"Where will I go when I die?" the rookie asked.
"That depends," the grizzled pitching coach said. "If you keep your fastball on the corners and don't hang your curve and stay ahead of the hitters, you'll go to heaven."
"What's heaven like?"
The coach smiled. "Heaven? Oh, heaven! It couldn't be better. It's 350 feet down the lines, 450 to center, and the wind is always blowing in. And they let the grass grow high in heaven. Ain't no AstroTurf there."
"But what if I don't make it to heaven?" the kid asked. "What happens then?"
"You can't let that happen, son. Because then you spend eternity at Fenway Park."
A pitcher can have a hellish time in Fenway mainly because of an occupational hazard in leftfield known as the Green Monster. Officially, the infamous Boston wall stands 315 feet from home, but an aerial survey three years ago confirmed what everyone had long suspected: it is actually much closer to the plate, 11 feet closer, to be exact. This makes the wall an inviting and frequent target for pop-fly home runs and ricochet doubles. If green walls could talk, this one would tell of the anguished cries and muttered oaths of pitchers trudging to the showers.
These days the Boston pitchers are making that painful walk much less frequently. The addition of some new arms and the revival of some old ones have suddenly given the Red Sox a staff their lusty hitters can be proud of. Unlike last year, when Boston needed eight or nine runs a game to keep the score close and the team in the race, the Red Sox have romped to a passel of lopsided victories, the best record (50-21) in the majors and a commanding 8½-game lead in the American League East.
Last week this potent mix of pitching and power gave the Sox five victories in six tries against New York and Baltimore, their closest pursuers, and extended their recent hot streak to 24 wins in 30 games. Boston not only got its usual abundance of runs—6.7 per game—but also strong pitching from starters Dennis Eckersley, Bill Lee, Luis Tiant and Mike Torrez. Earl Weaver, whose Orioles had bounded into Fenway with an 18-2 streak of their own, was not quite ready to concede the championship but he did admit that the Sox would be extremely difficult to catch. "With this pitching staff they aren't going to have the long [seven-and nine-game] losing streaks they had last year," he said. "The odds are with them."
The gods seem to be with them, too. Boston's four-man starting rotation has a combined 33-8 record, and the team earned run average of 3.37 is fourth best in the league—seven places and 0.80 better than at the same point last year—and the best by a Red Sox staff at this point in the season since 1968. Carl Yastrzemski calls the current staff the finest he has seen in his 18 seasons in Boston, and retired Third Baseman Rico Petrocelli says he can name three seasons, 1972, '74 and '77, when the Sox would have won "for sure" if they had enjoyed comparable pitching.
According to Catcher Carlton Fisk, the staff has improved because of a change in club philosophy. "The main interest here used to be in getting guys who could hit the ball over the Monster more times than the other team could," he says. "The pitchers just sort of took care of themselves."
Taking care of themselves both on and off the field has been an onerous task for Boston pitchers over the years. There are stories of Red Sox hurlers being stabbed at fish fries, wrecking their cars on the steps of police stations and threatening to jump out of windows. But the real trouble has come on the mound. Since Fenway opened in 1912, Boston has led the league in hitting 12 times, in home runs eight times and in pitching once. That occurred 64 years ago, when the ball was dead and your great-grandmother wasn't. Only once since 1956 has Boston's pitching ranked in the top half of the league. No wonder the pitchers with the best and second-best winning percentages in Red Sox history are Smokey Joe Wood (1908-15) and Babe Ruth (1914-19).
Statistician Pete Palmer says that a team's earned run average is usually 10% lower at home than on the road, but at Fenway during the last five seasons the Sox' ERA has been 17% higher. Because of the short leftfield fence, southpaws have been hit harder, but Fenway has also been murder on righthanders. For example, Bob Feller's career ERA was 3.25, but at Fenway Park it was an un-Hall of Fameish 5.46. When Baltimore's Jim Palmer lost 5-2 to the Red Sox last Friday night, to end a seven-game personal winning streak in which he had allowed only three earned runs, the outcome was in keeping with his previous Boston performances. A three-time Cy Young Award winner, Palmer has a career ERA of 2.65; at Fenway he is 3.80.
But earned run averages do not invariably soar in Boston. One of the rare exceptions to the rule is Tiant, who has proven himself an exception to a lot of pitching rules. Thirty-seven years old—according to the same record book that lists the leftfield wall at 315 feet—twice released by big league clubs, written off after last season and kept out of the rotation early this year because of an injured throwing hand, he is now chasing New York's Ron Guidry (12-0) with an unbeaten record (7-0) of his own. Since coming to Boston in 1971, Tiant has used his Twist-O-Flex delivery to win 20 games three times and his ERA in Fenway (3.24) is lower than it is on the road (3.53).
"Some guys are afraid to pitch in Fenway Park," Tiant said before beating the Orioles 8-3 with a complete game last Saturday. "But I no afraid to face any hitter. I try to psych myself. You can't just go out and throw."
Although Tiant's record was 12-8 last year, he completed only three of his 32 starts. "Everybody think I no good no more," he says. "People give up on me. Sometimes people get to you no matter how strong you are. Now I feel good and make other people feel bad."
Another veteran showing new life is Lee, the only lefthander in the rotation and one of the few successful southpaws in Red Sox history. (Lefty Grove and Mel Parnell, of course, were very successful.) Shoulder soreness limited Lee to a 14-12 record the last two seasons and caused him to miss a start two weeks ago, but he returned to the rotation last week to beat Palmer. That 5-2 win upped his record to 8-3, lowered his ERA to 2.74 and quieted the controversy that had erupted when he staged a one-day walkout after the Sox had sold his friend Bernie Carbo to Cleveland on June 15.
Tiant and Lee are the only holdover starters from 1977 because, as Manager Don Zimmer tells it, "Last year we had to win too many games 12-10 and we lost too many 10-8. You can't expect a team to hit that way all the time and you can't win a pennant by having to play catch-up in every game."
As the Sox catcher, Fisk was particularly aware of the pitching short-comings. "Going into each game I never knew what I was going to do," he says. "The starters didn't have good stuff, and I had to be a magician to get a good game out of them." The only consistent pitcher was reliever Bill Campbell, who led the staff with 13 victories and the league with 31 saves. "It's amazing that we lost by only 2½ games," Campbell says.
Seeking to improve their chances, the Red Sox cleared their clubhouse of Ferguson Jenkins, Reggie Cleveland and Rick Wise and turned to Gabe Paul for assistance in their rebuilding program. While president of the Yankees, Paul did not consider Torrez worth a farthing more than $1.5 million for five years, so Torrez became a free agent and signed a seven-year, $2.7 million deal with Boston. After leaving the Yankees in January to become president of Cleveland, Paul traded Eckersley and Catcher Fred Kendall to the Sox for two pitchers, a catcher, an infielder and a winning record to be named later. "I thought Torrez was a good pitcher, not a great one," Paul explains. "Boston obviously felt he was worth more than I did. As for Eckersley, I wouldn't have made the deal if the Indians were a contender. We needed a lot of help for the future."
Considering the multitude of pitching woes the Yankees have suffered this year and Torrez' 11-3 record, New York would have been far better off keeping him. Indeed, several Yankee players besought owner George Steinbrenner not to let their World Series hero get away, but Steinbrenner was saving his biggest bucks for reliever Rich Gossage. And so Boston became Torrez' fifth team in five years, much to the satisfaction of the Red Sox. "I remember thinking during the World Series that there was no way New York could possibly let Torrez go," says Fisk. "When we got him, it showed we were serious about wanting to be the American League champion instead of just being a good team."
The significance of the move is not lost on Torrez, either. Thirty-one years old and the winner of 68 regular-season and two World Series games in the last four years, he says, "I'm aware that I can be the difference between New York winning and Boston winning. Last year I thought the Red Sox were a better team than the Yankees, but we had the pitching and they didn't. So far this season it's been the other way around."
Torrez did not have much luck against his old team last week, pitching three no-hit innings before being bombed for seven runs in the fourth. Nevertheless, after coming back to beat the Orioles 4-1 on Sunday, this notoriously slow starter was enjoying easily the best first half of his career. "When I go out to pitch, I know that if I can only keep us close something will happen," he says. "It always does."
Boston pitchers feel that way because the hitters provide them with a huge security blanket. Led by Jim Rice, the Red Sox are atop the league in average, runs, home runs, hits, total bases, walks and slugging percentage and rank second in doubles and triples. With his 95 hits, 53 runs, 22 homers, 65 RBIs, a .633 slugging percentage, 186 total bases and eight triples, Rice leads the American League in every major hitting category except average—he is third at .323—and doubles. Fisk is ahead in that department with 22 and has a chance to become the first catcher ever to lead the league in two-baggers.
And now that Rick Burleson has broken an early-season slump with a .361 average over the Red Sox' 18 most recent games, there is not an easy out in the Boston lineup, right down to that most unusual No. 9 batter, Third Baseman Butch Hobson, who had 30 home runs and 112 RBIs last year and raked the Yankees and Orioles for three homers and nine RBIs last week.
The pitchers have also benefited from a defense that ranks second in the league in fielding percentage—and seems to be getting better. Last week, on pop fouls, Fisk and Hobson made diving grabs that Zimmer said equaled the best he had ever seen, and Rightfielder Dwight Evans used his cannon arm to cut off one Yankee rally with a bull's-eye throw to third and halted another by catching a line drive while skidding on his knees.
Nobody appreciates this all-round good play more than the 23-year-old Eckersley, who averaged 13 wins and 180 strikeouts in his three seasons with Cleveland. This year he is already 7-2 with a 3.19 ERA, even though he did not get his first victory until his sixth start. "Coming to Boston is the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "When you're 25 games out of first place, you've got to strike out 10 batters for anybody to say 'big deal.' That's the problem with pitching on a lousy team. In Cleveland I was afraid to give up as many as two runs. I would tell people that I could win 15, 20 games, but I knew that was a lot of bull. Here I could pitch mediocre and still win 15."
Eckersley was anything but mediocre last week when he defeated the Yankees for the first time after seven career starts against them. In winning 9-2, he showed off a new pitching style that included fewer fastballs, more changes of speed and a greater variety of pitches. "Eckersley has adapted himself to Fenway very well," says New York's Graig Nettles. "Instead of letting his fastball get up, he is keeping his sliders down low. If he continues to do that, he's going to be awfully tough to beat."
One reason Eckersley has not been using his old fastball as often is because it has not been there to use. "I don't know where it went," he says, "but now I'm not sure I want it back. I'm pitching better without it." In the process, says Pitching Coach Al Jackson, Eckersley is "learning how to pitch. Trying to throw fastball after fastball is like banging your head up against a wall. Pretty soon that wall is gonna hurt you. By changing speeds, Eckersley has kept the hitters off balance."
When the Sox have needed a fifth starter they have called on Jim Wright, a 27-year-old rookie who, says Jackson, "pitched so well in spring training we had to find a place for him." Three seasons ago Wright was 1-10 with Pawtucket and two years ago he was 6-12 with Rhode Island. Last season at Pawtucket he finally had a winning record, and he has pitched shutouts in two of his five starts this year.
Starting performances like these have made the Sox bullpen, which used to be the busiest place in Boston outside of Filene's basement, as tranquil as Widener Memorial Library. Complete games are up 28%, and a reliever has been needed before the sixth inning only six times. That is quite a change from last season when Campbell got so much work he developed arm trouble that still bothers him. While Campbell recuperates, the Sox have gotten most of their bullpen help from free-agent draftees Tom Burgmeier and Dick Drago and second-year man Bob Stanley, who is 5-1.
It is another indication of the starters' effectiveness that the bullpen three have only 12 saves among them, but they, too, seem no longer daunted by the perils of Fenway. After the Yankees knocked out Tiant with four runs in the fourth inning last week, Burgmeier, a lefty who formerly pitched for Minnesota, came on to allow only four hits until he was removed with one out in the ninth. By then Boston was ahead 10-4, and some of the Yankee players were wondering why Manager Billy Martin had not gone to a righthanded lineup to attack the Monster.
Unlike Martin, whose job security shrinks as the Boston lead grows, Zimmer is feeling swell. "I don't know how a man could sit here and be any happier than I am right now," he says. "We've got a good lead, and I don't think we'll have any tailspins like we did last year. Not with this pitching staff. What is it they say about pitching—it's 75% of the game, it's 90% of the game? All I know is it's meant a lot to us."
Those are rare words coming from the mouth of a Boston manager. But rarer still has been the heavenly performance of the Red Sox pitchers.
LUIS TIANT: 7-0
DENNIS ECKERSLEY: 7-2
MIKE TORREZ: 11-3
BILL LEE: 8-3
In a play typical of the Red Sox' defense, which ranks second in the league, Third Baseman Hobson makes a flying off-balance toss after fielding a trickier.