Prone upon a purple leather coach in the visitor's clubhouse
with a pillow over his face, first baseman Mo (Hit Dog) Vaughn
enjoyed a nap before a game in Cleveland last Friday night. From
under the pillow came a muffled snore that could have passed as
the sound of a mulching mower. His Boston Red Sox teammate Kevin
Mitchell ended the siesta by covering Vaughn with bananas and
bread--an act in direct contradiction to the maxim that has
guided the rest of the American League this year when facing
Vaughn and the Sox: Let sleeping dogs lie.
Mitchell found himself in something of a compromising position
the next afternoon before another game against the Indians.
During batting practice he rushed to the clubhouse commode in
time for a fit of vomiting. "Can't eat a thing in the morning
and then run around," Mitchell says.
That's the trouble with the disappointing Red Sox, a team that
can blow breakfast and leads with equal haste. Sleepy?
Dyspeptic? Well, yes, they look that way before games, too.
The Dread Sox have lost 15 of their first 18 games--including a
three-game sweep last weekend by the Indians--equaling the worst
start in franchise history, a mark shared with the 1932 team.
Those Red Sox lost 111 games and finished 64 games out of first
place, still team records. That today's outfit is tracking the
losing curve of the worst team in club history is "the story of
the baseball world so far," says Boston outfielder Mike
Greenwell. What has made their stumble so surprising is that the
Red Sox have four former MVPs (Vaughn, Mitchell, Jose Canseco
and Roger Clemens) and a $40 million payroll, and are the
defending Eastern Division champions.
April 28, 1996
"It's mystifying. It's frustrating," says Vaughn.
It's also Page One news. Last Friday the Boston Globe had a Red
Sox story on the first page along with articles about Lebanon
and about Congress passing an antiterrorism bill. HOW COULD OUR
SOX HAVE FALLEN SO FAR SO FAST? asked the headline.
It took a systemwide breakdown. Through the first three weeks of
the season the Red Sox played defense as if they were
auditioning for Ringling Brothers. They issued walks at a rate
that would obliterate the single-season major league record
(827) set by the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics, who lost 109
games. They hit with an offense softer than Butterbean's belly.
They left an impression on the American League that was lasting:
last in fielding, next to last in hitting and last in the
division. Bostonians have never worried so early in the year
about the Curse of the Bambino, that mythical force that has
kept Boston without a world title since it sold Babe Ruth to the
New York Yankees after the 1919 season.
Boston's gruesome defense began on Opening Day, when Greenwell
dropped a fly ball and shortstop John Valentin threw away a
grounder as Boston lost to the Texas Rangers 5-3. "I'll be
honest with you," Greenwell said afterward. "I think one of the
things that's really going to hurt the team is the negative
stuff about the defense. It's in our minds, and we have to
Newspapers and talk shows were filled with more negative stuff
after the April 11 game against the Minnesota Twins. Valentin
allowed a grounder to roll under his glove and inexplicably held
a relay throw while Roberto Kelly scored from first on a double.
Third baseman Tim Naehring dropped a pop near the mound. Vaughn,
in what looked like one of those TV crime-show reenactments, let
a bouncer go through his legs at first base, recalling the most
infamous of Boston bloopers. Three days later, Greenwell dropped
another routine fly.
"We look like the Bad News Bears," says Boston manager Kevin
Kennedy, "except they won it all, didn't they?"
It was after loss number 12 this season--a 6-5, 12-inning defeat
in Baltimore on April 17--that Kennedy and general manager Dan
Duquette decided that what the manager called Plan A must be
junked. "We can't go on like this," Kennedy said. "We know it.
The fans know it. The players know it. Dan and I already have
Plans B and C. We wanted to go longer with this plan, but we
Plan A went something like this: Load up on big brutes who think
defense is a way to kill time between at bats. Gee, that didn't
work? There have been sunrises more surprising. Now, Kennedy
says, he wants guys who actually can "catch the ball, turn the
double play, run the ball down, hit the cutoff man, make the
relay play, throw somebody out, hit to the opposite field, drive
a run in."
Boston's roster is so poorly constructed that through Sunday,
Kennedy already had used six leadoff hitters (with a combined
on-base percentage of .274), four starting third basemen and
three starting centerfielders. He is handcuffed because he has
three designated hitters--Canseco, Mitchell and Reggie
Jefferson. When former shortstop-leftfielder Wil Cordero looked
like a disaster at second base, Kennedy talked about moving him
to the outfield. But then a reporter informed Kennedy that
Cordero injured his throwing arm last year playing leftfield,
prompting the manager to ask, "Is that right? Maybe it's not
such a good idea [to play him out there]. We've got to find a
place for him. There's only one DH spot."
This spring Duquette and Kennedy made three grievous errors in
judgment. They thought that Dwayne Hosey could play centerfield
and bat leadoff, that Canseco could play rightfield and that
Cordero would not hurt the team defensively at second base.
Five teams already had canned Hosey, 29, before Duquette claimed
him when the Kansas City Royals waived him last August. After
Hosey played well in a 24-game cameo in September and talked
about an offer to play in Japan, Duquette traded Tinsley and
gave Hosey a two-year contract worth $600,000, creating this
head-scratching bit of irony: Hosey is under contract for next
year but Clemens is not. Alas, Hosey has played centerfield like
a Webelos in the woods without a compass or a scoutmaster. The
Boston coaching staff has been appalled to see him frozen in
place, not even showing the usual one- or two-step reaction when
a batter hits a foul pop. At week's end, Hosey was batting .200
and had lost his job to journeyman Milt Cuyler, who was released
by the Detroit Tigers in November.
Canseco hadn't played the outfield every day since 1991, when he
led the league in errors. Nonetheless, Boston tried him in
rightfield in spring training. Cue the calliope. Predictably,
the sideshow failed, though Kennedy has not abandoned the idea.
He put Canseco in rightfield in Baltimore last week with
Mitchell unavailable because of a strained hamstring he suffered
while trying to play there. When Greenwell asked Canseco about
his defensive philosophy, Canseco shrugged and answered, "Don't
hit it to me." After just one game in the outfield, Canseco
complained of sore calves, a tender right elbow and an
aggravated hip flexor muscle. After that game he also came up
with one of the most unintentionally funny lines of the year: "I
can't figure it out. Someone must have a curse on us or
The arrival of Cordero in a trade with the Montreal Expos
prompted Duquette to cut Luis Alicea, who hit .270 last year and
helped turn more double plays than any other second baseman in
the league. Cordero made six errors in his first 14 games with
the Sox and at week's end was hitting .159 with only two walks
in 72 plate appearances.
Boston did tighten its defense recently. After booting 21 balls
in the first 12 games, the Sox were guilty of only three errors
in the next six. However, they still commit all manner of
misplays. In a 9-4 loss to the Indians last Friday, Hosey broke
three steps back on a third-inning pop with runners at first and
third. The bloop single fell well in front of him, driving in
one run and setting up another.
Boston's gaffes are like watercooler jokes. Did you hear the one
about the Kansas City Royals runner? On April 6, Tom Goodwin
scored from first base without a throw on a routine single to
Mitchell in right. How about the foul pop that Vaughn caught
against the Indians on April 14? He walked the ball back to the
mound, allowing 40-year-old Eddie Murray to tag up and advance
to second base.
"With better defensive play," Kennedy says, "I think our record
would be at least .500. Prior to this road trip it was downright
Even the vaunted Red Sox offense has yet to flex its muscles.
Valentin, Vaughn and Canseco, the 2-3-4 hitters who combined for
90 home runs last year, had only six in the first three weeks of
the season. At week's end Greenwell's average had sunk to .227
following an 0-for-19 drought, and the team as a whole was
hitting .252 with runners in scoring position.
The pitching hasn't been nearly good enough to overcome the lack
of offense. Clemens started 0-3 for the first time in his
career. Tom Gordon (7.71 ERA) allowed 43 base runners in 21
innings. Wakefield, despite pitching well Saturday, is 2-11 with
a 5.03 ERA (including one postseason start) since his 14-1 run
last season. "Last year's team had a killer instinct," says
Vaughn. "We're still searching for that. This team will not play
like this forever. The danger is we might have dug a hole so
damn deep, we can't get out."
The Red Sox need a 21-9 month just to reach .500. They need to
play .600 ball the rest of the season to get to 90 wins. Kennedy
has been reduced to Queeg-like soliloquies. Mitchell, the
street-tough enforcer, says, "This is like when you're pinned up
against a wall by nine gang members. What are you going to do?
You've got to come out fighting."
Then there is the dogma of Vaughn. "You've got to keep digging,"
he says, "like the dogs dig for them bones."