Anyone who says that watching the 2014 Red Sox play is only slightly more enjoyable than getting attacked by robot bears is missing the point. For me, each game of this wretched, every-metaphor-for-cars-falling-off-a-cliff season represents a chance for something amazing.
You see, this year’s Red Sox team has the chance to be the least successful Red Sox team of my lifetime. And just so we’re all on the same page, the yardstick I’m using to gauge “success” is a team’s ability to win games.
Right now, the worst-performing Red Sox team of my lifetime is the 2012 Red Sox — lovingly remembered for chicken and beer, Bobby Valentine and Carl Crawford’s whining. It says a lot about the state of a team when ownership sends its best-known “stars” packing and instead of being outraged, the fans line up at Logan to give their plane the finger as it rolls out of town. The 2012 Sox finished with a record of 69-93 which, at the time, I foolishly assumed to be the lowest water mark I’d live to witness. The 2014 Sox, amazingly, may sink lower.
In anticipation, and just so you know all the specters this year’s Sox team is competing against, I compiled a brief but loving look at the worst pre-2012 Red Sox teams of my lifetime.
1983 Red Sox
78-84, 6th place in AL East
Manager: Ralph Houk
Notable players: Jerry Remy, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, Tony Armas, Dwight Evans, Carl Yastrzemski, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Hurst, Oil Can Boyd (presumably pre-crack)
Who?: Chico Walker
What went wrong: Roughly 75% of the team that would go on to win the AL three years later was here, but 1983’s weird mix of guys on the way out (Rick Miller, Glenn Hoffman, Jerry Remy), guys on the rise (Boggs, a rejuvenated Dewey) and Gary Allenson never quite gelled. A lot of the blame falls on a pitching staff that was one year removed from getting a young Roger Clemens. Only two of the team’s starters — John Tudor and Bobby Ojeda — had winning records. Good thing we were all too busy listening to “Thriller” to care.
Saving Grace: Boggs led the league with a .361 batting average; Armas clubbed 36 home runs despite a mustache that made him look like an extra in every spaghetti western lynch mob scene. Celebrations of Yaz’s last year made this long, slow spiral down the shitter at least somewhat more bearable.
Do they get a pass? As I mentioned, it was Yaz’s last season in baseball. They could have played every game with hockey sticks and we still would have watched.
1987 Red Sox
78-84, 5th place in AL East
Manager: John McNamara
Notable players: Roger Clemens, Ellis Burks, Don Baylor, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, Tony Armas, Dwight Evans, Calvin Schiraldi
Who?: Dave Sax, Pat Dodson
What went wrong: Apparently still reeling from the 1986 World Series, the Sox stumbled out of the gate in ’87, going 8-12 in their first twenty games and pushing Johnny Mac — who arguably should have been canned after some unfortunate World Series decisions — a little bit closer to the unemployment line and full mental collapse. The Sox were saddled with a lot of players on the decline, like Baylor and Hendu, and Rice played only 108 games due to injury. Unfortunately, a healthy Spike Owen played 132.
Saving Grace: Mike Greenwell saw his first full season of action, and Clemens went a staggering 20-9 with a 2.97 ERA — proof that drinking with Al Nipper can’t be totally bad for you.
Do they get a pass? Honestly, we were all still so stunned by game six of the ’86 World Series, nothing seemed to register.
1992-1994 Red Sox, The Butch Hobson Years
1992: 73-89, 7th in the AL east
1993: 80-82, 5th in the AL East
1994: 54-61, 4th in the AL East
Manager: King Butchie
Notable players: Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Frank Viola, Mo Vaughn, Jack Clark, Tony Pena, Jody Reed
Who?: Greg Litton, Herm Winningham, Damon Berryhill
What went wrong: The Hobson Era kicked off in 1992, and that year was a perfect storm of bad baseball. Clemens went 18-11 with a somewhat respectable 2.41 ERA and Viola won 13 games, but their fellow starters and the relief corps could barely work their way out of the bullpen gate. The offense didn’t fare much better; in 1992, none of the regulars hit over .276 for the year (that average owned by Mighty Bob Zupcic) while Boggs earned the lowest average of his career at .259. Our home-run leader was Brunansky (15) and the guy with the most hits was Jody “Free Mustache Rides” Reed (136). The team finished second-to-last in the American League in hits, RBIs and runs scored.
The reason the wheels came off the wagon? I’m gonna point to the rookie manager. Butch Hobson was touted by many as the future Greatest Red Sox Skipper Ever, although that “many” was later revealed to be Hobson’s parents and a couple people who knew him from the local tavern. After watching him lead Pawtucket to the playoffs, Sox management was so eager to install Hobson in the bigs, they sent Walpole Joe Morgan packing, even though the team made the playoffs twice in his three-and-a-half years on the job.
Hobson was apparently never a player favorite — the most ominous sign of things to come was at 1992 spring training when Rocket showed up late, then jogged the field with headphones firmly in place while Hobson huffed alongside him, supposedly giving him a “talking to.” Once it was established that his star player had little or no respect for his authority, Hobson turned his attention to other things, like keeping Daryl Irvine and Joe Hesketh in line. And despite lofty expectations, the team never finished above 4th place during his three year tenure.
Saving Grace: I remember going to a bunch of games in ’92 with my dad, commiserating with the masses from our perch in the section 15 grandstands. I don’t think they won a single game I attended, but there was something oddly comical and fascinating about just how poorly this team performed. In a year of few highlights, I do recall left-fielder Billy Hatcher going on something of a tear at the plate for a couple weeks, prompting a NESN game graphic labelled “Who put the match to Hatch?” Other highlights included Frank Viola’s mustache and Greg Harris’ glasses. And not much else.
Oh, and the 1994 strike killed the season before the Red Sox could further implode. So there was that.
Do they get a pass? Hobson as manager was either the worst idea or the greatest prank in the history of the Boston Red Sox. No points given.
1997 Red Sox
78-84, 4th in the AL east
Manager: Jimy “Leave the last M off for Madness” Williams
Notable players: Tim Wakefield, Scott Hatteberg, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, Troy O’Leary
Who?: Walt McKeel
What went wrong: Much like the 2010s, the 1990s were feast-or-famine for the Red Sox. They made the playoffs four times, and finished below .500 four times. 1997 was one of the below .500 years, and a lot of the blame goes to the pitching staff. In their first post-Clemens year, the staff was left without an ace, and the rotation included Wakey, Braves castoff Steve Avery, Jeff Suppan and Aaron Sele (I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing and compose yourself). In the bullpen, there was the unholy alliance of John Wasdin and Heathcliff Slocumb, who did their best to stoke the fires of homicidal rage across Red Sox Nation.
Saving Grace: Hatteberg went on to star in Moneyball and, later, Guardians of the Galaxy, so there’s that. We also got our first full season of Nomar, which was nice. Oh, and the Toronto Blue Jays finished two games behind us, proving at least one team was worse than us.
Do they get a pass? In the midst of the 1997 shitstorm, Jason Varitek made his Red Sox debut on September 24 as a pinch-hitter, and scored his first major league hit. That might not be enough to save the season, but it does earn 1997 a pass in my book.
Final Thoughts: What does this all mean? I guess it’s just my therapeutic way of reminding myself that I’ve seen the team at its lowest points and its highest points, and I’m always willing to accept what gets thrown at me.
Until this year, our pre-2004 legacy — that feeling of constant pain and torment and never reaching the promised land — seemed a distant memory. Hell, I’d say we’ve reached that Bizarro World point where, God help us, we’re surprised when the team doesn’t make the playoffs. While I will obviously root for the 2014 edition until the math tells me I’m wasting my time (and I believe the math has been trying to call me since the All Star break), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t oddly fascinated with this team’s flirtation with becoming the worst Red Sox team of my lifetime. Hey, if you’re not gonna win it all, might as well claim some form of notoriety.
Not that even losing baseball isn’t enjoyable. I do remember stumbling out of one of those 1992 shitfests and wondering aloud if the boys would ever make it to the promised land. Dad, ever one to find the bright side, just said, “Hey, at worst, we just got to see a ballgame at Fenway. That’s a pretty good way to spend an evening.”
And, as usual, he was right.