“If you believe in Peter Pan, Marie Osmond, USA Today and the single-bullet theory, you probably think the Red Sox are braced to make a charge in the second half. But there is little evidence to support this wishful thinking. Only great teams come back from nine games out at the break, and the Red Sox haven’t hinted that they are capable.” – Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe, July 11, 1988
Call it a coincidence, call it a sign, or call it irrelevant in every respect. John McNamara led the 1988 Red Sox to 43 wins until his fateful firing four days after managing his last game, a 4-1 loss in Chicago that left Boston nine games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League East. Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, and Mike Greenwell were off to Cincinnati for the 59th Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Their teammates were mired in the reality that changes were coming immediately following the break.
Twenty-six years later, the 2014 Red Sox stare at the same future, with the same 43 wins under their collective, underachieving belt.
Alas, the current edition has played 10 more games than their predecessors, and enters the All-Star break 9 ½ games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the East. But Joe Morgan’s Magic also didn’t have the luxury of double wild cards in pulling off the greatest second-half rebound in franchise history, aided in great part by the collapse of the Tigers, who went a less-than-mediocre 36-41 in the second half. And the Red Sox did win four out of five heading into the week off. Maybe, indeed, against all odds, history can repeat itself.
You know the story. The Red Sox fired McNamara on July 15, 1988, less than two years after he led Boston to a World Series appearance. Walpole’s Joe Morgan took over and led the Sox on a 12-game winning streak. They won 19 of 20 coming out of the break, a remarkable 24 in a row at Fenway Park, where they finished the season 53-28. Boston went 46-31 in the second half and won the East, even as the magic faded with the summer (the Blue Jays actually had a better second-half surge, going 45-29, and improving from 11 ½ out at the break to two games behind Boston to end of the season). They were 21-9 in July, but only 13-16 in August, and 16-12 in September. They lost eight of their final 12 games and limped into the ALCS against Oakland, which swept the series with ease, Dennis Eckersley picking up the save in all four games.
Morgan’s Magic took on a mythical aura, despite the fact that it really only accounted for one good month. That’s something the ’14 Red Sox have yet to accomplish, a .500 April (13-13) accounting for the high-water mark thus far. But. But…
They are eight games out of a playoff spot, not exactly striking distance, but also not in total despair either. The wild card can do that, but in reality, its presence is that of beer goggles for a handful of major league teams, perception and realism at a crossroads with an All-Star period of sobriety long overdue.
The reality this time around is that the Red Sox are cooked for a variety of reasons, from poor offseason construction to injuries. But put yourself back in the summer of 1988, and it’s easy to recall faint hope becoming a reality with each passing day. Why not then?
First of all, those ’88 Sox could hit. They entered the All-Star break as the best-hitting team in the majors, second in runs scored. Greenwell was en route to finishing second in the MVP voting that season. Boston had five players with double-digit home run totals in 1988 – Todd Benzinger (13), Greenwell (22), Ellis Burks (18), Dwight Evans (21), and Jim Rice (15). Wade Boggs led the way with a .956 OPS. Greenwell (119) and Evans (111) each drove in more than 100 runs. General manager Lou Gorman signed 34-year-old Larry Parrish, released by the Texas Rangers in July, and he chipped in with seven home runs in 52 games (for comparison’s sake, Daniel Nava has hit two home runs in 53 games this season).
Also that month, Gorman would surrender a couple of cats named Curt Schilling and Brady Anderson to the Baltimore Orioles for veteran starter Mike Boddicker, who went 7-3 with a 2.63 ERA in ’88, 39-22 during his three years in Boston. The other two guys did some stuff too.
From a pitching standpoint, there’s some parallel with Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst (both 18-game winners) at the top of the rotation with Jon Lester (9-7) and John Lackey (10-6) at the head of the 2014 Sox. Lester should have three more wins on his resume (three of his last four starts have been no-decisions. His stats in those games: 22 2/3 innings, 16 hits, three earned runs) and Lackey is pitching well enough that he can threaten retirement when it comes time to negotiate instead of playing for the league minimum next season. The rest of the staff was comfortably aided by a competent offense, though. Ergo, Mike Smithson had an ERA of 5.97 for the ’88 Red Sox. He had nine wins. Jake Peavy has a 4.59 ERA for the ’14 Red Sox. He has one win.
The roster that Morgan inherited was also green, but the Red Sox’ youth movement had already begun the previous season. Burks, Greenwell, and Benzinger were 23, 24, and 25 years old, respectively. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. are 21, 21, and 24 years old, respectively. Only David Ortiz and Mike Napoli are able to provide any power. Brock Holt leads the team with an .834 OPS. No disrespect to Brock Holt, but that just can’t happen on a team that had aspirations of repeating. Stephen Drew has 14 hits. Each one has cost the Red Sox $714,285 so far.
The ’88 Sox had the best pitcher and the best hitter in the game to help them overcome. The ’14 Sox have Lester (who is great, but isn’t Clemens) and Holt (who only wears Wade Boggs’ number). Hope made sense 26 years ago. In 2014, it’s a grasp at empty propositions.
A 9 ½ game deficit is a lot easier to overcome than it was in 1988 though, and if saying goodbye to A.J. Pierzynski was the inspirational lateral to canning McNamara, well, who knows.
All it takes is one good month. Wake us up when it happens.