What's the pox on the Sox?

August 22, 1976

It seems as if it was only yesterday. Boston, 12th inning, Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Pat Darcy of the Reds pitches, Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox swings, and the baseball arches through the cool night air toward the left-field fence. Is it fair or foul? A breathless nation watches as Fisk takes a few steps toward first base, stops and turns to look at the ball, to urge it with waving hands and a contorting torso to stay fair. And seemingly because of the force of his body English alone, the ball passes inside the foul pole. Fisk leaps, Fisk applauds himself, Fisk nearly cartwheels around the bases. Underdog Boston has won 7-6.

In the 10 months since that dramatic moment, not many good things have happened to the Red Sox. The World Series was lost to Cincinnati the next day. The $2 million acquisition from the A's of Outfielder Joe Rudi and badly needed reliever Rollie Fingers was canceled by the commissioner. Owner Tom Yawkey died. Manager Darrell Johnson was fired. And the team, says one player, has "wallowed in its ineffectiveness."

Those who expected Boston to repeat as American League champion this season—and they were many—got an indication of the problems to come on Opening Day. The Red Sox had only three hits, allowed an unearned run and lost to Baltimore 1-0. "Coming to Boston from Texas, I had high hopes this year," says Ferguson Jenkins, the losing pitcher that day. "I expected one of my best seasons, but I soon learned that the team I was playing for was not the one I had played against the year before. Neither the hitting nor defense was as good as I thought it'd be, and I was very surprised at the poor fundamentals. There also seemed to be a lot of players with bad attitudes."

Boston won the Eastern Division title by 4½ games last season, holding first place from June 29 to the end. But in April of this year the Sox began a 10-game losing streak, their longest in 16 seasons, and they have been above .500 only three days since then.

"Because you can't fire an entire team," on July 19 General Manager Dick O'Connell axed Johnson instead. Third Base Coach Don Zimmer, who looks like a grizzled, 45-year-old Charlie Brown, was named as the replacement. Zimmer, it was thought, would command greater respect from the players and generally shake things up. He has done these things and promises to do more in training camp next spring, but his record as a manager at the end of last week was only 12-14. His team was fifth, 15½ games behind New York. What happened?

There are some who contend that the Red Sox were not all that good to begin with, that last season they were an improbable mishmash of young and old players who performed above their heads. But even if Boston is not as good as it appeared to be in 1975, certainly it is not as bad as it has been in 1976.

Carl Yastrzemski, who has been both a winner and loser in his 16 major league seasons, thinks he has learned what distinguishes the two. "When I first came here and it seemed like the Red Sox were finishing in last place every year, I thought that talent was the whole key to a strong team," he says. "But since then I've revised my opinion. Sure, it takes talent. But it also takes pride, attitude, character—anything you want to call it. Whatever it is, we have not had it this year. That's what we need to regain."

Statistically, the lack of whatever has shown up in many ways. The team batting average is down from .275 to .251, and run production has decreased from five to four a game. Although the staff ERA is slightly improved, the bullpen has been less effective. Errors are up, especially by Shortstop Rick Burleson, who has committed 25 compared to 29 all last season. Worst of all, the Sox have sometimes played as if baseball were the furthest thing from their minds. Says Zimmer, "We haven't been alert when it's come to running the bases, holding runners on, bunting, things like that."

Much of the blame for the team's failure has centered on three players who ended season-long holdouts only two weeks ago. Fred Lynn, Fisk and Burleson won a lot of money for their obstinacy, but they suffered a lot of mental anguish as well.

Encouraged by the Boston press, which made the holdouts a cause cél√®bre, Red Sox fans rode the threesome constantly. In the opinion of Rightfielder Dwight Evans, they became "a good excuse for our losing, but an unfair one." Because of the treatment from the fans, the press and, to some extent, their teammates, Lynn, Fisk and Burleson spent the first half of the season wavering between two extreme solutions: sign just to end the agony, or continue the holdout and join another team at the end of the season. In the process, their concentration—and performances—suffered.

Lynn, who has only 43 RBIs—he had 105 in 1975—says, "If I'm not driving in as many runs, it's because I've been moved up to third in the order and I don't have a couple of .300 hitters in front of me." But despite a .306 average, he clearly is not the swashbuckling MVP of a year ago. "Balls that Fred would've dived for and caught last year are popping out of his glove this season," says Evans. Burleson has improved his hitting and fielding in the past six weeks, because, he says, "I stopped pressing and went back to my old way of doing things." Now batting .267, he is the only player on the team whose average is higher this season than last.

Probably no one felt the sting of criticism more than Fisk, a native New Engender whose average has plunged 100 points from last year's .331. Although injuries are partially to blame, Fisk admits, "As a catcher, I have to be totally involved to be effective, but I just couldn't concentrate. I was denying myself the emotional involvement that I need to play well."

According to Jerry Kapstein, the agent for all three players, the holdout issue "was blown right out of proportion. It certainly hasn't hurt the Phillies, who have four holdouts." But bitter feelings did result in Boston. "A sour taste was left in some mouths," Zimmer says, and Burleson claims he could sense the tension. "My teammates would never say so, but I could tell that the little arguments that arose and the nitpicking I sometimes heard were really caused by our holdouts."

Even though that crisis has passed, the Red Sox continue to lose as often as they win. Boston was shut out twice last week, although it did show some old form in a 2-1 win over California. Burleson twice made game-saving stops, and Lynn drove in the deciding run with a single in the 10th inning. In the bottom of the 10th, Leftfielder Jim Rice, whose RBI total is way down from his 102 in '75, clinched the victory by throwing a runner out at home plate. "All year those things have been happening to us," said Burleson. "Tonight we did them for ourselves."

It was indeed a positive sign for the future for which the Red Sox are already preparing. Johnson is said to be scouting the list of possible free agents for a relief pitcher and a second baseman. And if rookie Butch Hobson comes through—he has hit only .196 so far—at third base, 33-year-old Rico Petrocelli may be traded or sent to Seattle or Toronto in the expansion draft.

There will be few banquets, a vastly reduced number of celebrity appearances and no awards for the Red Sox during the coming off-season. "It was fun," Rice says, "but this winter I think we'll all be thinking about baseball."