"And at DH, Don Baylor..."

It's time to bring back Baylor.

This was the conclusion while watching the Red Sox lose again on Sunday, 4-1 to the Chicago White Sox, putting them 9 games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers at the All-Star break. Facing a very mediocre Dave LaPoint, the Sox once again failed to provide their pitchers with any substantial offensive support.

This has been a familiar story for the '88 version of the Bosox. Despite the recent run in June (which, by the way, occurred primarily against a badly slumping Cleveland Indians team and a horrible group of misfits wearing Baltimore Orioles uniforms) and a fast start, the Sox have basically been a very inconsistent team that has yet to live up to its pre-season billing. Too often, solid outings by Messrs. Clemens, Hurst, Boyd, Sellars, etc. have been wasted by a lack of timely hitting.

There's no question that this team has the talent to win the division, or at least make a serious run for the playoffs. Last year's bumper crop of rookies, the best the Red Sox have had since Jim Rice and Fred Lynn came up together in 1975, has already proved itself as no one-year fluke. And the oft-maligned older veterans aren't playing too badly either.

Granted, the pitching staff has fallen on tough times with the injuries to Bruce Hurst and Jeff Sellars. Nevertheless, Roger Clemens remains the best pitcher in the game, period. Lee Smith and Wes Gardner have provided some order to the chaos that last year reigned in the Red Sox bullpen. Hurst was off to a great start until lately, when he's been affected by some sort of viral infection. Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd and Sellars don't have the records that Clemens and Hurst do, but they have been victimized several times this year by a lackluster offense.

As Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy pointed out recently, the Red Sox lead the league in hitting, they're 2nd in defense and runs scored, they've got the most dominant pitcher in the game, and yet "they're effectively out of it at the All-Star break."

THE real problem on this enigmatic ball club, it seems to me, is the glaring lack of leadership. This was never more apparent than during June, when the Red Sox resembled Family Feud or The People's Court. On one well-publicized bus ride, Wade Boggs fought Dwight Evans, Evans fought Rick Cerone, and Manager John McNamara quietly slipped off the bus during the middle of these episodes and headed into the team's hotel. Later that night, Oil Can Boyd went on a rampage through the halls of the hotel. It seemed that everyone (even the players' wives) was mad at Boggs, as his palimony suit threatened to rip apart the team. All sorts of reports were heard about the dissension on the club: the youngsters not getting along with the veterans, complaints about Evans being McNamara's pet, Evans questioning rookie Todd Benzinger's desire, etc.

This lack of leadership can also be seen in the Sox inability to win the close ones. The Red Sox are 26-17 in games decided in the first three innings, but only 18-24 in all other games. They are 2-5 in extra inning games, and 11-20 in games decided by one or two runs.

An obvious, enlightened move that the Sox should try to make, but one which no one is mentioning at the moment, would be to reacquire Don Baylor. The former Sox DH, whose fine career is now winding down in Oakland, was widely credited for bringing badly-needed leadership to the '86 Sox team that went to the Series. Picked up by the Twins last summer for their stretch drive, Baylor performed well and had a few clutch hits in the World Series.

Letting Baylor go last year was a precipitous move by a team that wanted to get rid of many of its older players so it could allow the youngsters some badly-needed experience. However, this year, Baylor may be the missing ingredient which the Sox, if they truly want to win a division title, should go after. Picking up a veteran player, one who is usually on the downside of his career but can still provide crucial leadership and experience, is a common practice among teams contending for the division lead in August and September, and the Sox should take just such a bold move at this point.

BAYLOR is every manager's dream: he's a player known not only for hitting in the clutch, taking any inside pitch on the shoulder and ruining double play attempts with his hard slides into second base, but also for instilling a team spirit and sense of purpose in the dugout. Baylor's famed Kangaroo Court brought a looseness and camaraderie to the Red Sox that had been absent for a long time. Baylor, not McNamara, was the leader in the dugout, and there was never any animosity among various groups of players when he was here. It's highly unlikely that Baylor would tolerate the rampant dissension and backbiting that have plagued the Red Sox so far.

On account of his leadership qualities and great baseball mind, Baylor has already been touted as a prospective manager, especially by those who would like to see Blacks receive a larger proportion of executive and managing jobs. Should the Red Sox give up on McNamara, Baylor would be a fine choice to succeed him.

Intangibles, such as injuries or proper leadership, win or lose division titles just as much as raw talent does. Unquestionably one of the most talented teams during the last several years, the Yankees have probably forfeited two pennants because of George Steinbrenner's tirades, threats or dismissals. A single team leader, such as a George Brett, Willie Stargell or Whitey Herzog, can still make the difference between a good ball club and a championship team.

That's not to say that bringing Baylor back will solve all the Red Sox problems or guarantee them another pennant. But it sure would help.