TIGHTENING-UP AT 'THE FENS'

The Boston Red Sox have given up their gorilla offense in that compact thrill house known as Fenway Park. In its place is a snappy new defense that so far works as well at home as it does on the road
May 23, 1971

Even in Baltimore the new act may draw. It features the Orioles and the Boston Red Sox, and last week, when the two teams were playing to a standoff in Boston—2-0 for the Sox, 7-4 for the Orioles—Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver was looking forward to their next meeting this weekend at home. "There could be 35,000 people in the stands," Weaver said. Then he added, "And 25,000 of them will be there to boo me."

The excitement was genuine. Not since the summer of 1967, when the Red Sox, Tigers, Twins and White Sox battled to a blistering finish, and Boston, the long shot, nailed the pennant on the final day, has there been so much interest in the American League, East or West, and part of the reason was the unexpected performance of Weaver's unwarlike warriors. Before the Orioles had even gone to spring training this year, the championship was conceded to them. Then the season began, and after a while Baltimore proceeded to play like the second-best team in the American League East and forget all that silly business about being "The Best Damned Baseball Team in the World!" It would not be fair to say that panic has swept the Oriole clubhouse, but the Orioles are not exactly overjoyed with their record in one-run games this year. They have won only five of 11. They won 40 of 55 in 1970.

On Saturday afternoon in Boston, Weaver took a piece of string from his pocket and began doing magic tricks with it. Suddenly he wrapped the string around his throat and tilted his head back as if he were hanging himself. Kidding, of course. "We started off like a house afire," he said, "and then we started to lose. But before anyone makes any big decisions about who is going to win anything, let's wait until June 16. By then we'll have played everyone home and away. Then let's see."

For those who want to believe that a Baltimore demise is imminent, there are some telltale signs. The bullpen has a record of 3-6, and through their first 31 games the Orioles left the bases loaded 21 times. "So far," says Frank Robinson, the team leader, "we have not been getting hits when we need them. The way our lineup is made, we are supposed to be able to get the big hit from any one of eight positions in the batting order, and that's not happening yet."

Because of a very confusing schedule the Orioles had gone a month and a half into the season before meeting division-leading Boston. Their arrival last Friday at Fenway Park became a kind of New England festival. Signs hung from the bleacher walls and Red Sox caps and pennants blossomed everywhere. The disaster of the Bruins' Stanley Cup collapse was a thing of the past, and in the breast of every Red Sox fan new hope throbbed.

Perhaps more important than any single factor in the love affair between New England and the Red Sox is Fenway, a temple of thrills compared with the majority of modern stadiums. Teams do not bunt in Fenway and they do not steal bases. It is considered a crime to miss a chance to swing at the great green wall in left field.

A shutout, as a consequence, is all but unheard of. Three weeks ago the Red Sox played a doubleheader at home against the Twins. The score of the second game was a reasonable 9-8, about what everyone expected. But the score of the first game—Lordy, it was 1-0, and who ever expects a score like that in Boston? Games that finish 1-0 happen in the hinterlands, west of Framing-ham, north of Medford and south of Quincy. Sandy Koufax pitched in Los Angeles, never in Boston. Local historians immediately went to work and turned up a fact that would astonish anybody but a Bostonian. Since 1963 Boston has won only three games—out of the exactly 658 played at Fenway—by a 1-0 score.

Thus it was not surprising that the capacity crowd seemed bewildered by the 2-0 opening-game score. As Sonny Siebert and Jim Palmer matched pitches, the great wall remained inviolate, and the minds and hearts of Boston could make no sense of this. Wall-Ball or Wall-O is what they were used to—the old formula of a lot of right-handed slugging gorillas instructed to "hit the green thing and we'll give you lots of bananas."

"I suppose," says Weaver, who is as easily mesmerized as anybody else by The Wall, "that it is one of the reasons why such a dynasty has been built in Fenway Park and why all those championships have been won by Boston." (The Red Sox, alas, have won but two pennants since 1919.)

What Bostonians are only slowly coming to realize is that since the close of the 1970 season the Red Sox have moved away from Wall-Ball. They have begun to build a team with fewer gorillas and more gazelles. They began in the middle, acquiring Catcher Duane Josephson, Shortstop Luis Aparicio and Second Baseman Doug Griffin in off-season trades. Boston also decided to keep one Conigliaro on the team and to send another one away. Young Billy stayed, older Tony went.

New England, when it heard about the trades, wasn't so sure. Aparicio was a fine singles hitter who has played more games at shortstop than anyone in history. But he was not gorilla material. Josephson was big but Griffin was not, and he was a rookie. And so the Sox opened the season on a cold day and sold "The Fens" out, turning some 6,000 people away. The curious saw Boston win 3-1 without a homer. In their first four games Boston produced only three homers. One was by Siebert, the other two by Aparicio. Oh, sure.

It was time, thought some members of the hasty Boston press, to start rebuilding for 1972. Doom was upon the Red Sox. But that is the way with prophets. No sooner had they spoken than the Sox went on a tear. They won 14 of their next 18 games and suddenly everything was roses. Baltimore had better watch out.

Those lucky enough to get seats for the first Oriole-Red Sox game witnessed a remarkable performance. The Orioles put runners at second and third with nobody out in the first inning and failed to score. At the end of 4½ innings neither team had scored. Then Josephson tripled to start the fifth inning for the Red Sox and Griffin drove him home with a fly ball to left field. Siebert, miraculously still not intimidated by The Wall—and still in the game—drove in the second run with a single in the seventh and held Baltimore away despite eight hits to Boston's five. To compound the Oriole frustrations, they had the lead-off hitter on base in six innings. The win was Siebert's sixth of the year without a loss. He kept changing speeds on the Baltimore hitters and he permitted only four balls all night to be hit to left field, two for singles and the others harmless fly balls.

There was warm applause for Siebert when he got the final out of the game, but as the crowd moved into the streets its joy was somewhat restrained, perhaps because of the novelty of it all. "I don't ever remember seeing a game in Fenway where somebody didn't hit that big green monster," said Harry Dalton, the director of player personnel for the Orioles. "I felt during the spring that there might be a race in our division and I also thought that the Red Sox had done an excellent job of going for defense in the infield. But a 2-0 game in Fenway between the Orioles and the Red Sox is not something one expects to see."

Griffin, who produced what proved to be the winning run, is a scrawny 23-year-old who replaced the traded Mike Andrews at second base in the Boston lineup. The Red Sox have had a notable shortage of Hall of Fame candidates at second base in recent years; in fact, Griffin is their best glove man at that position since Bobby Doerr. The youngster has made only one error this season, and even that one, according to Aparicio, should have been his own. "Doug is going to be the best second baseman in the league in a couple of years," says Aparicio. "He has more range than Nellie Fox had at Chicago and I would say that he is better than Davey Johnson [of the Orioles] was when he came to the majors."

A quiet youngster who spent two years in the service, Griffin has never had a chance to make big money. When the Red Sox acquired him they invited him to a press reception. "I'd like to come," he said, "but I go to school from seven to three and I don't know if the instructor will let me off. I'll have to ask his permission."

Griffin played in Hawaii in 1970 and hit .326. The important figure in his statistics, though, is not one that shows up in daily newspapers. He averaged only one strikeout for each 17 times at bat. Griffin started out abysmally this year, but he recovered in May and has raised his season's average by 80 points to .260. His strikeout ratio is one in 10—a fine figure for a rookie, his pleased manager, Eddie Kasko, points out.

"In the time that I have been here," says Carl Yastrzemski, "this is the best defensive team we have had. Griffin is an amazing kid. With the Red Sox a defensive player never got much consideration because of the way Fenway is built. But last year we were bad defensively. We played all right at home [52-29] but when we went on the road we got our brains beat out [35-46]. Griffin can take hits away from the other team and we can make the double play now. I suppose it must be a little strange for the people here to see defensive ball being played, but you just have to have it to win."

Yastrzemski, the best all-round player in the American League, is a dramatic, moody performer who draws some kind of response from virtually everyone who goes to see him. When he takes that big swing of his and misses, people imagine how far the ball might have gone, and his running and fielding give a baseball game the type of drama that is seldom seen in other sports. As he came to bat last Friday night one man hollered, "Come on, Carl, you're half the team."

Many say that last year was Yaz' finest for all-round play but this season he senses a chance to win, to relive the "impossible dream" of 1967, and he bounds around the clubhouse in his Yoo Hoo T shirt, shaking hands like a Back Bay politician on the Monday morning before Election Day. "I don't want to spend another year like the last one," he says. "We were never in the race. There were days when nine runs were not enough to win."

Griffin's period of indoctrination into the major leagues has been eased tremendously by Aparicio. Although he still is not having a good year at bat (around .200), Aparicio feels that his hitting will eventually work itself out. "If we were losing," he says, "I would really feel rotten. But we are winning and that's what matters. You don't feel the bad days as much when the score turns out right. And they have been turning out right for us."

On the eve of the Oriole series Aparicio and Griffin sat down in the Sox clubhouse and went over the hitters, with the veteran telling the rookie what each one might do in certain situations. "He has helped me tremendously," says Griffin, "because he knows so much about the league and the players. During the game he reminds me of things we have talked about before and tells me new things as situations develop. I always wanted to play second base for the Angels, but they seem to like experience. I played a little third base, but most of the time I've been a second baseman and I like playing the position. When Boston got me I didn't know what I was going to do because Mike Andrews was here. Then Andrews was traded and I figured I had a heck of a chance to start. It's worked out fine for me. We have a good club."

Phil Gagliano, formerly of the Cardinals and Cubs and currently batting 1.000 as a pinch hitter for the Sox, has watched Griffin closely. "Doug can really pick it," says Gagliano. "I've watched Bill Mazeroski and Julian Javier over the years and Doug has a chance to be one of the best. We used to call Javier 'The Ghost' in St. Louis, because he could make the double play so quickly that he would be out of the way of the runner before there was any chance to break up the double play. That's one of the hardest things for a second baseman to learn. He comes into the play from a sharp angle on the pivot."

Saturday, in the 7-4 game in which the Orioles had 13 hits and 12 walks and left 18 men on base, Griffin slammed a long double off the center-field fence, moved to third and then tried to score on a fly ball to Merv Rettenmund in center. Rettenmund made a perfect play. He backed up on the fly and then moved swiftly in so that his forward motion would add extra strength to his throw. Andy Etchebarren blocked the plate and Rettenmund's throw came in on one beautiful bounce. Griffin slid between Etchebarren's legs but was pinched off by the catcher's knees. He was out on one of those "Hello, Doug, the team you are trying to score against is the Orioles" type of plays.

The Orioles may have left a lot of men on base—as has become their wont—but they also blasted the ball around the small Boston ball park and in general began to look like the team of last year and the year before. Last week, in an attempt to instill the old life in his club, Weaver asked Frank Robinson to reconstitute his kangaroo court, that spurious invasion of jurisprudence that made up in team morale what it lacked in fairness. Robinson's outrageous decisions about his teammates' play has relaxed them if it has not immediately spurred them to greater efforts.

This weekend, as the Orioles and Red Sox prepare to take their show to Baltimore, Boston has recalled Jim Lonborg from Louisville, where he has pitched well while trying to restore his arm to its 1967 limberness. His return will be a big factor in Boston's hopes of giving Baltimore a chase for the championship all year.

Fenway, of course, played to 80% of capacity in 1970, when the team was going no place. Now the lines have grown longer in front of the advance-ticket windows outside while inside the Sox play their strange game of catch the ball and avoid The Wall.

"It's rather remarkable what's going on up here," said Weaver last week. "All I hear about is the Red Sox. There were times during the last two seasons when we would come to town and I don't even think they ran the standings of the home club in the papers. Still it's the Sox, always the Sox."

PHOTORookie Doug Griffin, chasing a pop-up against Orioles, made only one error in first 31 games. PHOTOBaltimore Manager Earl Weaver is pensive, wary and certain things will get better. PHOTOBaltimore team leader Frank Robinson relaxes the tension by presiding over court.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)