They still have a Hawk, but instead of Yaz, there's Zup; the backup catcher is Melvin, not Howard; Tony C's place has been taken by Q; and the Boomer is now the Hit Dog. The names have changed, but for the denizens of New England, it's 1967 again.
That was the year of the Impossible Dream, a Boston Red Sox season that began with little hope and ended with an American League pennant. This year the Red Sox were again given little chance on Opening Day, and things looked hopeless as recently as June 21, when Boston was in fifth place, 13 games out in the American League East. Back then manager Butch Hobson's job was in danger, trade rumors were humming and Fenway Park wasn't.
A month later the fans in the Fens were humming an encore from Man of La Mancha ("To dream the impossible dream..."). As of Sunday, having won 10 straight games and 25 of their last 30, the Red Sox were in a three-way tie for first place with the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays. Their 10th straight victory was an 8-1 drubbing of the Oakland A's, a team that once owned them, and it featured a grand slam by the Hit Dog, first baseman Mo Vaughn, and a two-run shot by the Hawk—outfielder-DH Andre Dawson, not Ken Harrelson.
It sure seemed like 1967 on Sunday as the players boarded the bus that would take them to the airport for a 13-game, 14-day road trip. Hundreds of the Bosox faithful waited around to shout their good wishes. The team left home with the fifth-best record in baseball, and Hobson had a new contract extension to go with his new reputation as a great manager to play for.
"We have a long way to go," says Hobson, "but I know what these guys are made of: nails and glass and grit and anything else you throw at them. I would love to have played with these guys."
He certainly loved watching them last week. In sweeping a three-game series from the California Angels and a four-game set from the A's, Hobson could thank everyone from A (rookie pitcher Aaron Sele, who won games on Monday and Saturday) to Z (spare outfielder Bob Zupcic, who drove in big runs on Monday and Friday).
Hobson was the third baseman on some pretty good Red Sox teams from 1976 to '80, but they were bashers. These Sox are part Fletcher, part Hatcher and in large part pitchers. Scott Fletcher and Billy Hatcher, two journeymen, are two of the biggest reasons the Sox are once again tilting at windmills. Fletcher, who was signed as a free-agent utility infielder in the off-season, is hitting .296 as the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter, playing well below his 35 years. The Red Sox are 44-21 in games he has started and 10-22 in games he hasn't.
Hatcher was acquired last year from the Cincinnati Reds (for pitcher Tom Bolton, thank you) as an extra outfielder, but the 32-year-old was starting in centerfield and hitting .318 at week's end, playing excellent defense and doing for the Red Sox what Kirby Puckett does for the Minnesota Twins. On Friday night Hatcher scored from second base on an infield out.
Red Sox fans, take note: Hatcher is a great guy to have for the playoffs. He had a World Series-record seven straight hits for the Reds in 1990, and he's a lifetime .404 hitter in the postseason. He has also become the spiritual leader of this Boston team, handing out the symbolic Hit Man Jacket after every win to the batter who most warrants the honor.
The blue warmup jacket with HIT MAN across the back is the property and inspiration of batting coach Mike Easier, who was known as the Hit Man in his playing days. "You wear it, you enjoy it, you deserve it," says Easier, who deserves much of the credit for the improved Red Sox offense. "You can do anything you want with it, but you can't take it home."
The two Red Sox who have most often worn the jacket have been Vaughn, who at week's end was hitting .324 with 14 homers and 64 RBIs a year after he was sent down to Triple A Pawtucket, and left-fielder Mike Greenwell, who had a .304 average and 53 RBIs a year after he was thought to be through in Boston. Last week, though, the jacket went from Q (outfielder Carlos Quintana, who had three hits on Monday) to catcher Tony Pena (two hits on Tuesday to break an 0-for-17 slump) to utilityman Ernie Riles (a homer and two RBIs on Wednesday) to Vaughn (4 for 4 on Thursday) to Zupcic (the game-winning double in the 10th inning on Friday) to shortstop Luis Rivera (his first homer in two years on Saturday) to Vaughn (the grand slam on Sunday).
"Isn't this just beautiful?" said Easier on Saturday as he watched Zupcic parade around in the jacket. "Everybody's involved, everybody's doing it for us."
Everybody has had to do it for the Red Sox this season because, their standing notwithstanding, they have not been entirely healthy. Vaughn, Dawson, Green-well, Fletcher, outfielder Ivan Calderon and pitchers Frank Viola and Roger Clemens have all been lost to the club for extended periods. It is a tribute to Hobson that he has been able to keep the team together, and winning, despite all the travails and rumors.
Because of all the injuries, Hobson had to field a bizarre lineup on July 21 that had Riles, a lefthanded hitter on the verge of release, as the designated hitter, batting ninth, against Angel lefthander Chuck Finley. So, naturally, Riles was the hitting hero in a 4-1 win. The pitching hero? Clemens, who gave up six hits, one run and no walks in eight innings in only his second start after coming off a 27-day stay on the disabled list with a strained groin.
That the Red Sox were getting good pitching was nothing new, but it still seemed so because of Boston's long, pre-1990 tradition of mound mediocrity. The team ERA is more than half a run better than any other in the American League, 3.45 to the Baltimore Orioles' 4.02. But other than Clemens and Viola, the Red Sox pitchers aren't heralded.
"We're quiet," says reliever Greg A. Harris. "We don't do anything to attract attention." They are a deep staff, though, and they throw strikes. They also have the respect of people in the know. "Every pitcher they have is a weapon," says A's manager Tony La Russa.
Their newest weapon is Sele, a 23-year-old righthander who was the club's first-round draft choice, out of Washington State, in 1991. Since being called up from Pawtucket on June 21, Sele went 4-0 in six starts through Sunday, with a 2.15 ERA. He looks like this year's version of Cal Eldred, the Milwaukee Brewer righthander who, as a rookie, shut down the league in the second half of the '92 season.
Though other American League teams have comparable starting rotations, no other club has a bullpen as good as Boston's. Harris, a rubber-armed righthander who yearns to throw lefthanded, has one of the best curveballs in baseball, and rookie Ken Ryan—as befitting someone named Ryan—has one of the best fast-balls. Backup catcher Bob Melvin, whose '67 counterpart was Elston Howard, says that 24-year-old swingman Paul Quantrill "has the guts to challenge Mark McGwire in a tough spot in a day game." Then there's Scott Bankhead, the premier middle reliever in the National League last year, and lefthander Tony Fossas, against whom lefties are batting .038.
They all take it to the ninth inning for Jeff Russell. One of the biggest worries for the Red Sox coming out of spring training was the closer role; Russell, who had been signed during the off-season for a mere $500,000 and incentives, looked dreadful. But at week's end he had already saved 26 games while blowing only two opportunities, and he had earned an additional $600,000 in bonuses, with another $1.2 million on the horizon.
Boston will need all that pitching and some timely hitting in the weeks ahead. Not to mention a little luck. Before Saturday's game Easier flung a stray bat toward the first base coach's box, and it came to rest across another bat. "Look at that," said Easier. "I made a perfect cross. That'll break the Curse of the Bambino."
Nobody in Boston needs to be reminded that the Red Sox haven't won a world championship since Babe Ruth was traded away. But everybody in Boston is excited about this team. They may even change the name of the city to Mo Town. "Like I've been trying to tell you," Vaughn said after Saturday's victory, "we're going to the World Series."
All of a sudden that dream is entirely possible.