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Recalling 1988’s ‘Morgan Magic’

BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG

The current Red Sox team has rebounded from a lackluster June and July (11-14, 14-12) to cobble together one of the most remarkable winning streaks in team history. After Boston inexplicably lost, 8-3, on August 9 to an improving-but-still-woeful Devil Rays squad at Fenway, the Sox stood at 60-50 — not bad, until you remember that the team launched its season with a 15-6 run. After all, going 45-44 the rest of the way did not exactly befit a team with a $125 million payroll, and falling 10 games behind the Yankees in the AL East was also never part of the Aaron Boone–ignited reclamation project.

Sports talk-radio callers were up in arms, mindlessly ranting against manager Terry Francona’s further tenure (despite the fact that he’d been on the job for just over half a season of a three-year deal), and long-term discussions among the fandom regarding their team had already focused on the wild-card race — in early August!

While the schedule-makers can certainly be thanked for their role, we may never know what flipped the switch for the 2004 Red Sox that catapulted the team back into contention and, unbelievably, into the divisional tussle over the course of the last three weeks. Whatever lit the fire, the Sox have gone 18-3 since that ignominious loss to Tampa, including an eight-game winning streak and a 14-of-15 success rate after twice pounding the talented Angels.

With all cylinders clicking and "dread" disappearing from fans’ sensory banks, the Red Sox are finally playing like baseball’s second-highest-payroll team. Confidence in Francona’s navigation and in the team’s ability for finding a way to keep the streak going are at record highs.

There was, however, another time when the notion of invincibility swirled among Red Sox Nation. Younger readers will have only read about it or seen the glazed look of remembrance in old-timers’ eyes, but back in the summer of 1988, another underachieving Sox team somehow began to click, unleashing a barnstorming tour of the American League that ultimately led them to an improbable Eastern Division title. This fable, like most others that involve the local nine, does not have the gift-wrapped happy ending that would complete the Cinderella story (a quick four-game ALCS sweep at the hands of the powerful A’s put the kibosh on that), but it still remains one of New England hardball fans’ fondest memories.

It was, of course, Morgan Magic.

Let’s set the stage. As most know, the 1986 Red Sox had come out of nowhere to capture the AL pennant. The team had moved into a first-place tie on May 14, and implausibly never relinquished the divisional lead the rest of the way, finishing 95-66 and holding off the late-charging Pinstripers by five games. A remarkable comeback in the ALCS against the California Angels propelled the team into the World Series, but suffice it to say that bad things happened late in that match-up, and in seven games the Sox were vanquished by the Mets.

The following season, nearly everyone was back, but the disappointment over the ’86 debacle lingered, manager John McNamara couldn’t get the same performances out of his defending AL champs, and the team was never really in contention, plummeting to 78-84 — 20 full games behind the East-winning Tigers. Roger Clemens won his second-straight Cy Young that season, and Wade Boggs banged out a career-high 24 home runs en route to his third-straight batting title, but closer Calvin Schiraldi’s ERA ballooned by three full runs (1.41 to 4.41), set-up-man-turned-starter Bob Stanley went 4-15, Jim Rice’s average dropped by nearly 50 points, and clubhouse leader Don Baylor missed nearly half the season due to injury.

By 1988, Schiraldi, Baylor, Bill Buckner, and ’86 playoff hero Dave Henderson had all departed. The squad got off to a 12-5 start, but by early June it was at .500 again, a level it would hover around all the way into the All-Star break. Boggs and Clemens were the team’s sole representatives at the festivities in Cincinnati, and following the AL’s 2-1 victory, the 43-42 Sox returned for an 11-game home stand to open the season’s second half. Unbeknownst to sullen Sox skipper McNamara, Boston GM Lou Gorman had seen enough. After waiting for the All-Star dust to settle prior to the Sox’ opener with KC on July 14, Mac was knifed and bench coach Joe Morgan was named interim manager. Because of a rain-out that night, the new boss didn’t get the opportunity to take the reins immediately. But he was fortunate to have a 12-5 Clemens pitching in the opener of the Morgan era, and the Rocket fanned 16 while outdueling Bret Saberhagen in Boston’s 3-1 victory in the opener of a twin bill. In the nightcap, the Sox jumped out to a 6-1 lead and held off a late Royals rally to KO KC, 7-4, in a game that saw new closer Lee Smith notch his 12th save.

Morgan never liked the interim tag , and probably would have been even more peeved had he known that Gorman was angling behind the scenes to get former Mets/Braves manager Joe Torre out of the Angels’ broadcast booth and into the Red Sox dugout. While early negotiations began with the current Yanks skipper, Boston continued to emerge from the dark clouds of the McNamara regime.

Sox fans sensed that there was new sheriff in town upon the conclusion of game three of the four-game Royals series. The home team rallied from a 6-0 sixth-inning deficit and got a dramatic ninth-inning home run from utility man Kevin Romine to capture an electrifying 7-6 triumph, their third straight under Morgan, the 58-year-old veteran of 16 seasons as a minor-league manager. On Sunday, Boston completed the four-game sweep, roaring out to a 7-0 lead (and nearly blowing a 10-1 cushion) before winning, 10-8.

With the Twins heading into town, Boston had already jumped two places in the AL East — from fifth to third — and had knocked off three games in its deficit behind the Tigers. Long-forgotten Steve Curry was on the hill for one of only three career starts for Boston, but it was the offense that bailed him out, breaking up a 3-3 game in the sixth with three runs. The Sox survived a shaky save by Smith to edge the defending world champs, 7-6. A night later, Walpole Joe’s gang got a sterling effort out of 6’8" starter Mike Smithson in racking up an impressive 5-0 whitewashing of Kirby Puckett & Co.

The Twins, who had entered the series at 51-39 and trailed the A’s by just three games in the West, had arrived in Boston after completing a four-game sweep at Baltimore, but they had the unfortunate timing to run into the buzz-saw that was the surging Sox that week. And they too suffered the embarrassment of a Fenway sweep when victimized by the most exciting victory of the Sox’ season (or any other) on the evening of July 20. Clemens started and was staked to a 5-0 lead, but he didn’t have his overwhelming stuff and Minnesota got to him in the sixth, scoring three times to cut the deficit to 5-3. Dennis Lamp gave up a single run in the eighth, and Smith coughed up the 5-4 lead and the save by surrendering the tying run in the ninth. When the Twins plated another pair in the 10th, some of the season’s biggest crowd (35,313) began to file out. But the true believers in Morgan’s stewardship were rewarded in the bottom of the inning, when outfielder Todd Benzinger launched a one-out grand slam to right to seal Boston’s miraculous 9-7 victory. Not surprisingly, Morgan’s "interim" tag was removed the following day, and Torre’s path would obviously take a different course.

The gaiety in Boston continued. Oil Can Boyd threw seven shutout innings the next night in a 6-1 victory over Chicago, and a late-inning rally on July 22 secured Boston’s ninth-straight win — 4-3. The Sox completed their second-straight four-game sweep in as many weekends over the next two days by rallying from a 5-1 deficit to win 11-5 on Saturday. Bruce Hurst and two relievers nailed down a 3-2 victory on Sunday.

When Clemens dazzled Texas with a three-hit road shutout the following day, the Sox had 12-straight victories and had inched within a game and a half of the East lead. Alas, the win streak came to an end the next night in a 9-8 slugfest at Arlington. But after a four-game home sweep of the Brewers, followed by two more at the Rangers’ expense, the Sox had won 19 of 20 games since Morgan’s elevation.

(Boston also made a key acquisition at the trade deadline, receiving starter Mike Boddicker from the Orioles for Brady Anderson. The junk-balling righty won seven of 10 for the Sox to help boost the team toward the playoffs.)

The home-win streak would ultimately reach a club record of 24 before Detroit finally ended it with an 18-6 pounding of Clemens on August 14 — Morgan’s one-month anniversary at the helm.

By that time, though, the second-place Sox were 66-51, and on September 4 they moved into first place for good, finishing the season at 89-73 despite losing six of their final seven games. The four-game sweep at the hands of the A’s — and the same fate two years later — eventually brought an end to Morgan’s reign. Though his career record was 301-262 and his teams were never below .500, Morgan Magic became merely a memory when he was dismissed in favor of Butch Hobson at the end of the 1991 season.

Now Sox fans are beginning to experience the same warm emotions that they did those 16 seasons ago. Then, as now, backers of the squad had the feeling that their team could not lose, and while these sentiments are decidedly Yankees-esque in many respects, something special is going on with this Red Sox club right now. It’s not necessarily magical just yet, but it’s still a marked improvement over anything in recent memory.

"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com


Issue Date: September 3, 2004
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2004 | 2003 |2002
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