PAWTUCKET — On the surface, it seems fitting that Jose Contreras and Brandon Lyon are locker room neighbors in the PawSox clubhouse.
One stall stands between the two veteran right-handed pitchers who by happenstance reported to the Triple-A ballclub on the same day (July 19). At this stage, Contreras, 41, and Lyon, 33, are intriguing due to the perception of bullpen depth that’s already in the fold – something the Red Sox at the moment seem to have in abundance considering Franklin Morales and Alex Wilson are in town this week for rehab assignments.
Let’s also remember the presence of Clayton Mortensen on Pawtucket’s active roster and that southpaw Ryan Rowland-Smith is back in the mix after coming off the disabled list. As much as the following may send shivers down the collective spine of Red Sox fans, Alfredo Aceves still has a nameplate above a McCoy Stadium locker.
Taking stock of the relieving component of Boston’s holding tank, it would appear that Contreras and Lyon are very much in the derby conversation should an opening become available. As both clearly stated recently, they didn’t sign to pitch in Pawtucket while a playoff push wages on up the road. Contreras and Lyon hooked on with the Red Sox for the simple reason that there lies a ready-made opportunity to make a major-league contribution this season.
“This is a place that has a chance to win,” feels Lyon, who this season made 37 appearances for the New York Mets before getting placed on waivers. “I’m not getting any younger and don’t know how much longer I’m going to even try to play, but it’s important to me to be on a team that I feel is going to be winning or in that direction no matter what. This organization (Red Sox) right now is basically trying to win this thing and they’re in the right position to do it.”
With PawSox infielder Jonathan Diaz dutifully fulfilling the role of translator, Contreras said he chose the Red Sox because “it’s a big market team and represents the chance to win a World Series. That’s one of my main goals.”
Had things played out differently some 10 years ago, this month wouldn’t mark the first occasion that Contreras and Lyon are referenced as teammates. In 2003, Lyon was a dependable fixture in Boston’s bullpen who was traded to Pittsburgh nine days before that year’s July 31 non-waiver deadline.
When the calendar read the last day of the seventh month, the Pirates returned Lyon to the Red Sox to cap off a bizarre nine-day stretch where a tug of war ensued between the franchise’s medical staffs.
In Contreras’ case, the hulking Cuban was lusted after by then-Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein. In his first offseason as one of the more prominent voices in Boston’s baseball operations department, Epstein targeted Contreras all while envisioning a ’03 rotation that would include him alongside Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe.
Such a scenario never blossomed. The New York Yankees swooped in and won the Contreras Sweepstakes by offering a sweeter deal money-wise than the contract proposed by Epstein & Co. Boston may have courted Contreras hard, yet in the end, George Steinbrenner’s checkbook won out.
Asked how much he remembers from the biding war between the Yankees and the Red Sox that prompted Boston President Larry Lucchino to twist the knife with his “Evil Empire” remark that took on a life of its own, Contreras replied, “That was a long time ago, 10 years. There were various teams interested, but the Red Sox and Yankees were the main ones.
“At that time in my life, I had no idea what was going on. I had played 14 years with the same team in Cuba and made less than one dollar a month. After 10 years, I was able to get a little more,” continued Contreras, who prior to latching on with Boston was residing in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system after undergoing Tommy John surgery last season. “Luckily I had an agent who helped me out throughout the process.”
While Contreras’ decision to pitch in the Bronx added spice the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Lyon endured a 2003 campaign that saw the status of his right elbow become a source of contention. According to the 2004 book “Chasing Steinbrenner: Pursuing the Pennant in Boston and Toronto,” author Rob Bradford noted the entire ordeal involving Lyon, the Red Sox and the Pirates was dubbed the “Crustacean Creation.”
Initially, Boston sent Lyon to Pittsburgh as part of a four-player deal. Upon examining Lyon, the Pirates had concerns about the wear and tear that was festering inside the pitcher’s throwing arm.
“There were two different opinions throughout the whole deal. Obviously one team is saying, ‘You’re going to need Tommy John surgery’ while the other team is saying
‘You’re fine,’” Lyon remembers. “I didn’t know what to think, but after getting a second and third opinion [from Doctors James Andrews and Lewis Yocum], I felt a lot better and that I could go out and pitch.
“There was definitely some stiffness, but when you’re a young kid – 23 years old – and you’ve gotten thrown into professional baseball not that long before, in your mind you’re thinking that you may need Tommy John surgery,” Lyon delved further.
Pittsburgh became Lyon’s unofficial holding cell during the nine days the Red Sox and Pirates looked to iron out an agreement that would satisfy both parties. On July 31, 2003, the Red Sox reclaimed him along with onetime Red Sox pitching prospect Jeff Suppan for a promising infielder named Freddy Sanchez.
The Red Sox immediately placed Lyon on the disabled list once he became their property once more. He made five rehab appearances for Pawtucket in August 2003 before returning to Boston that September, where he totaled seven of his 49 appearances.
“I had a lot of things going on in my mind at that point,” Lyon said. “It’s a tough thing, especially when someone says you’re hurt after getting traded. You don’t hear that too often. For me mentally, it was a distraction. I tried to throw the best I could, but I never got back in the swing of things like I was before I got traded.”
Lyon did not pitch for the Red Sox during the ’03 playoffs. He did, however, remain on the team’s radar.
“I threw some simulated games just in case. I stayed with the team during the Oakland series [during the divisional round] before flying down to Fort Myers,” he said. “I remember the day of Game 7 of the [ALCS] against the Yankees. I had flown back to Boston. Either I was going to be put on the roster for the next series or we were going to lose. Either way, I didn’t need to throw anymore unless I was put on.
“I watched the game, thinking that we were going to the World Series. How it ended, that was tough for everyone,” said Lyon about the latest heartbreak that the Yankees – with Contreras pitching exclusively in a relief capacity during the League Championship Series – dealt their longtime nemesis.
The trading winds continued to hover over Lyon’s head during the 2003 offseason. He will forever be remembered in Red Sox annals as one of the four players the team parted company with in order to bring Curt Schilling on board.
“Casey Fossum [a lefty pitcher who was part of the Schilling exchange with Arizona] called me and said it was all over the news that we were getting traded,” Lyon remembers.
What became of Lyon’s right elbow that had caused so much angst between the Pirates and Red Sox? He eventually underwent surgery and missed the entire 2004 season as a result.
Ten years later, Lyon is back under the same roof where his career took flight following two years in Toronto where he was mainly a starter. He’s now a 12-year veteran with two seasons of 20 or more saves under his belt. Boston was where he grew comfortable with the idea of pitching out of the bullpen, a role that has defined him since undergoing the conversion during the aforementioned 2003 season – one that saw Contreras ply his trade with the Yankees, not the Red Sox.
“You know, I didn’t even think about the Contreras thing,” said Lyon, who played for John Farrell last season in Toronto when the current Red Sox skipper was in the Blue Jays’ dugout.
Mentioning Contreras and Lyon in the same sentence may seem like a stretch, but with both now occupying space in the same Pawtucket clubhouse, one’s imagination can’t help but to drift back to a decade ago, when the prospect of them on the same side of the ledger had some sizzle to it.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BMcGair03