bat from the right side and Agganis lost his job for the start of the season. The flaws in Zauchin’s game soon had Agganis firmly back at first base until illness struck.

Agganis was hospitalized for pneumonia in early June and then after a brief respite rejoined the team only to fall ill again. After showing some improvement on June 27th, Agganis suddenly died – cause of death a pulmonary embolism. Agganis’s obituary and details of his legacy can be found in the Baseball Almanac.

The Red Sox outfield could have a far different look if Ryan Westmoreland was not cut down by a brain condition that eventually resulted in his retirement. Like Agganis, the New England connection is there since Westmoreland was a native of Rhode Island. A tall (6’3”) left-handed hitter with MLB five-tool potential as best noted in an early scouting profile.

Westmoreland was committed to college baseball and had accepted to a scholarship to Vanderbilt which is certainly among the élite programs in college baseball. Would Westmoreland be drafted? The good news is that Westmoreland was a Red Sox fan and had made his intentions known to organizations – Boston or nowhere.

The Red Sox selected Westmoreland in the fifth round of the 2008 draft and quickly offered a $2 million bonus and it was off to Lowell in 2009. In 60 games, Westmoreland hit .296 and was a clean 19-for-19 in steals. An impressive start for and rookie and well noticed as Baseball America had him ranked 21st on their 2010 prospect list (membership required).

Before the start of the 2010 season, Westmoreland was experiencing motor difficulties that eventually resulted in malformation in his brain stem that resulted in surgery. The recovery went well except for baseball as repeated attempts to play the game eventually resulted in Westmorland’s retirement.

What could have been and certainly should have been? If fate had dealt a kinder hand the discussion this offseason may have been the contract situation of Mookie Betts and Westmoreland who would and should have been in his prime baseball years.

Entertainment, politics, and sports have a litany of notable train wrecks or those who manage to make consistently poor decisions. The Red Sox are not immune but to me, one name stands out and that is Jon Denney – a name that a few may recognize for a series of dysfunctional behaviors.

Denney was a lock first-round selection until questions surfaced that had teams reconsidering the Rawling’s first-team All-American selection. The Red Sox found the potential for the right-handed power bat just too tempting to avoid and selected Denney in the third round in 2013 and signed Denney with an $850,000 bonus.

Denney’s first taste of professional baseball was not a statistical success as Denney hit just .203 and no home runs in 26 Gulf Coast League games, but the tools were there and just needed to be refined. Just build on it, but Denney decided to throw it all away.

In spring training of 2014, Denney was arrested for operating with a suspended license that was the result of a DUI while in high school. Denney displayed a rather belligerent and arrogant demeanor during his arrest procedure that certainly did not win any favors from the authorities or the Red Sox organization.

For two years you would find Denney listed to the notation RL, or Restricted List, so a possible catcher or first baseman of the future languished until he could straighten out his life. The Red Sox eventually cut ties and Denney was a free agent and signed with the Royals organization and at just 21-years-old just maybe potential would be realized.

The Royals assigned Denney to their American Association (AA) Laredo team where Denney was released after just two games hitting a slender .222. The Royals said it was a “baseball decision.” Denney was not finished and after drifted into independent baseball with Alpine hitting .248 with 10 home runs. That represents the last statistical notations available on Denney.

Next. Five non-tendered players to target in free agency. dark

Denney represents a tragedy that is familiar with baseball and life itself. Was it alcoholism? Was it just poor decisions? It goes well beyond just Denney who could have had a major league future and now have been in the catching mix with the Red Sox or another organization.