It's not really what a divisional race should be, this battle between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox for the American League East. Winning is not the operative word. These are two teams trying not to lose. Triumph? The signs speak only of tragedy. The Red Sox are greeted by a fan holding a placard that reads, simply, 1918, a reminder of 71 years of championship-free baseball in Boston. The Blue Jays are referred to almost daily by the locals as the Blow Jays.
A couple of defeats down the stretch wouldn't provoke panic in most cities, but Toronto fans can't forget the Jays' famous fades, including 1987, when they lost their final seven games, and the East title. The anxiety of a Toronto fan, however, can't match that of a tortured Red Sox follower. Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe wrote a book last fall on the gruesome history of the Red Sox and the sale of Babe Ruth to the hated New York Yankees in 1919. It's called The Curse of the Bambino, and it's in its fourth printing.
The saga continues. The Red Sox led the Blue Jays by 6½ games on Sept. 4, but on that night Boston's most important player, Roger Clemens, injured his right shoulder, and he hasn't pitched since. When the Red Sox staggered into Baltimore last week for a three-game series, their lead had melted to a single game. Says Shaughnessy, "The Red Sox are doing for my book what the Ayatollah did for The Satanic Verses."
MONDAY, SEPT. 17
The national media swoop into Baltimore's Memorial Stadium like vultures. They are not here for that Randy Kutcher profile. These are the collapse columnists. "It's almost like they want it to happen," says Boston's Mike Boddicker.
Reliever Larry Andersen, acquired from the Houston Astros on Aug. 31, is asked why a Red Sox slump causes such panic. "It's typical for New England," he says. "They accentuate the negative. It wasn't this bad in Houston when we were 20 games behind."
Joe Morgan is remarkably cool for a manager who's lugging a four-game losing streak into a huge series. Any predictions? "Walpole High will go 9-1 this season," he says of his hometown football team. "Maybe 10-0."
His players are remarkably loose. Why not? Baltimore is the safest city in the American League: The Orioles have 13 consecutive series losses to American League East teams. And on this day the O's are gracious hosts again. Baltimore commits a season-high four errors, throws a season-high three wild pitches and strikes out 13 times. Boston wins 7-3 in 3:38 of pure ugly. Toronto beats the Yankees 6-4. The Boston lead is still one game.
In the jubilant Red Sox clubhouse, Andersen rips off a series of "victory belches," which are so loud he sounds as if he has swallowed a chain saw. "I learned how to do it at an early age, and I've worked hard to perfect it," Andersen says. "I don't want to blow my own horn, but no one is close to me in belching talent. But it does cause some problems for guys doing any live radio or TV."
TUESDAY, SEPT. 18
The media horde arrives at 3 p.m. to watch the savior, Clemens, give his inflamed right shoulder a test. At 4:30 he still hasn't thrown, leading suspicious writers to guess that Clemens has done his work earlier in the day, privately. "He hates the Boston press," says one teammate. "He'd do something like that just to tick them off."
However, at 4:45, Clemens, Morgan, pitching coach Bill Fischer and catcher John Marzano walk to the bullpen. Approximately 25 writers and a handful of photographers follow. As Clemens begins throwing, the media hover in the bleachers, staring down at him like medical students observing an operation.
The session lasts 80 pitches. Morgan is thrilled. "I feel like he could pitch today," he says. Clemens has no comment. He will return to Boston tomorrow to have the shoulder examined by Arthur Pappas, the team physician. If all goes well, Clemens will start on Sunday in New York. "We've got our automatic back," says pitcher Greg Harris.
Morgan is beaming. Earlier today he visited the White House, where he had salmon for lunch ("delicious"); he has brought back a box of White House M&M's for his grandson. "The man [President Bush] was just leaving as we got there," says Morgan. "Off to Denver, then Buffalo, then back home. What a job."
What a job starter Tom Bolton does for Boston in the first six innings. Looking on is commissioner Fay Vincent, along with Red Sox fan/Supreme Court nominee David Souter. Too bad for Boston it isn't Bruce Sutter; the Red Sox bullpen could use him in the seventh inning. Bolton has a no-hitter and a 1-0 lead, but three singles and then a homer by rookie David Segui give Baltimore a 4-1 lead. Red Sox loyalists surely feel an extra twinge of pain: Segui's father, Diego, who once pitched for the Sox, gave up a damaging home run during Boston's September collapse of 1974.
The Red Sox go down without a whisper. The Blue Jays win 3-2 in the ninth, their fourth ninth-inning victory in their last five games. The race is tied. There are no victory belches tonight.
Instead, with the clubhouse full of reporters, Boston catcher Tony Pena stands at his locker, kicks his chair twice, picks it up and heaves it against the wall. "You're a bunch of— —quitters the way we played this— —game," he screams at his teammates. This is the same Pena who will be profiled the next morning in USA Today as a cool and calming force on the Red Sox. Curiously, Pena's tirade draws little immediate reaction from the other players. Says pitcher Wes Gardner, "What the— —, it ain't the last game of the year." Things calm down quickly. Before he leaves, though, Mike Greenwell walks past Pena's empty locker and kicks the chair again. Shaughnessy notes that it is a folding chair.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 19
Before the game, Greenwell blasts Pena, saying, "Nobody on this team is a quitter. If you have something to say to the team, say it 10 minutes before the press comes in. As far as I'm concerned, he owes this team an apology." Replies Pena, "When something is inside yourself, you've got to get it out, so you don't have a heart attack and die. If I offended my teammates, I have to apologize! I just had one bad moment."
The game is filled with bad moments for the Red Sox. The score is 2-2 in the fifth inning when Harris, the Boston starter, throws a terrible pitch—a fastball up—to a former Red Sox player, Sam Horn, who lines it into the right-field seats for a three-run homer. "No way I should get beaten by that man," says Harris later.
Horn, who was released by the Boston organization in December 1989, is told he may have cost his former team the division title. "All I can say is I certainly hope so," he says. Another former Boston farmhand, Oriole reliever Curt Schilling, pitches the last four innings for the save. The final: Baltimore 8, Boston 4.
In Toronto, the Jays win 7-6, and the Red Sox are in second place for the first time since July 30. Morgan smiles and tells writers after the same, "We're not in trouble yet, boys. We're only one game behind. It's very simple. When we hit, we win. When we don't hit, we don't win."
Wade Boggs is determined to get 200 hits—and thereby extend his own record for consecutive 200-hit seasons to eight—even if it means swinging at balls out of the strike zone. He makes it five games in a row without a walk. His 0 for 4 today leaves him with 180 hits.
Still, the Red Sox do a good job of acting unconcerned. "We're going to New York, we know we can whip them, then we go home," says Harris. Says Boddicker, "I bet the people in Kuwait could give a— —that we lost."
THURSDAY, SEPT. 20
No game today. Dr. Pappas gives Clemens a clean bill of health to pitch Sunday. Clemens says he won't overdo it, then says he might. Morgan goes to see City of Angels on Broadway. "That was about the fourth show of my career," he says. "I never figure out the plots. I still couldn't tell what this one was about."
FRIDAY, SEPT. 21
Apologies to Baltimore: Yankee Stadium is the safest place in the league for a team to visit. The Red Sox win 3-0, as Dana Kiecker pitches seven shutout innings and Andersen throws two scoreless innings to keep his ERA at 0.00 in 16 innings with Boston. Greenwell and Ellis Burks each homer. Boggs makes two standout defensive plays to save the shutout.
The Blue Jays lose 2-1 to the surging Cleveland Indians on Sandy Alomar Jr.'s home run in the 13th inning. Toronto's six-game winning streak is over. The race is tied. In the Red Sox locker room, Andersen belches.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 22
The worst day of the season for the Red Sox. The start of the game is delayed five hours by rain; it finally begins at 5:21 p.m. Marzano, starting at catcher for the first time since Sept. 10, loses his contact lenses in a collision while chasing a foul pop in the first inning, and he has to come out of the game because he left his backup pair at the hotel. Boston botches numerous scoring chances against the Yankee starter, rookie Steve Adkins, before falling 5-2. With Toronto losing again to the Indians, Boston blows a chance to take sole possession of first.
All of that seems trivial, however, when Morgan, at the end of his postgame chat with the press, drops a bombshell at 9 p.m. "I'm glad you reminded me," he says when asked about the importance of Clemens's start on Sunday. "I almost forgot—Roger's not pitching tomorrow." What? You forgot?
Clemens has reported tenderness in his famed right shoulder and will be held out until Friday. But can he pitch on Friday? How badly is he hurt? If he can't pitch, it must be bad, right? Could he be done for the year? Shaughnessy dubs the whole episode Sox, Lies and Videotape.
Bolton will replace Clemens on Sunday, which is kind of like replacing Larry Bird with Ed Pinckney to take the big free throws at the end of the game. "I'm not going to risk it," says Morgan. "In his heart, Roger knows it's the right decision." Boddicker defends the decision: "What if he had to leave the game in the second inning, what then? We'll just suck it up without him. I don't want to see him get hurt."
This day's long, wet loss certainly hurts. Boddicker, who goes the first six innings, complains later that the Yankees didn't keep him informed as to when the game would start. "It's ridiculous—it shouldn't happen," he says. "I don't mind waiting all night, but I warmed up three times. I pitched four hours, from 3:30 to 7:30."
It is unfortunate for Boston that he couldn't have pitched longer. The Red Sox lead 2-1 in the seventh when the bullpen takes over: first Rob Murphy, then Andersen, then the world's slowest-working pitcher, reliever Jeff Gray, who yields a ringing two-run triple to Steve Sax to give New York a 4-2 lead. The final is 5-2. Dave Righetti gets the save.
Morgan shakes his head. "There's no way I thought the Yankees would win that game," he says.
For the final three innings, the man sitting behind the New York dugout wields the sign that reads 1918. He keeps Hashing it at the Red Sox and screaming. Days like this make you wonder about the curse of the Bambino.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 23
Perhaps the second-worst day of the year for the Red Sox. They drop a game out of first with an excruciating 5-4 loss to New York in which they go 1 for 15 with runners in scoring position, including 1 for 5 with runners at third base and less than two outs. Worse, Clemens plays light catch in the bullpen in the fourth inning, makes a few throws, experiences tightness in the shoulder and quits. Dr. Pappas will examine him in Boston on Monday. The chances of Clemens's opening the all-important Toronto series in Fenway on Friday don't look promising. Says Morgan, "He didn't feel good at all."
Neither does Morgan. "We had a million chances today," he says. "We just didn't get it done." In the top of the eighth, with the Yanks ahead 5-3, Green-well triples home Burks. Tying run at third, none out. Eric Plunk strikes out Dwight Evans and Mike Marshall. Pena grounds out to end the inning. The game ends 5-4.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays beat Cleveland 5-4, this time saving their heroics for the 10th inning. The Red Sox prepare to head home. "We're in pretty good shape, with the way we've been playing, that's the way I look at it," says Morgan, who is surrounded by minicams, microphones and notepads. "You know, I feel like I'm in the zoo. You get the picture?"