At the start of batting practice last Friday, the white magnetic
letters atop the metal locker in the center of the Boston Red Sox
clubhouse spelled out LOONEY, which is as good a word as any to
begin explaining what's going on at Fenway Park this year. But by
the end of BP, a new set of letters there read HUDSON. So went
another routine changing of a pair of Sox: Joe Hudson, a
righthanded pitcher from Double A Trenton, checking in, and Brian
Looney, a lefthander bound for Triple A Pawtucket, checking out.
Hudson became Boston's 37th player in 39 games.
North Station handles less traffic than the Red Sox clubhouse. On
Friday night Boston beat the Oakland A's 4-1 behind a pitcher who,
having been released by the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates in spring
training, won his fourth game in the 14 days he had been with the
Red Sox; the key runs were driven home by a career .220 hitter
playing in only his 13th game for Boston and by a DH who had 10
career RBIs when he was picked up on waivers two months ago after
being dumped by the lowly Milwaukee Brewers.
The contributions of Tim Wakefield, Terry Shumpert and Troy
O'Leary, respectively, hardly ranked as extraordinary in a season
in which the resourceful Red Sox have put on display more basement
bargains than Filene's. The city might as well begin building a
statue of Dan Duquette, the club's second-year general manager.
Given his soft spot for players looking to make a new life, an
appropriate pose would include a beckoning torch in one hand and a
stone tablet in the other. ``These guys are hungry,'' says
Duquette, noting that the only Boston players signed through next
season are pitcher Roger Clemens and outfielder Mike Greenwell.
Of the 28 men on the Red Sox roster at week's end (including three
on the disabled list), 19 had never played a game for Boston
before this year. Eighteen of the 19 were not even in the
organization as recently as last November. And that total does not
include the new manager, Kevin Kennedy, who brought to the Red Sox
his intensity -- not to mention 20 pairs of boots of various
animal hides -- after having been canned by the Texas Rangers.
What have all the changes done for these darned Sox? Everything,
considering that through Sunday they were in first place by seven
games in the surprisingly lame American League East. Earlier in
the week the marquee at the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge adjacent
to Fenway had announced, PENNANT FEVER! 9 GAME LEAD. Boston had
not opened that large a margin in nine seasons -- and it did so
with only two home runs combined from Jose Canseco and Mark
Whiten, two big bats acquired since last season, and no victories
from Clemens, all of whom have been sidelined for extended periods
Duquette's most stunning finds on his scavenger hunt have been
pitchers Wakefield, Stan Belinda, Vaughn Eshelman and Erik Hanson,
all of whom were available to every other major league team via
free agency or the Rule V draft. By week's end the four castoffs
were a combined 17-0, which helped to lift Duquette and his staff
to a near-perfect batting average in roster manipulation. ``Hell,
it's not a batting average,'' said catcher Mike Macfarlane. ``What
they've done is damn near illegal. From the scouts to Duquette,
they've done an incredible job getting the players and knowing
what kind of players fit into the mix. I think they just went out
and stole from other organizations. Maybe some teams don't know
how to look into the chest cavity and measure the size of a guy's
Boston's runaway start has been made possible, too, by the
ineptitude of its intradivisional rivals, none of whom had a
winning record at week's end. The Red Sox actually amassed
identical 41-game records last year and this year (26-15) but
found themselves up by seven games this time as opposed to 2-1/2
games out in 1994. For that they could thank:
-- The New York Yankees, the preseason favorites to win the
division, who have slipped into a paranoid funk, having lost 15
of 19 games to drop eight games under .500 at week's end. Last
week New York manager Buck Showalter called for an examination
of a bat used by California Angel outfielder Tony Phillips and
determined on his own that balls used by Oakland pitcher Steve
Ontiveros might have been doctored, while everyone else was
examining the Yankees for signs of life.
More ominously, as one Yankee employee noted, owner George
Steinbrenner ``is more involved with every little detail of the
team than he's ever been.'' Recently he has threatened to sign
troubled outfielder Darryl Strawberry, summoned reporters into
his office to lash out at his team and ordered the Yankees to
shave all beards after a 1-8 trip, thus inspiring his New York
Nicks to a 2-7 home stand.
``You could see they're pressing, and they miss Jimmy Key going
out there every fifth day to stop losing streaks and give them
innings,'' said A's pitcher Ron Darling after Oakland took three
out of four in New York last week. Key, suffering from an inflamed
rotator cuff, hasn't pitched since May 16. Starting with that game
the Yankees went 6-17 through the end of last week, and they still
didn't know when Key would return.
-- The Baltimore Orioles, who have been burned by an awful
bullpen and the continuing underachievement of lefthanded
pitchers Sid Fernandez and Arthur Rhodes. After combining for a
1-5 record and an 8.10 ERA, they have new assignments: Fernandez
on the disabled list and Rhodes at Triple A Rochester. ``I think
we can get back in the race,'' says Baltimore manager Phil
Regan, whose club went 4-2 last week to hold onto second place.
``I'm not one of those people who think Boston is going to run
away with it.''
-- The Toronto Blue Jays, who haven't won more than two straight
games all season. Toronto, too, has a flammable bullpen, with a
league-worst six saves at week's end, and inadequate starting
-- The Detroit Tigers, who have been the nonfactor they were
expected to be. Says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, ``I think
the Red Sox really feel like they can win it. They caught
everybody napping. You get a nine-game lead, and that takes a
lot to catch.''
This was supposed to be baseball's elite division, especially
after the checkbook chess game played out in the off-season among
the Yankees (who added pitcher Jack McDowell, shortstop Tony
Fernandez and closer John Wetteland), the Orioles (pitcher Kevin
Brown) and the Blue Jays (pitcher David Cone). Even Duquette
wasn't sure if his Red Sox could contend with those clubs.
Kennedy felt differently. ``I've expected to win ever since Little
League, when my dad was the coach, I was 12 years old, and we won
the championship,'' he says. ``It's just been inbred in me.'' On
May 4, after the Red Sox lost for the third time in four games in
New York -- Kennedy figures the team should have won three of
those games -- he heaved all kinds of unsecured articles against
the concrete walls of his office at Yankee Stadium. ``If the
players heard it, fine,'' he says. Oh, they heard.
``You know when he's mad,'' says first baseman Mo Vaughn, Boston's
leader, who through Sunday had 39 home runs, 121 RBIs and a .309
batting average in Boston's 156 games covering the last two
seasons. ``All sorts of things go flying when he comes into the
clubhouse -- equipment, hats, salad bowls, whatever. I'll tell you
this: He expects us to win every time out. We could win eight in a
row, and if we lose one, he's mad at us. We never expected to win
like we do now. I think after that series in New York, when we
showed we could play with them, we started to believe in
Since then Boston had gone 22-11 and showed the kind of grit even
in defeat that Kennedy admires. After the Red Sox stood up to the
California Angels in a near brawl during a 10-8 defeat last
Thursday, Kennedy growled, ``We're not going to take any b.s. from
anybody. You want to go? We'll go. I'm proud of my guys.''
The next night brought the 4-1 win, which moved Kennedy to say,
``To win a pennant you need performances like that. That's what
we're here for. We're planning on winning the pennant.''
Wakefield, the most incredible of Boston's many encore acts, came
within five outs of throwing the first no-hitter at Fenway Park in
30 years. The Cliffs Notes to his Faustian story go like this:
Weak-hitting minor league infielder converts to knuckleball
pitcher in 1989; three years later he goes 10-1 for Pittsburgh,
including two complete-game wins in the National League
Championship Series; suddenly loses command of his
bread-and-butter pitch and goes back to the minors; is so rotten
last year (5-15 with 318 base runners in 175 innings at Triple A
Buffalo) and in spring training this year that the Pirates give up
on him; the Red Sox decide to take a chance on him in part because
the Silver Bullets women's baseball team -- with former
knuckleball pitchers Phil and Joe Niekro as manager and pitching
coach, respectively -- are training at Boston's spring
headquarters in Fort Myers, Fla.; the Niekros retrain him in the
art of throwing the knuckler.
Wakefield has been nearly unhittable: a 0.54 ERA while allowing
only 16 hits (14 singles and two doubles) in 111 opposition at
bats through Sunday. ``What's that make him, comeback player of
the decade?'' Macfarlane asks. Wakefield lost his no-hitter on a
single by Oakland's Stan Javier, whose dad, Julian, broke up a
no-hitter by Boston's Jim Lonborg in the same inning in the same
park during Game 2 of the '67 World Series.
Spooky? Not as spooky as the perpetual glazed look on Wakefield's
mug, even after his near no-no. As the man who has been to
baseball hell and back explained, ``I just want to stay as humble
as I can about this.'' On the other hand, home plate umpire Tim
McClelland couldn't keep a straight face. Wakefield's knuckler
wiggled so much that McClelland missed a call on a pitch that
ricocheted off Macfarlane's glove and leg.
``Hey, why wasn't that a strike?'' Macfarlane protested.
``I was busy laughing,'' McClelland said. ``I couldn't get
`strike' out of my mouth.''
Hanson (6-0 this year), Eshelman (3-0 after being drafted out of
Baltimore's system) and Belinda (4-0 out of the bullpen) also have
had surprising success. (Aside to Steinbrenner: Belinda, Hanson
and Wakefield all are bearded.) Likewise, the offense has
generated plenty of support, even though three of Boston's eight
starting positional players -- second baseman Luis Alicea, third
baseman Tim Naehring and centerfielder Lee Tinsley -- have never
held down everyday jobs over a full season. Boston held a lead in
38 of its first 41 games and was the only team in the league not
to be shut out during that span.
However, the bullpen, which had more losses (nine) than saves
(eight) and a combined 5.51 ERA at week's end, is a flashing
warning light. In one four-game stretch last week relievers
allowed at least one run in nine straight appearances. And that
26-15 start last year deteriorated into a miserable 54- 61 finish,
leaving the Red Sox with three straight losing seasons for the
first time since 1966, the year before the Impossible Dream season
that changed baseball in Boston. And A's first baseman Mark
McGwire pounded five home runs last weekend, including three on
Sunday, to give Oakland the last two games of its three-game
series at Fenway.
Ah, but why not dream again? These Red Sox not only look very
different from last year, but they also sound different -- as
tough as a pair of Kennedy's elephant-skin boots. ``Now we've got
the right mix to win,'' Kennedy says. ``We've got everything it
takes to win a pennant.''