The sun suddenly appeared as Dwight Evans walked to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning. The afternoon had been muggy and dead earlier in the Boston Red Sox's game against the Baltimore Orioles last Saturday, but a hole now opened in the low, gray clouds, and Fenway Park looked the way it does in the picture postcards. Evans noticed.
"I don't know about omens, but I knew something had changed," the 38-year-old Red Sox designated hitter said later. "Everything was brighter. I remember thinking that I didn't want to step out of the batter's box very much. I was afraid the sun would disappear."
July 1, 1990
In the stormy Boston baseball year of 1989, in which the Red Sox finished a dull third, a tornado probably would have arrived at this moment, whipping dust into Evans's eyes as he looked at the pitching of the Orioles' speedball reliever Gregg Olson. A flock of vultures would have descended to peck on the back of Evans's blue plastic batting helmet. A shoestring would have become untied and he would have tripped as he swung at Olson's 2-2 pitch. But in this far different year, the conditions were perfect, and he connected with Olson's high fastball and followed teammate Randy Kutcher around the bases to a celebration at home plate that was as joyous as anything you would ever see in a light-beer commercial. The come-from-behind Red Sox had struck again, winning 4-3 with their most dramatic comeback in what would be a three-game sweep of the Orioles.
The sun was indeed shining on this curious baseball team. The first-place Toronto Blue Jays were only a half game ahead of the Sox in the American League East and were coming to town for a four-game series to begin on Monday. A pennant-race summer seemed to be a solid possibility.
"I was excited, but to tell the truth, I would have been just as excited if anyone else on our team had done what I did to win the game," said Evans, who also homered in the eighth inning to tie the game and homered again on Sunday in a 2-0 Sox win. "I really mean that. Winning is all that matters. We might not have the most talented team in baseball, but we have a lot of character. This was a show of character."
Huh? Character? The Red Sox?
For almost as long as baseball has been played inside the antique, green stadium off Kenmore Square, the knock against this team has been that it is loaded with talent and lacking in certain intestinal virtues. Character? The Red Sox's history has been filled with fat wallets and fatter heads. Twenty-five cabs for 25 ballplayers. The traditional Red Sox ball club has had a couple of marquee stars and a long list of inside-baseball weaknesses. The big stars were fussed over. Everyone else was around to run to the delicatessen for late-night tuna fish sandwiches.
The legacy of disappointment, passed on from generation to generation in New England, is so well publicized it has become a clichè. Through the eras of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, more was always expected of the Red Sox. Much more. The idea that the Sox could be a plucky bunch of rascals, outhustling and outscrapping opponents, has been as foreign as the idea that the British government could put a tax on tea.
The Red Sox plucky? The adjective would never have applied during the '89 season. Ten games behind the division-leading Blue Jays in the middle of September, the '89 Sox showed all the zip of a bunch of bankers in a midweek board meeting. Rice was struggling and grouchy at the tag end of his career. Third baseman Wade Boggs was trailed by the never-ending tabloid trumpeting of his affair with Margo Adams. Superstar pitcher Roger Clemens was damned by writers and fans for his finicky complaints about carrying luggage and not being able to find an extra parking space for his wife to use near Fenway. The front office was damned for not re-signing pitcher Bruce Hurst, who jumped to the San Diego Padres. Worst of all, the team could not win close games. From June 30 until the end of the season, the Sox did not win one game after trailing in the seventh inning. Not one. Dead.
"What we wanted to do in the off-season, more than anything, was change the chemistry of the clubhouse a bit," general manager Lou Gorman said after making a number of moves, including the release of Rice and reliever Bob Stanley and the free-agent signings of 33-year-old catcher Tony Pena and reliever Jeff Reardon. "Pena was very big in this. A lot of people said when we got him, 'Oh, that guy's 30-something years old. Done.' We didn't think so. Not only did we like his ability—which I thought was very high, as good as any catcher's in baseball—but we liked his infectious enthusiasm for the game. His attitude. The same with Reardon. He's a tough, hard-nosed competitor."
There was not much early local enthusiasm for the changes. Attention centered on the loss of free-agent first baseman Nick Esasky to the Atlanta Braves and on the failure to sign another starting pitcher for what was a shaky rotation, after Clemens and veteran Mike Boddicker. Who would pitch? Who would play first base? Who would hit home runs? Most preseason predictions put the Sox anywhere from third to sixth. Gorman was stymied in his attempts to find pitching.
"I had Lee Smith to trade," he says. "It still boggles my mind that I couldn't get a good pitcher for Smith, who is a very good relief pitcher. When I couldn't do it, though, I went for Tom Brunansky [of the Cardinals]. He gives us some help at the plate that we needed. I still hope I can get a pitcher down the line, when teams sort themselves out. For now, we've gotten great help from Greg Harris and Dana Kiecker."
The change has been dramatic. Strangely found pieces have fallen into place. Surprises have arrived. Pena has been everything he was supposed to be, squatting in the dirt, yelling encouragement, holding on to baseballs in a season-long sequence of home-plate collisions. Rookie Carlos Quintana has been a surprise at first. Luis Rivera has been a surprise at short, allowing Jody Reed to move to second, a more natural position for him. Harris, a converted reliever, has become a solid third starter. Kiecker, a 29-year-old rookie from Sleepy Eye, Minn., has been a wide-awake contributor as the fourth starter.
One success has led to another. The most obvious difference has been in close games. Already the Red Sox have won 21 come-from-behind games, including eight in which they trailed as late as the seventh inning. They are 15-9 in one-run games. The local drama has changed. The good guys no longer die all the time at the end.
"There's been a different attitude from game one of training camp," reliever Rob Murphy says. "I could just sense that guys were really into it this year. They were talking about baseball a lot more. I just had a feeling that everybody wanted to get going. The predictions didn't mean anything. Those are just other people's opinions. Tony came along and we followed his lead. He gave us something we really needed around here."
"It's only June, so you can't say much yet, but the one thing I know is that so far it's been very enjoyable to play baseball here this year," Reed says. "Much more enjoyable than last year. The attitude and the personnel—those are the biggest differences. Let's face it, years are different. In baseball, in your career, you're going to have a year like 1989 with a lot of controversies, a lot of adversity. This is a different year."
About the only off-field controversy to arise so far came last week when Evans and Clemens left a delayed team flight at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, but even that seemed to be part of a communal gripe. The Sox were scheduled to fly by charter to Hamilton, Ont., after a Monday night game, then take a 50-minute bus ride to Toronto. The plane was delayed by U.S. Customs and did not depart until 1:20 a.m. Evans, who is troubled by lower back pain, did not like sitting on a plane that did not move. He decided to spend the night in a Baltimore hotel. Clemens went with him.
"It was a situation where I needed to get my rest," the pitcher said. "It was a matter of being in bed by 2 o'clock or in bed by 4. Rest is the most important thing for my arm and there's not a whole lot more to say."
His teammates, who finally arrived at their Toronto hotel at 3:15 a.m., seemed to agree. One, who was quoted anonymously in The Boston Globe, said, "If Joe [Morgan, the manager] fines anybody, we'll all walk out." Another said Evans and Clemens "should be commended for getting a good night's sleep." Even the complaining seems unified this year.
"This is a good clubhouse," Evans said. "I still think the clubhouse last year was good—a lot of things just happened—but I will say this clubhouse is better."
The three-game series with the Orioles, which was the team blessed by the come-from-behind gods last year, was a grand illustration of the change in both spirit and success. On Friday night, Boddicker (9-3) went 8½ innings and won his eighth straight game, 4-3. Pena, playing with a severely swollen right thumb injured two weeks before in one of those collisions at the plate, was the hitting star. Ignoring the pain that shot into his hand whenever bat met ball, he spanked a game-winning single in the seventh.
On Saturday, Clemens (11-3) struggled through nine innings, striking out only four batters and walking five, but left with a 2-2 score and a chance for Evans to be a hero. On Sunday, the unheralded Harris left his apartment in Chestnut Hill, took the Green Line trolley to the ballpark, was recognized by no one and shut out the O's over eight innings to go 7-3 for the season.
"When the series started, I wanted to sweep the Orioles because I thought we could do it," Morgan said bluntly. "And that's what happened."
Will the Sox's Success story continue? Or will it fade in familiar squabbles, the new Three Musketeers attitude replaced by so many guests on a talk-show couch grabbing for each other's eyes? Will the no-name pitchers be able to continue to surprise? Will help arrive in a pitching package from somewhere else? Can a team that hits so few home runs—41 in the first 68 games—be able to continue to win in a small ballpark?
One plus is that these early wins have come with subpar production from hitters like Boggs (.294) and Mike Greenwell (.258, only two home runs). Won't Boggs and Greenwell click into a higher gear somewhere along the way? Another plus is Clemens. Nagged by small injuries and a lack of hitting support, he fell to a 17-11 record last year. He has become his overpowering self again this year, leading the league in strikeouts (103) and wins. Every fifth day, there is a very good chance the Red Sox will win.
"When he's going good, he gets ahead of you in the count, 1-2, and, boom, it's over," pitching coach Bill Fischer says. "When he's struggling, like he was against Baltimore, he's just missing on that pitch to put you away, and he falls behind in the count. He's still good, though, because he fights you.
"You look at him. He's just such a big man. I mean big—bigger than any of those other strikeout pitchers. And he's aggressive. If you ever fought him, you'd have to kill him to make him stop. He's someone who comes along every 25 years. I mean, if the woods were full of guys like him, the games wouldn't be much fun."
In the third inning on Saturday, Clemens got mad. The Orioles scored their first run without a base hit. Rivera made an error when a ball went through his legs. Oriole outfielder Steve Finley walked. Boggs made an error when he double-clutched a bunt. A run scored on a double play. The final out came when Quintana fielded a grounder and flipped to Clemens, covering first. Clemens kicked at the bag, kicked at the dirt, turned and spiked the baseball. Splat. He left the field yelling something into the afternoon air.
The Boston press rushed to his locker after the game. Was he mad at Rivera for the error? Was he mad at Boggs? Was he mad at some indeterminate subject? The groundskeeper? The tailor of his uniform? The maker of his breakfast? Traditions die hard. Headlines awaited.
"I was mad," Clemens said, "at myself. For the pitches I was throwing."
Different year. Different team.