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Boston Red Sox TERMINAL PATIENCE

March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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Boston Red Sox TERMINAL PATIENCE

RIGHT ROSTER, WRONG DIVISION/AL EAST

This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

The letters dribble in from all over New England, one or two a
week, reminders to Dan Duquette that he is not merely the
general manager of a baseball team but also the keeper of a
spiritual flame. A favorite letter, which he keeps in his office
at home, is from a nun in Vermont who wrote that her grandfather
died without seeing the Red Sox win the World Series, that her
father died without seeing the Red Sox win the World Series and
that she is not exactly a kid. While patience is a virtue, is
there not a time for every purpose under heaven? Duquette says,
"Not a week goes by without some letters that say we've heard
the patience spiel, that we like what you're doing, but that I'm
80 years old and I've been a Red Sox fan since I was a kid--and
hurry up."

Duquette, in the final season of his own five-year deal, is
hurrying. Boston, which has been rebuilding since their last
Series win, in 1918, raided the threadbare Expos for Pedro
Martinez, the National League Cy Young Award winner, and then
signed him to a six-year, $75 million deal. The dollars
staggered the sensibilities of the Milwaukee- and
Montreal-trained Duquette. But Boston saw no other way to get in
the game against teams with vast resources and excellent farm
systems like New York and Baltimore, fellow members of the
robust American League East. Seventy-five million was simply the
ante.

"We'd like to have a chance to win every year," Duquette says,
"and the best way to do that and show our fans our intentions
was with Martinez. He is a key piece to our having a good team.
In a seven-game series, he could conceivably win three games,
and there aren't many pitchers anywhere who can do that." A team
that finished six games below .500 is now contemplating a Game 7
in late October, a leap of faith that defies every Calvinist
instinct in the six-state region.

Martinez was a curious choice to be the shaman for a fan base
that even third baseman John Valentin refers to, without irony,
as Red Sox Nation. For one thing, the teams with the 1997 Cy
Young winners, Montreal and Toronto, finished a combined 16
games below .500. For another, Martinez is a slight, lithe
righthander who seems to defy physics: There is no apparent
reason a will-o'-the-wisp can hump a mid-90s fastball to the
plate and then throw a petrifying changeup off it. A six-year
deal is an extraordinary investment in any pitcher, but
especially in a power guy who is built like your newspaper
carrier.

Still, the Red Sox are evolving. Fenway Park begs for an
offensive team--Boston hitters led the majors with a .291
average last season--but the demands of pennant-winning baseball
favor pitching and defense. Duquette's every off-season move was
designed to shore up a defense that was last in the league and a
pitching staff that ranked 12th in ERA and was undermined by
catchers who threw out just 23.7% of base stealers. In addition
to Martinez, the Red Sox repatriated 43-year-old Dennis
Eckersley as a setup man for closer Tom Gordon. While they
traded middling starter Aaron Sele to the Rangers, the Red Sox
got back defensive outfielder Damon Buford, who could share
centerfield with Darren Lewis, and catcher Jim Leyritz, who was
second in the American League last year in throwing out base
stealers (43.5%).

The changes should please the most discriminating Boston fan,
who, after four generations of heartbreak, is no longer all that
discriminating. The Red Sox sold 2.2 million tickets last
season--80% of all Fenway seats--for a team that dropped out of
contention before summer. The unflagging loyalty delights but
also worries Valentin. He signed a four-year, $25 million deal
in January but grouses that first baseman Mo Vaughn, surely one
of the five scariest hitters in baseball, does not have a
contract extension beyond 1998.

"Pedro's deal set off a chain reaction, with management telling
everybody we're trying to put a winning team on the field,"
Valentin says. "But Fenway is sold out whether we're good or
bad. Am I ready to say the Red Sox don't care about winning
because the fans are there? Sometimes. Other times I feel like
they want to win. I guarantee you this: If they don't sign Mo
Vaughn, then they're saying they don't really want to win."

On the subject of Vaughn, Duquette should open his mail. And his
checkbook.

--Michael Farber

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE AIR NOMAR The evolving Red Sox will need more high-rise performances from key players like shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [Steve Avery]