A BOOST from the ROCKET

Roger Clemens's return lifted Boston in its battle with Toronto
October 07, 1990

It's a dirty division, but somebody has to win it. We're speaking, of course, of the American League East, and last weekend at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays met in a three-game, head-to-head, toe-to-toe series to determine which of them would take on the—tremble—Oakland Athletics in the league's championship series. A sweep by either team might have proved decisive, but, as befits this here-you-take-it division, neither could pull it off. The sweep was within the grasp of the Red Sox after they won the first two games, but Toronto recovered to win 10-5 on Sunday. When Boston beat the Chicago White Sox in Fenway on Monday night and Toronto lost to the Orioles in Baltimore, the Red Sox extended their lead to two games. "It hasn't been easy all year long," said Boston manager Joe Morgan after Sunday's game. "Why should it be easy now?"

The series wasn't conclusive, but it was memorable. For three days, Fenway shook like the table at a seance. Indeed, these games seemed like an otherworldly series filled with strange and unexplained phenomena. Why, for instance, did a fire burst out beneath a poster of Babe Ruth in the souvenir shop across the street from Fenway a few hours before last Friday night's game, and how was it that the poster wasn't even singed? What was Morgan thinking in the ninth inning of the opener, a paranormal game if ever there was one, and how come his strategy worked? Why was Bill Lee in the company of a warlock with a black cape and a spear before the second game? Would Roger Clemens really pitch on Saturday, and when he did, how was it that he was able to hurl six shutout innings on 24 days' rest? What sport were the two teams playing on Sunday? Last but not least, did Blue Jay outfielder Junior Felix know something that we didn't when he scheduled his wedding for Oct. 20, smack in the middle of the World Series?

Like Felix, we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. The two teams arrived at Fenway tied for first place with identical records (84-72) and similar histories of wilting under pressure. But the Red Sox's haunted history is much longer, and there was dread in the air on Yawkey Way as the fans filed in for the first game. There was also smoke in the air, thanks to a propane gas explosion in the hot dog cooker underneath the Ruth poster in the souvenir store. Nobody was hurt, not even the Bambino, although traffic was snarled by the fire engines.

Inside the park, a television reporter asked Morgan to assess the mood of his club before the big game. "I don't have time to ask every guy how he feels today," he said. Actually, the players were feeling rather chipper. Pitcher Joe Hesketh had purchased a Halloween mask that day. The mask was so frightful that it looked like Boston pitching coach Bill Fischer. Hesketh, with pillows stuffed into his uniform, trailed the portly Fischer onto the field before the game. It was a good imitation—and perhaps good practice: If Boston's scheduled starter on Saturday couldn't go, the Red Sox would be asking Hesketh to imitate Clemens.

The one man in the Red Sox clubhouse who was feeling terrible was Mike Boddicker, Boston's scheduled starter, who was suffering from a painful headache. But Boddicker stymied Toronto for the first six innings. The Sox bunched together four hits off Dave Stieb in the first, yet scored only one run. But in the bottom of the sixth, Wade Boggs and Tom Brunansky homered, delighting the crowd of 35,735—Fenway's largest in more than 12 years—and giving Boston a 4-0 lead.

But this game would mirror the season in the American League East almost exactly. The Blue Jays tied the score in the seventh inning on two hit batsmen and four singles. With two outs, third baseman Kelly Gruber, who had been carrying Toronto all month, came to the plate with runners on second and third. Had he gotten a hit off reliever Larry Andersen, Boston fans would be sadly recounting the seventh inning of this game for the next 50 years. But Gruber grounded out to Boggs. In the eighth, Gruber did the Red Sox a bigger favor by making two throwing errors to first base and putting Boston back on top 5-4.

The ninth inning might have been entitled The Mystery of the Three Jeffs. Jeff Gray had pitched the eighth for Boston, and Morgan let him pitch the ninth, despite the fact that Boston's closer, Jeff Reardon, was ready. Even though Greg Myers singled sharply to lead off the ninth, Morgan left Gray in to face Felix, who hit the first pitch into the Toronto bullpen for a two-run homer and a 6-5 Blue Jay lead. In effect, Felix was trying to ruin his own wedding plans; Paula Tread-way of Myrtle Beach, S.C., will be the lucky girl on Oct. 20—unless the groom is otherwise occupied.

Only after the homer did Morgan call for Reardon, who set the Jays down in order. Morgan is a nice man and a good manager of men. However, when it comes to game strategy, he is no rival of, say, Tony La Russa. The cover story of the latest issue of Diehard, a publication for Red Sox fans, is bannered "The Mastermind: Joe Morgan Manages Red Sox To Brink Of AL East Title." Boston's players got a big kick out of that headline.

Somebody up there likes Morgan, though. In the bottom of the ninth, against Tom Henke, the Red Sox loaded the bases with one out. Mike Greenwell then singled to rightfield to tie the score. Third base coach Rac Slider held Boggs at third and watched Felix's throw sail over the head of catcher Carlos Diaz. That raised two questions: Why didn't Morgan pinch-run for the hobbled-and-slow-any-way Boggs? And will Felix mistakenly put the ring on the finger of Ms. Treadway's maid of honor?

Bases loaded, one out and Jeff Stone is on deck. Surely Morgan would pinch-hit for Stone, who entered the game as a pinch runner in the eighth. Stone hadn't had an at bat since being called up from Pawtucket on Sept. 4. "Before I went out into the on-deck circle," said Stone later, "I ran into Danny Heep and asked him if he would be hitting, and he shook his head. Then when I was in the on-deck circle, I kept looking over at Joe."

Said Morgan afterward, "I figured, What the heck. He's got speed. He's a lefthanded hitter. He was loose." So the third Jeff lashed Henke's second pitch into the gap in right center, giving the Red Sox a victory that put them in first place and himself in the pantheon of unlikely Boston heroes, right alongside Bernie Carbo. As Stone's teammates mobbed him, Fenway was filled with the spirit of 7-6. "The greatest game I have ever seen," said Rocky Grossack, a fan from Hull, Mass., "and I have been to at least 200 Sox games." Said Morgan, "Any fan who left this game early should be ashamed of himself."

That the hero should be Stone made the game even more special. "Stonie turned a sleepless night into a night of sweet dreams," said Andersen. So unfamiliar is Stone to Boston that on Friday night, local sportscasters kept referring to him as a rookie, even though he's 29 and has also played for the Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers and Orioles.

As he has bounced around, he has started more anecdotes than rallies. One of 15 children from a poor Missouri family, Stone is well liked for his sweet disposition and naivetè. Once asked if he wanted a shrimp cocktail, Stone replied, "I don't drink." Told during a road series against the Pirates that he should count sheep to get to sleep, he said, "They don't have sheep in Pittsburgh."

Says Andersen, who played with Stone in Philadelphia, "My favorite Stonie story is the time he flew in to Philly from Hawaii. I asked him if he was going to be in the starting lineup, and he said, 'I hope not. I got jet legs.' "

Actually, his jet legs have kept him in organized ball. "I'm on Cloud 10," said Stone after his big moment. "I've thought about quitting, even this year. But to be honest, I don't have anything else to do."

When Stone arrived in Boston, his Jeep Cherokee, with his belongings inside, was stolen. But a few days later, the vehicle was returned to him. Maybe it was an omen. It was at least a metaphor for the Red Sox's season thus far: lost and found.

There has been much talk in Boston recently of The Curse of the Bambino, the title of a popular book by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy that details all Red Sox sins since Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees in 1919. So last Saturday at 12:30 p.m., in the very spot that the hot dog machine caught fire, WZLX radio broadcast a live curse-lifting. Doing the honors were Sean Poirier, a third-generation witch from Salem who's registered with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and Lee, a part-time veterinarian's assistant from Craftsbury Common, Vt., who used to pitch lefthanded for the Sox. Waving a bat (please note that it was a Tom Brunansky model) over the crowd, Poirier incanted, "This is a symbol of victory. May the powers of the universe and the love of the fans and the energy of the players come together so that the Red Sox may fly again." Then he handed the bat to Lee and told him to deliver it to the players. Poirier was perfectly serious about the whole thing. Asked what his day job was, the witch replied, "This is my day job. And night job."

However, even he didn't know if Clemens was going to pitch that afternoon. Bothered by a shoulder inflammation, Clemens had not appeared in a game since Sept. 4. Oh, there had been occasional sightings—the Rocket was sometimes seen testing his arm in the bullpen, allegedly seen on a golf course, and definitely seen at an M.C. Hammer concert last Thursday night in Boston while the Red Sox were beating the Tigers in Detroit—but no one knew for sure if Clemens could go on Saturday. The Blue Jays had taped two lineup cards to their clubhouse door, one for Clemens and one for Hesketh. Morgan called over Toronto manager Cito Gaston to apologize for the mystery and to assure him that the Red Sox weren't bluffing.

At 2:49 p.m., Clemens left the Boston dugout and walked out to the bullpen with Morgan, Fischer and bullpen coach Dick Berardino. The fans cheered. Visible to the crowd were little green doodads attached to Clemens's shoelaces, which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lace clamps, a fashion accessory approved by his sons, Koby and Kory.

Clemens's first soft toss to catcher John Marzano flew into the adjacent Blue Jay bullpen, but Marzano later said Clemens always does that. At 2:59 he began to throw in earnest. "I knew right away he was fine," said Marzano. "He was pumped up, too, talking to himself. 'Awright, awright, awright,' he kept saying."

Starting catcher Tony Pena came out for the last five minutes of warmups. At 3:13, Clemens and Pena walked back to the dugout to a standing ovation. Clemens would later say, "When the crowd gets behind you like that, it almost makes you feel invincible." In the upper deck, above the Boston dugout, hung a banner that read PLEASE FORGIVE US BABE.

At 3:21 Clemens made his first pitch, to Wilson, and Fenway let go a sigh of relief. He got Wilson to ground out, and after walking Tony Fernandez, he struck out Gruber and Fred McGriff. Clemens got a double-play ball in the second and escaped a jam in the third. "I know the man," said Fischer later, "and I admire him as much as anyone. But I didn't think he could go more than three innings."

But he did. Clemens went six shutout innings, throwing 93 pitches, allowing four hits and two walks, striking out five and lowering his league-leading ERA to 1.93. Said Fischer, "It was the most amazing feat I have ever seen in baseball. After this, I think Roger could fly a jet plane. I think he could probably walk on water too." Clemens may not be able to do that, but, as per his custom on days that he pitches, he ran through the streets around the ballpark after his stint was over.

Toronto's starter, Todd Stottlemyre, matched goose eggs with Clemens for four innings, but in the fifth he gave up a solo homer to Brunansky, the man with the enchanted bat. After Stottlemyre loaded the bases in the sixth, Gaston brought in reliever Duane Ward. Dwight Evans hit a little puff pastry through the right side of the infield to drive in two runs. Brunansky followed with another homer, a three-run shot, to give the Red Sox a 6-0 lead and stick it to some of his critics, those Boston fans who are aghast that Brunansky is seeking a contract in the $3 million range from the Red Sox at the conclusion of the season.

His third home run, a solo smash off Rick Luecken, put Boston ahead 7-0. "Bruno looked like he was playing slo-pitch softball," Evans said. Nothing comes easy for the Red Sox, though. In the ninth, Gruber hit a two-out grand slam to close the score to 7-5 before Morgan again summoned Reardon, who got Boston's final out for the third game in a row.

Clemens, though, was the talk of the clubhouse afterward. "Like Babe Ruth," Morgan said. "Babe would play the outfield, then when the team needed a shutout, he'd come in and pitch a shutout. That's what Roger did for us today."

Clemens said he felt fine after the game. "I got a little tired, that's all," he said. "It feels good to be part of the team again. I just didn't want to go out there and leave after a third of an inning or something."

Just then Brunansky came over. "You were unbelievable," he told Clemens.

"No, you were," Clemens said.

By now, Boston fans would have believed it if the Bambino himself had taken the mound the next day. Unfortunately, only the curse returned. Friday's game had drama. Saturday's game had suspense. What did Sunday's game have? "There was a lot of slop out there," said Morgan. Boston pitchers allowed 19 hits, Toronto batters left 13 men on base, and both teams gave how-not-tos on outfield and infield play. The baserunning was bad as well. Asked about the aesthetic quality of the game, Gaston said, "It's not pretty if you lose, but it's pretty if you win."

Four Red Sox pitchers were hammered, including Hesketh, who did an imitation of, well, Joe Hesketh. The only bright spot for Boston was Brunansky, who hit his fifth homer in three games, an academic solo number in the seventh off Toronto starter Jimmy Key, who would get the win. After the game, the Jays took wing to Baltimore for a final three-game set. The Red Sox stayed at home for a three-game series against the White Sox. "Even though we're a game behind," said Key, "I like our chances. Remember, the White Sox have a better record than either of us."

Boston fans know that. They also know that Carlton Fisk plays for the Pale Hose, and that Pudge, like the Babe, was once driven from Boston. Visions of a Fisk game-winning homer—probably in the 12th inning of the last game—danced in their heads.

And if the two teams ended the regular season in a tie, they would meet in a playoff game in Toronto on Thursday afternoon. Thus, one of them was bound to win the American League East.

Right?

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER PHOTOJOHN IACONOThe Turtle-tied Clemens invigorated Fenway with six big innings. THREE PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMONBy deftly avoiding the tag of Manny Lee, Evans stole second base on Saturday to help give the Red Sox a tenuous toehold on first place. PHOTOJOHN IACONOThe unknown Stone became an instant folk hero. PHOTOJOHN IACONOBrunansky's three-run home run on Saturday was one of five homers he hit in the series. PHOTOJOHN IACONOFelix went 2 for 5 with a homer and a stolen base Sunday, jeopardizing his wedding plans. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIEREllis Burks and The Wall got a Sunday shelling from the Jays.

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)