As their lead shrinks, Red Sox try to defy past

John Eisenberg

September 18, 1990|By John Eisenberg

Framed against a dark blue sky, the manager stood behind the batting cage at sunset. He wore a blue satin jacket over his gray uniform, a blue cap over his gray head. His hands were stuffed into the back of his pants. His voice was Massachusetts born and raised.

Someone asked him about luck. He said his team didn't have any luck at all. Someone asked him about his best pitcher's sore shoulder. He shrugged, we'll see tomorrow. Someone asked if he believed in closing the clubhouse door and making speeches.

"I gave a speech one day [last weekend] in Chicago," said Joe Morgan, manager of the Boston Red Sox, "and we came out storming and jumped ahead of them, 3-0, and then we got killed. That rah-rah stuff belongs in college."

He looked across the field, let his mind wander for a moment from the urgent matters at hand. "Knute Rockne probably wouldn't do too well with those speeches today, would he?" He smiled at that one.

Not once did he mention curses or fate or the sour sweep of history. No one does, at least not anyone in the Red Sox's clubhouse. That's the strange part of catching this act in person. It is Topic A on the streets where they live, but taboo in the clubhouse.

Up in Boston, the talk shows are a horror these days, the Calvinists lining up to wail about doom, depression, the unfairness of life. John Updike is probably writing a new op-ed piece at this very moment. Inside the clubhouse, though, the players shake their heads.

"The past doesn't have anything to do with this ballclub," said Greg Harris, a pitcher. "Most of the players weren't even on the team when the other stuff happened. Some weren't even born. I have to be honest. This never comes up unless a reporter mentions it."

Reporters are mentioning it now because the Red Sox were 6 1/2 games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays two weeks ago, moving with surprising sureness toward their third division title in five years, yet today their lead is one game, and a host of ghosts are fluttering around in their clubhouse.

There are ghosts from 1967 and 1975, when the Sox lost seven-game World Series. There are ghosts from 1978, when the Sox lost a 14-game lead and the Yankees won the division. There are ghosts from 1986, the most malevolent ghosts of all, when the Sox were within a strike of winning the Series for the first time since 1918, and lost.

There is a book out blaming this wretched history on "The Curse of the Bambino," as if the Sox were doomed for the error of selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees. This is the romantic explanation, and the Sox, in all their majestic failings, are baseball's most romantic team. They certainly have been the subject of some bad poetry.

Anyway, and this is the irony, the players have all the romance of one of Tom Clancy's steel-bolt novels. "Everyone thinks we should be worried," Harris said, "but the way we see it, we've gone through a slump and still have the lead. Hey, this is fun. If you can't enjoy a pennant race, you should be in another line of work."

The unusual aspect of this year's swoon is that this never did figure to be a championship season for the Sox. The team clearly is incomplete, lacking power and speed, a couple of name

starters, a bullpen. The weakness of the division gave them life as contenders, and, according to a couple of Sox fans I know, this will make the defeat easier to accept. "It's going to hurt, because a cave-in is a cave-in," one said, "but somehow it's less stressful."

And there you have it. The fans hunch their shoulders and put on lots of sweaters and gird for a disaster and a long winter of misery. (They wouldn't want it any other way, of course. They love this stuff. They'd be miserable within five minutes of the Sox winning the Series.) The players watch television in the clubhouse, tell stupid jokes, act remarkably normal, talk about putting the Jays away.

"In the past, this used to be a real serious ballclub," Harris said. "Uptight isn't the right word. It was ... just serious. But it's not that way anymore. This is a relaxed team. And we just about

always find something positive in every situation."

Toronto is the better team, although not by a lot. The Sox have an easier schedule, finishing at home. The Sox broke a four-game losing streak last night, beating out an easy 7-3 victory over the Orioles. The Jays won again, though. Four in a row for them.

Two views. The fans will curse the unkind, unmoving standings. The players just smiled, turned on the stereo and "Monday Night Football," had a blast. The manager buttoned himself into a striped shirt, sat in the chair in his office. The talk was strictly X's and O's. Pitch counts. Bullpen calls. Clutch hits. Rotation changes.

This curse stuff, hey, the Sox say they don't know a darn thing about it. That's someone else's history, they say, and ancient history at that. Sox players have been saying that for years, of course, right up until the moment when it all hits them in the face, too. And so all of New England just closes its eyes. Can't bear to watch.

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