Monday, July 24, 2006

Sports Memories I’ll Tell My Grandkids About: Kevin Romine, Morgan Magic and the Day I Came To Love Baseball

The Boston baseball historical landscape is littered with the remains of teams that ascended nearly to the peak of sports achievement before awakening from the dream and crashing back down to earth. The late 1940s were a particularly difficult time for Beantown baseball – the Red Sox lost the World Series on a controversial play in 1946 and were bested in down-to-the-wire pennant races in 1948 and 1949, while the Braves lost the 1948 Fall Classic to Cleveland – although in many ways the late 1980s and early 1990s were even worse, characterized by a heartbreaking World Series loss in 1986 (the fourth consecutive Series in which the team lost Game Seven) and mind-numbing thirteen consecutive postseason losses. There were some memorable moments, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the Boston baseball community finally reached the top of the mountain.

Most Red Sox seasons end in an agony that feels like agony (see 1986 and 2003 for vivid examples); there are two campaigns in recent history, however, that ended with less than the desired result - a World Series win (take a seat, 2004, you’re not a part of this discussion) - yet somehow avoided the feeling that the sky was falling and the sun would decide not come out tomorrow. The first, of course, was the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team led by Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Lonborg – the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, respectively – that overcame the weight of a recent team history clouded by institutional racism and bad ball clubs to finish within one game of a world title. There were few hard feelings when the Dream ended because few had expected the Red Sox to be in contention past April, let alone advance as far as the seventh game of the World Series. The lower level of incoming expectation led to a lower level of regret when the fairy tale ending didn’t come true.

The second season that ended with a positive feeling despite an undesirable conclusion – in this case a sweep by the Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series – was 1988, the year of “Morgan Magic” and my debut season as a baseball fan. This was the year that the Red Sox fielded a quality team, with a lineup composed of solid veterans (Dwight Evans, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice) and good youngsters (Jody Reed, Ellis Burks, Mike Greenwell) and a pitching staff spearheaded by a feared lefty-righty combination (Bruce Hurst and Roger Clemens) and an All-Star closer (Lee Smith), yet limped into the All-Star break as the fourth best team in the American League East division with a 43-42 record that left them nine games behind the Detroit Tigers.

At the break, Boston general manager Lou Gorman made a change, replacing manager John McNamara with “Walpole Joe” Morgan, the manager of the team’s AAA affiliate in Pawtucket and a native of nearby Walpole, Massachusetts. Morgan was hired during the All-Star break and managed his first games on July 15, a doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals. The Red Sox won both games to begin a streak of twelve wins in a row (a record for a manager at the start of his career) and nineteen of twenty overall under their new skipper. The streak (which also occurred within the framework of twenty-four consecutive wins at Fenway Park, a run that extended from June 25 to August 13) earned the nickname “Morgan Magic”, virtually guaranteeing the return of the “interim” manager the following season. Most importantly, Boston closed the gap in the division race: after trailing by 8 ½ games at the close of play on July 14, Boston found itself side-by-side with Detroit atop the AL East on August 3.

This is the time period to which I date my interest in the Boston Red Sox and the game of baseball. For me, the game is rooted in Jody Reed taking the field to pinch-run for Spike Owen and somehow becoming one of my favorite players, Bo Jackson ending a game against the Sox with a leaping catch against the wall in foul territory in Kansas City, and watching a game with my grandfather (who forced me to admire both halves of Boston’s double play tandem with the solemn intonation, “Marty Barrett – he’s a good player.”) These are minor happenings, of course, but much of the joy in baseball, as in life, is in the little things.

The summer of Magic in Boston might never have transpired without the game that took place on Saturday, July 16. With the All-Star break still visible in the rear-view mirror and Joe Morgan still finding his way around his new team, the Red Sox prepared to meet Kansas City in the third game of a four game series. Perhaps upset over its poor showing in the previous day’s doubleheader (swept by the Red Sox, 3-1 and 7-4), the Royals jumped out to a 6-0 lead after five innings, including a mammoth Bo Jackson homerun that ricocheted off the back wall in centerfield; it is considered by some one of the longest drives in Fenway Park history.

Boston’s offense finally figured things out in the bottom of the sixth, scoring four times to trim the deficit to 6-4. The inning included two important lineup changes: Kevin Romine pinch-ran for leftfielder Mike Greenwell and scored the third run, while Dwight Evans drew a walk as a pinch-hitter for Randy Kutcher. Both players stayed in the game – Romine in Greenwell’s leftfield position, Evans at first base. The switches proved beneficial as early as the eighth inning, when Evans greeted Kansas City closer Steve Farr with a game-tying two-run homerun.

The game entered the bottom of the ninth knotted at sixth, with Romine leading off against Farr. It was an unusual spot for Romine, then 27 years old and in his third year with the Red Sox; an All-American at Arizona State in the early 1980s, he had become a utility major league outfielder who under ordinary circumstances would be safely on the bench in such a tense situation. These were no ordinary circumstances, however; thanks to Morgan’s sixth inning shuffling, his only remaining bench player was infielder Spike Owen, who only started twice in the manager’s first twenty games with the club. To bring Owen into the game would not only mean losing the last extra bat, a strategic no-no considering the possibility of extra innings, it would also require moving certain players out of position to accommodate everyone. In any case, Romine wasn’t the most desirable option to start off the ninth against Farr (that honor probably belonged to Greenwell, enjoying a career year on his way to a second place finish in the MVP voting), but he was pretty much all Morgan had to offer.

Romine didn’t disappoint. He lofted a Farr offering high and deep to left (memory says it was the first pitch, but there is no way to verify that information), where it settled into the screen above the Green Monster for a game winning homerun. It was Romine’s first career homerun (in his 127th at-bat), the only homerun he hit in 1988 and one of only five he hit in a career that ended in 1991.

For the next three weeks, the Red Sox rolled. On July 20th, Todd Benzinger hit a walk-off homerun of his own to guarantee win number seven (Benzinger’s round-tripper came in the bottom of the tenth inning, with Boston trailing by a run). Two weeks after Romine hit his game-winner, he factored into another big moment, scoring the winning run on a Marty Barrett single to give the team sixteen wins in seventeen tries. In a nice touch of parallelism, he had once again pinch-run, stayed in the game and led off the ninth, doubling off Teddy Higuera to start the game-winning rally.

Though Boston didn’t play well over the final two months, finishing with a 27-30 mark in the final 57 games, the charge to the front of the pack had been enough. Despite losing six of their last seven games, the Red Sox held off four other teams – Detroit, Toronto, Milwaukee and New York – to claim the AL East title for the second time in three years. Given the relative weakness of the team and the fact that West division winner Oakland boasted a powerful lineup and strong pitching, not much was expected from the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. They didn’t deliver much, being outscored by a 2-to-1 margin in four straight losses to the A’s.

Still, from the perspective of a new, young fan such as myself, the season was a success. The Red Sox had found themselves in a tough spot, played nearly perfect baseball for three weeks to charge into the lead, and then held off all comers despite not having their best stuff. And somewhere in there, maybe on July 16, I found myself a favorite player. Kevin Romine wasn’t the best player on the field at any time during his seven years in a Red Sox uniform, but he might have been something more important – as he proved against Steve Farr and Teddy Higuera, he was the type of guy who could be counted on to come up big just when it was needed the most. Despite this, he never really earned the opportunity to play full-time with Boston (largely due to his lack of power and the All-Star outfield of Greenwell, Evans and Ellis Burks), although injuries to Burks and Evans allowed him to play a career high 92 games in 1989, when he hit .274 in 274 at-bats. And of course, the fact that his birthplace of Exeter, New Hampshire was minutes from my own hometown didn’t hurt his standing in my eight year old eyes (even if he had lived in California since very early childhood), if only to prove that even a kid from the northeast could make it big someday.

1988 might have been the last carefree season I remember experiencing with the Red Sox; in other words, it’s the last time I felt something less than sadness at their failure to win the World Series. Of course it was disappointing, but the entire season had been so much fun to watch that I just couldn’t muster much sadness when it ended. After two more division titles in 1990 and 1995, the wild card provided entry into the postseason in 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2005. By the time I’m writing this in July 2006, playoff appearances are almost expected around Boston – we’ve exchanged the joy that comes from an out-of-the-blue run like 1967, 1988 or 2004 (although I’m not entirely comfortable using the word “joy” to describe 2004; it was dramatic, exciting, intriguing, and tense, but not necessarily joyful – at least not until the Yankees were vanquished) for a sense of entitlement, a feeling that we always deserve to be one of the eight teams that remain at the conclusion of the regular season. That’s not entirely a bad thing – it’s nice to root for a winner - but sometimes it’s nice to be surprised. Someday, maybe in the near future, maybe for several years at a stretch, it is likely that the Red Sox won’t be one of the best teams in baseball. When that happens, when we are forced by the Baseball Gods to experience seasons like 1961-66 or 1987 again, I hope we are rewarded with another “Impossible Dream” or “Morgan’s Magic”, because those are the types of teams that are the most fun to follow and the most fun to remember.

(Thanks to Retrosheet for all statistics used in this article.)