A father and his son came to Fenway Park last week to watch the Red Sox play baseball. "We listen on the radio all the time back home," the father said. "Back home" could have been Millinocket, Maine or Brattleboro, Vt. or Woonsocket, R.I. He did not say and it did not matter. It was only important that they were there, pilgrims at the shrine. The son could wear his mail-order batting helmet and the father could fill out a major league scorecard and together they could cheer New England's own.
"This is the year," said the son.
"Let's not set our hopes too high," said the father.
Ah, summer in Boston! Office workers strolled through the Common. Joggers beat a path beside the Charles. Tourists walked the Freedom Trail. And in Fenway Park fans held their breath, hoped for the best and expected the worst.
After the All-Star Game the Sox reopened their pursuit of the first-place Baltimore Orioles, and when they beat Seattle 7-1, while the Orioles were losing the first game of a doubleheader to California, they were only one game off the lead. Their 57-32 won-lost record was the second best in the major leagues and would have put them roughly four games ahead of the Angels, 5½ ahead of Montreal and 6½ ahead of Houston, the leaders in the other three divisions.
But, having given Fenway fans visions of overtaking Baltimore and moving into first place on the weekend, the Red Sox instead offered sickening memories of past disappointments, losing 8-0 to Seattle on Friday night and 13-5 on Saturday before rallying on Sunday to beat California 6-5 in the 10th, after a game-tying Dwight Evans home run in the ninth. Meanwhile, Baltimore, having beaten California in the second half of that doubleheader, rattled off three more quick wins, so that by Sunday night the Oriole lead was up to 3½ Throughout New England, Red Sox fans braced themselves for still another case of the worst.
Of course the granddaddy of all nightmare seasons was last year. It was a four-act drama worthy of a Greek tragedy: The Big Lead. The Great Collapse. The Stirring Rally. The Ultimate Defeat. Interestingly, the team and the fans reacted to the experience quite differently. "Everybody thought I was disappointed," says Manager Don Zimmer. "I wasn't. When a team can win 99 games, that's not a big disappointment. I can name 21 other managers who would love to have been in a playoff."
Outwardly, at least, the team's supporters took the defeat much harder. Second Baseman Jerry Remy recalls, "If you had listened to the fans on one of those radio phone-in shows after the one-game playoff with the Yankees, you'd have thought we finished last. The next day a guy at a gas station told me I had cost him $10. I reminded him it probably cost me $25,000. But it shows that the players aren't the only ones who care."
Boston fans probably care more about their team than any other partisans in baseball. Attendance at Fenway Park the past six years has averaged 1.85 million, the best in the league, and this year the Sox are drawing 29,000 a game with a seating capacity of only 33,538. That obsessive interest is the reason why 77 radio stations in seven states carry Red Sox games and why some 40 radio, television, newspaper and wire-service representatives cover most home games. In addition, fans can damn or praise their heroes on any of half a dozen phone-in talk shows whether they know what they are talking about or not. Very often, of course, they don't. Last week one caller took Jim Rice to task because "Reggie Jackson looks better striking out than he does." Better work on that, Jim.
"From my standpoint, this kind of interest is the greatest thing in the world," says Bill Crowley, the Red Sox' director of public relations. "It fills the joint up. We don't need giveaway promotions or guys in bird costume or dogs that catch Frisbees. Here, the game is the product, and we drew 2.3 million people, which is beautiful. Still, everybody seems to think he owns the club or knows how to manage better than Zimmer."
At different times over the years Boston fans have singled out some of the team's biggest stars for criticism, players like Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. These days their favorite target seems to be Mike Torrez, who was the losing pitcher in last year's playoff. When Torrez was removed from his third straight game in a loss to Seattle last week, one fan declared, "The Yankees knew what they were doing when they traded this turkey to the Red Sox. He hasn't pitched a good game since he's been here." Never mind, of course, that Torrez came to Boston in the free-agent reentry draft or that he won 16 games last year and has won nine already this season.
Boston fans can also be harsh on one of their own. Catcher Carlton Fisk, a native New Englander from New Hampshire, recalls the verbal beating he took for being a holdout in 1976. "Some people even said that my holdout was the reason Mr. Yawkey [former owner Tom Yawkey] died," Fisk says.
Remy remembers going to Red Sox games as a kid from his home in Fall River, Mass. and hearing Yastrzemski booed. "I never booed, because my dad always told me how good the players had to be just to reach the majors," Remy says. "When I hear guys like Torrez being booed today I feel for them, but you can't tell the fans to stop."
But Shortstop Rick Burleson would not seem to have much to complain about. When he leads off every game, he is warmly greeted. Nevertheless, he harbors very strong feelings about Boston fans. By his account, they are motivated by two seemingly contradictory emotions. Burleson says, on the one hand, "There is a lot of pressure in this town to win. People expect it of us and if we don't it creates a difficult situation." On the other hand, Burleson says, the fans are also "negative, very pessimistic. People are just waiting for us to collapse. They don't believe we can win."
A player doesn't have to be a veteran to catch on that the local populace is hard to please. Pitcher Steve Renko picked it up soon after he arrived this year, but he has managed to turn public opinion in his favor. Boston fans were not exactly thrilled when he was obtained via the reentry draft after leaving Oakland. They would have preferred to keep old favorites Bill Lee and Luis Tiant, who are now pitching for Montreal and the Yankees, respectively, or for the club to have signed free agent Tommy John, who is now also with New York. Instead they got Renko, a 10-year veteran with a losing career record and a high earned run average. "The fans expect a lot and they are hard to please," says Renko, who has an 8-4 record. "I was only hoping that I could make a contribution. Instead, I'm having a good year."
Not as good as his teammates feel, though. They have won 13 of the 18 games Renko has started, including a 2-0 win over Oakland in which he allowed only a ninth-inning single. His excellence has helped compensate for Torrez' inconsistency and the absence of a dependable fifth starter, problems that may take their toll later on. But there is nothing wrong at the top of the rotation, because, as Zimmer says, "Eckersley will be Eckersley." That could mean a second straight 20-victory season for Dennis. He marked the halfway point last week by beating Seattle 7-1, holding the Mariners to six hits and striking out seven.
Boston has also gotten strong pitching from Bob Stanley, who is 3-1 as a reliever and 8-5 as a starter. With Stanley in the rotation, the relief burden falls on Dick Drago (seven wins and five saves) and Bill Campbell (two wins, eight saves). Campbell is still not the pitcher he was in 1976 and '77, but at least he can throw the curveball he could not use at all last year because of a sore arm.
Hitting, unlike pitching, has seldom been lacking in Boston, and this year the Red Sox are swinging even better. Their current team average of .283 is 16 points higher than last year's and is tops in the division. Fred Lynn leads the league in home runs with 24 and he is second in RBIs with 77. Rice ranks in the league's top five in seven categories.
Lynn and Rice have gotten plenty of support from Remy, who was hitting .304 when he was disabled on July 1, and Third Baseman Butch Hobson, who has 14 home runs and 53 RBIs. And Hobson no longer throws the ball all over Fenway Park, as he was wont to do last year when an elbow in which bone chips rattled caused him to commit 43 errors. This year he has made 11.
The Red Sox attack became even more formidable on June 13 when the team acquired Designated Hitter-First Baseman Bob Watson from Houston. Despite a .299 career average in 10 years with the Astros, he was riding the bench with a .239 average when the trade was made. Watson believes that that low average was the result of a typically slow start and he was bound to revive no matter where he played. The Red Sox are only too happy the revival occurred in Boston, where his average has soared to .354 and where he has hit in 23 of 32 games.
Watson says that from the distant perspective of the National League he had "always marveled at the type of lineup Boston had. I thought it would be nice to be surrounded by a club like that."
It isn't just teammates who surround a player in Boston, though. It is the prying media and the demanding fans and the tradition of disappointment. The Red Sox won 196 games in 1977 and 1978, the best consecutive two-year total in club history, but they have nothing but aggravation to show for it. They come back for more because, as Fisk says, "If the human body recognized agony and frustration, people would never run marathons, have babies or play baseball."
You can't tell these Fenway kids competing for Eckersley's autograph that the Red Sox won't win.
Manager Zimmer and Catcher Fisk, waiting for a reliever, were wearing that second-place look.
Eckersley, not nearly as wild as his hair would indicate, has 10 victories, while Rice, down and out only for the moment, is still a menace with a bat.