Alive and Kicking
On the morning of Aug. 9, Boston radio station WBCN staged a mock funeral procession that circled Fenway Park. It signified the death of the Red Sox, who were then 50-57, 11 games behind the first-place Blue Jays.
Now, however, the Red Sox are very much alive. From that morning through Sunday, the Red Sox won 27 of 36 games, moving to 11 games over .500 and to within 3½ games of Toronto. "This is how I thought we'd play," says Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman. "We had a great spring training. We went 22 and 11. I thought we might win 15 in a row to start the season. But it didn't happen."
After a respectable 18-9 start, the Red Sox stopped hitting in late May. It was a disturbing collapse for a team that had spent approximately $70 million in the off-season to land free agents Jack Clark, Matt Young and Danny Darwin and sign several veterans, including Roger Clemens and Mike Greenwell, to long-term deals. "I was shocked at how we played," says Red Sox reliever Jeff Reardon. "When we left spring training, I said we'd win 100 games—and I'm not one for predictions."
The Red Sox won't win 100 games, but they have an outside shot at 90—and the AL East title—mainly because they started to hit. Clark started bashing homers and driving in runs. Wade Boggs also got going after a subpar start; he was hitting .333 and gunning for his sixth batting title at week's end. Carlos Quintana began chipping in with key hits; since Aug. 1, he's batted .357.
The turnaround wasn't tied just to hitting, though. After an inexplicable mid-season slump, Clemens started his Cy Young drive in late August with four victories in five starts to bring his record to 16-8 through Sunday. Journeyman Joe Hesketh, who was released by the Expos and Braves last season, was 10-4 with a 3.33 ERA as the Sox's No. 2 starter. And Reardon, the team's one constant from Opening Day, kept squelching late rallies and brought his saves total to 39.
The contributions of two rookies—first baseman Mo Vaughn and outfielder Phil Plantier—have helped. The Red Sox have long been a veteran team full of cliques, which inhibit rookies. Rarely is a first-year player accepted until he proves himself. Vaughn, hitting .267 through Sunday, has added a threat to the lineup with his bat and fresh air to the clubhouse with his lively personality. Plantier has also been productive, hitting .381 with five homers and 23 RBIs in only 84 at bats. His three-run, pinch-hit homer last Friday night gave the Sox a 5-4 win over the Yankees.
A number of Red Sox players say the hot streak was ignited by the mock funeral. They considered it particularly objectionable because it came only 10 days after Jeff Gray, the team's standout setup man, collapsed in the clubhouse from what a club source says was a stroke. "The guy almost died in our clubhouse," says Boggs. "That put things in perspective." Gray is out for the season, and faces what could be a long rehabilitation. Some of his teammates call him daily.
Of course, the Red Sox's improvement may have come too late for them to catch the Blue Jays. But if the Sox can hang close, remember this slat: In the game's history, 208 teams have been in first place by more than one game with six or fewer games remaining, and only six of those teams have failed to win either the division title or the pennant; two of those failures occurred in the past four years, and Toronto was responsible for both.
The Comeback Kids
The 1991 season should go down in baseball annals as the Year of the Comeback. There have been stirring team revivals-like those of the Twins and Braves, who have risen from the cellar to compete for pennants—as well as the extraordinary returns from injury of Orel Hershiser and Bo Jackson. But some less publicized comebacks, all involving pitchers, are also worthy of note.
•Mark Leiter, Tigers. He missed three minor league seasons, 1986 through '88, with a right shoulder injury. "I considered giving up in '87. I didn't want to rehab any more. I said to myself, Who am I kidding?" says Leiter. "But my wife, Allison, told me, 'Don't give up.' "
His jobs during his rehab included four months as a corrections officer at the Ocean County (N.J.) jail in 1987. "A few times I had to step between inmates to calm them down," he says. "That was not fun." Through Sunday, Leiter, 28, was 8-4 with a 3.90 ERA.
•Steve Howe, Yankees. A six-time loser to drug and alcohol dependency, Howe, 33, is 3-1 with three saves and a 1.68 ERA while pitching in the major leagues for the first time since 1987.
•Bill Wegman, Brewers. He was 12-7 with a 3.09 ERA at week's end. He had made only 13 starts in the previous two years combined because of shoulder and elbow surgery.
•Jose Guzman, Rangers. He should be the American League comeback player of the year. He missed 1989 and '90 with a shoulder injury but has been the Rangers' most consistent pitcher this year, going 12-5 with a 2.86 ERA.
The big hurdle for Guzman, 28, was his fear of pain. "I was afraid," he says. "I wanted to cut loose, but I'd hold up because I'd be thinking, It's going to hurt. After my first start in the big leagues this year—the game I walked nine [in 3⅖ innings in Minnesota on May 23]—I cut loose with some pitches and had no pain. I knew I was 100 percent then."
Second baseman Julio Franco might win the American League batting title, but the Rangers should consider trading him. He's a career .300 hitter but is below average on defense and doesn't set a great work example for younger players. He recently asked to hit early during batting practice because he needed to take a nap.... Through Sunday the worst earned run average among qualifiers in the American League belonged to Dave Stewart of the A's, whose ERA ballooned from 2.56 last season to 5.26 this year.
Quintana's hot second-half bat has helped the Sox club their way back into the division race.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Just Another Day at the Park
The major leagues' worst ballpark, Montreal's Olympic Stadium, was supposed to cost $300 million. It wound up costing approximately $1.1 billion and has been plagued with problems. On the afternoon of Aug. 29, 1986, a fire in the tower designed to support the stadium's retractable roof caused the postponement of that night's game. The $117 million roof, which works like an umbrella—when it works—is inoperable because it was torn by high winds. And last Friday at 7:45 a.m., a 50-ton chunk of concrete fell from the exterior of the third base side of the stadium. No one was injured, but the Expos closed the stadium for at least a week to determine the cause of the accident.
Ain't It the Truth
Gary Carter hit 102 homers for the Expos during the Carter Administration. Twins outfielder Randy Bush has 25 homers during the Bush Administration. When informed of that dubious home run derby, Randy Bush said, "People keep track of the strangest statistics."
Three Ring Circus
In the 10th inning of Cleveland's 6-5 win over Baltimore last Saturday, Indians reliever Eric Bell threw a pitch to Oriole second baseman Juan Bell, who hit a fly ball that was caught in leftfield by Albert Belle.
By the Numbers
•Swing and miss update: Through last Saturday, Boston's Wade Boggs had the American League's best contact ratio, with only 44 swings and misses in 811 swings. San Diego's Tony Gwynn had the National League's best ratio with 57 misses in 841 cuts. The worst ratio in the American League belonged to Detroit's Rob Deer (339/976), and the worst in the National was owned by San Francisco's Matt Williams (350/1,119).