Logic says that the Boston Red Sox should not be pennant contenders. History says that no team whose pitching staff is built around guys named Waslewski, Brandon and Stange should be anywhere but tenth place. Propriety says that Proper Bostonians should not go beserk 30,000 at a time. But a trip to Fenway Park and a glance at the major-league standings shows that the improbable is happening--and the impossible may just be around the corner.
It is practically an annual baseball phenomenon that some hopeless team makes an abortive springtime run at first place, sends its fans into a franzy, and then collapses utterly under its built-in shortcomings and the pressures of the pennant race. But there's something very different about the Red Sox, who finished a half-game out of last place last year and were rated 50-to-1 shots by the Las Vegas sporting gentlemen this spring. The Red Sox are for real.
Consider their game against the California Angels on Wednesday, for instance. Darrell Brandon, their starter, had been bombed, predictably enough, and Boston was trailing, 5-2 in the seventh inning. The Sox had had a ten-game winning streak shattered the night before, and 31,000 onlookers at Fenway Park were beginning to think that the bubble was ready to burst.
Then, a rally. Boston cut the Angels' lead to 5-4, had men on first and third with two out, and up stepped young Mike Andrews to the plate. On his previous at-bat, Andrews had missed a home run by a matter of feet when he belted one out of the park, barely foul. So here was the Kid's chance to try to put one into Kenmore Square, be a super-hero, and get half a dozen stories in the next morning's Boston Globe about his wife, his children, his dog, his first grade teacher, his parents, his favorite brand of breakfast food.
Instead, Andrews knocked a beautiful bunt down the third base line and was standing on first base with the score tied before the Angels knew what had happened. Moments later the Sox' biggest gun, Carl Yastrzemski, walloped a bases-loaded double off the left field wall and Boston went on to win, 9-6.
The packed house at Fenway was more delirious over Andrews' bunt than any of the fireworks which preceded or followed it. His neat piece of strategy demonstrated a trait which was, until this year, a total stranger to Fenway Park. Intelligence.
Man needs an awareness of pain before he can experience pleasure--which is what has made the Red Sox' surge so wonderful. Boston's foul-weather fans in years past have been the recipients of more pain than the heroine of "The Story of O."
Fans in other cities, like Washington, have forced themselves to recognize the fact that they're stuck with a crummy second-division team, and have been able to live with that knowledge.
But not Bostonians. They have long clung to the notion that there's something special about the Red Sox. This self-deception is a product of New England provincialism, and has been blown out of proportion by the often unbelievable Boston newspapers.
To New Englanders, the world is divided into two parts: New England and elsewhere. Because the Red Sox are the lone baseball team to inhabit this hallowed ground, it has been assumed by local fans that they must be perfect, and that only the cruel workings of fate could prevent them from winning the pennant. Fate has been awfully cruel for the last 20 years.
The local papers encourage this hang-up, for every time there's an iota of good news about the Red Sox, it is turned into an avalanche. A case in point is that of George Scott in 1966. A rookie, Scott hit a lot of home runs in the spring. Did this make him just a promising rookie? No. It made him God. Day after day, a George Scott story was as regular a feature in the paper as the television listing. WILL GEORGE SCOTT BREAK BABE'S RECORD? INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE'S FIRST GRADE TEACHER. GEORGE'S MOTHER SAYS GEORGE IS A GOOD BOY. So when Scoot flopped from July to September, it was not merely a case of a hot rookie turning cold. It was those cruel working of fate again.
Pain has been an inescapable part of being a Red Sox fan for many years also because the Red Sox have had so many capable individuals. Remember Frank Malzone, Eddie Bressoud, Chuck Schilling, Dick Stuart, Bill Monboquette, Felix Mantilla? All good ballplayers, in their way. Yet despite their presence the Sox had long languished in the depths of the American League.
The reason for their lack of success, and the astounding performance of the 1967 Red Sox, is as hackneyed as it is true. The old Sox were cursed by a losing mentality. So what if you finish eighth or ninth, whether you win this game or lose it? It's not going to help anybody's paycheck. The players had one overriding interest: themselves. Such self-interest obviously hurts the team, and it puts incredible pressure on the individual players. They are fighting a battle alone.
If the game against California had taken place in 1965, and Boston was already assured of ninth place, what would Mike Andrews have done? He would have tried to knock the ball over the fence, heeding the maxim that home run hitters drive Cadillacs, and singles hitters drive Chevrolets.
The Red Sox' general manager, Dick O'Connell, who was elevated to that post in 1965, could see as well as anybody what was wrong with the team. He and his predecessor, Mike Higgins, had a vision of the sort of club they wanted to build. A young, enthusiastic team, with powerful hiting, speed, hustle, solid defense, intelligence and a winning attitude. In the process of building it, the Red Sox management looked like a bunch of idiots.
They traded loveable Felix Mantilla for a lame-armed utility infielder. They traded home-run hitting Dick Stuart for a lame-armed pitcher. They virtually gave away a .290 hitter, Eddie Bressoud. They virtually gave away their best pitcher, Earl Wilson.
Desperate moves made by morons, the fans thought. But their was method to O'Connell's madness. Waiting in the wings were a host of good, young ballplayers--kids like Joe Foy, Rico Petrocelli and Andrews who had potential which was obvious to the Sox management. However, they were not going to get a chance to develop this potential by staying in the minor leagues, or sitting on the bench while older players went out there and didn't try to win.
"We sacrified last year to build a ball club," O'Connell said. Given a chance to play, the youngsters slowly began to develop their skills.
But it took Dick Williams, the new Boston manager, to turn these potentially good players into a cohesive unit. Boston has long had the reputation as an undisciplined, live-it-up team, and has been a graveyard for managers. When Williams came on-to the scene, he laid down the law: no overweight players, no sore-armed pitchers, no lazy self-centered attitudes. He showed he meant business by benching his good players when they started to lapse back into their old habits.
The Sox started playing .500 ball, and have not been far out of first place since the season began. With a young team, it was easy for a winning attitude to develop, and Williams did not have to work any psychological miracles. When Boston went on a road trip and came back home with a 10-game winning streak, this winning attitude turned into a virtual mania.
Six thousand ecstatic fans met the team at Logan Airport. Yastrzemski, the team's unofficial spokesman, announced, "Nothing can stop us now." Like the hero of Synge's "Playboy of the Western World," the Red Sox seem to have become so convinced by their own boasts that they are living up to them.
Contrary to Yastrzemski's statement, however, there is something that can stop the Red Sox.
When you look at their hitting, the Sox appear invincible. They have four of the top seven hitters in the league--Yastrzemski, Scott, Petrocelli, and everybody's darling, Tony Conigliaro--and the rest of the lineup has been coming through with the clutch hits when they are needed.
Then you look at Boston's pitching, and you wonder how the team has gone so far with so little. Jim Lonborg, it is true, has been phenomenal, and is the winningest pitcher in the majors. Gary Bell, who was acquired from Cleveland in a trade, has won six games for the Sox, but it is highly doubtful that he will keep it up. The other starters--Lee Stange, Gary Waslewski, and Darrell Brandon--run the gamut from mediocre to awful.
Boston's series with California clearly demonstrated the team's pitching ineptitude. On Tuesday Waslewski got bombed. On Wednesday, Brandon was bombed. On Thursday, Stange was bombed. And yet, despite this, Boston won two of three games from a third-place team which had come into the series on the crest of a six-game winning streak. In Thursday's game, played before a larger-than-capacity crowd, Boston scored three runs in the last of the ninth to tie the game, and won it in the tenth, 6-5.
The baseball purists will say that pitching is 75 per cent of the game, and thus the Red Sox are a fluke team and will inevitably collapse. But Bostonians will hear none of this heretical talk. The Red Sox, after all, are the Red Sox, and besides, they have been defying all logic since April. Why can't they do it for a little while longer?