The ’96 Red Sox started even worse than the current team, but they were far more fun

FRANK O'BRIEN
Roger Clemens (center) conferences with pitching coach Al Nipper and catcher Mike Stanley during the season opener in 1996. –FRANK O'BRIEN

It figures, huh? The 2020 Red Sox can’t even be the best at being lousy.

The worst 25-game start in franchise history belongs to the single worst team in franchise history, the 1932 abomination that went 43-111, finishing a mere 64 games back of the Yankees. That team, which presumably was mathematically eliminated sometime during spring training, began the season with 4 wins and 21 losses. It got only slightly better from there.

The ’32 team probably will hold the record for 25-game futility for eternity. But this year’s abysmal Red Sox had a shot Wednesday to secure a tie for the second-worst start in franchise history, matching the ’96 team that opened 6-19. Alas, they went out and did something odd and unfamiliar: They won, beating the Phillies, 6-3, to “improve” to 7-18 in this ludicrous season.

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Good for them, I suppose. Some of the Red Sox, most notably Xander Bogaerts, wear the losses hard. As brutal as the pitching staff is (Andrew Triggs, the daily waiver claim, surely will be the one to save the day), this team should be better than it is.

But they don’t deserve to keep the company of the ’96 Red Sox anyway, no matter how ignominious any statistical similarities might be. The 1996 team was much different from this boring pack of 7-18 bandits in that it was a likable and downright interesting team — with one of the most interesting rosters in team history, actually, despite the miserable start and some laughably obvious flaws.

Mo Vaughn followed up his ’95 MVP season with 44 homers and 143 RBIs in ’96 despite that grueling frequent commute from Fenway to the Foxy Lady in Providence.

Roger Clemens was in his Lebowski phase of conditioning — some might have said he was approaching the twilight of his career at age 33 — and went 10-13 with a 3.63 ERA, the flammable bullpen doing his won-lost record no favors.

Jose Canseco flexed his way to 28 homers in just 96 games.

Kevin Mitchell, the 1989 NL MVP, made an early-season cameo and hit a soft .304. He hobbled off to the disabled list and eventually to Cincinnati in a trade that brought the immortal Brad Tweedlie, who sounds like someone Chaim Bloom would claim on waivers right now. Are we sure Andrew Triggs isn’t his alias?

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Cocky manager Kevin Kennedy’s lineup, which finished third in the AL with 928 runs, featured quality depth, too. John Valentin, coming off an 8.3 WAR season in ’95, hit .296 with 13 homers. Reggie Jefferson batted .347 and hammered righties. Mike Stanley popped 24 homers, while Tim Naehring — one of those rare Red Sox players everyone liked — hit 17 homers with an .808 OPS. While bigger names in the outfield faltered, got hurt, or both, Troy O’Leary quietly drove in 81 runs.

And a couple of future Sox cornerstones named Nomar and Trot made their debuts that season.

No, offense wasn’t the issue. Pitching … well, yeah, that was a mess.

The ’96 staff allowed 921 runs and had a 4.98 ERA, second-worst in franchise history to that abysmal ’32 club (5.02). Looking back, it’s bewildering how it got so bad.

The early-season starting rotation was Clemens, Aaron Sele, free agent pickup Tom Gordon, ’95 reclamation superstar Tim Wakefield, and well-traveled lefty Jamie Moyer. Those five combined to pitch an astounding 104 seasons in the big leagues, winning 1,109 games. But in ’96, only Clemens had an ERA below 4.50.

The pitching staff had talent, at least, and the offense was potent, but let’s just say general manager Dan Duquette didn’t exactly prioritize defense.

Wil Cordero’s glove at second base was crafted from the finest marble. I remember attending one game that April in which the starting outfield was Mike Greenwell, O’Leary, and Mitchell; that’s two left fielders and a born DH. Vaughn was no young George Scott with the leather, and the catcher, Stanley, would be a first baseman himself soon enough.

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The defense was a problem from the beginning. Wrote Nick Cafardo after an Opening Day loss to the Rangers in which Valentin, a decent shortstop, made a costly error and Greenwell dropped a fly ball: “Murderer’s Row did not describe their offense. It was a far more fitting nickname for their defense.”

The bullpen, featuring erratic closer Heathcliff Slocumb, also was a chronic problem. After that 19th loss in the 25th game — in which the Sox rallied from a 6-3 hole in the eighth inning, only to have Slocumb cough it up in the ninth — Cafardo wrote: “Heathcliff Slocumb should have placed the ball on the mound yesterday in the ninth inning after he’d allowed a two-run homer to pinch hitter Bob Hamelin and walked off the field with his head hung in shame. Not even Calvin Schiraldi could have done this.”

Despite the ugly start — at one point they were 2-12 and already 9½ games out of first place — the ‘96 Sox had no reason for shame at the end. After falling a season-worst 14 games below .500 on July 6, and being 17 back in the AL East on Aug. 1, they got hot, going 22-9 in August and 16-10 in September (including Clemens’s second career 20-strikeout game in his third-to-last start with the Red Sox).

With Duquette cycling 54 players through the roster (he did unearth a few helpful pieces such as Rich “El Guapo” Garces), they finished 85-77, seven games back of the Yankees for the division and three back of the Orioles for the wild card. On the final day of the season, they beat the Yankees on a Jefferson walkoff single. It didn’t matter, but it kind of felt like it did.

If you don’t remember those ’96 Red Sox, I recommend spending some time on their baseball-reference.com page. It’s a fun team to get lost pondering, even with their lousy start. And it sure beats watching the team the Sox are running out there right now.

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