At the start of batting practice last Friday, the white magnetic letters atop the metal locker in the center of the Boston Red Sox clubhouse spelled out LOONEY, which is as good a word as any to begin explaining what's going on at Fenway Park this year. But by the end of BP, a new set of letters there read HUDSON. So went another routine changing of a pair of Sox: Joe Hudson, a righthanded pitcher from Double A Trenton, checking in, and Brian Looney, a lefthander bound for Triple A Pawtucket, checking out. Hudson became Boston's 37th player in 39 games.
North Station handles less traffic than the Red Sox clubhouse. On Friday night Boston beat the Oakland A's 4-1 behind a pitcher who, having been released by the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates in spring training, won his fourth game in the 14 days he had been with the Red Sox; the key runs were driven home by a career .220 hitter playing in only his 13th game for Boston and by a DH who had 10 career RBIs when he was picked up on waivers two months ago after being dumped by the lowly Milwaukee Brewers.
The contributions of Tim Wakefield, Terry Shumpert and Troy O'Leary, respectively, hardly ranked as extraordinary in a season in which the resourceful Red Sox have put on display more basement bargains than Filene's. The city might as well begin building a statue of Dan Duquette, the club's second-year general manager. Given his soft spot for players looking to make a new life, an appropriate pose would include a beckoning torch in one hand and a stone tablet in the other. "These guys are hungry," says Duquette, noting that the only Boston players signed through next season are pitcher Roger Clemens and outfielder Mike Greenwell.
Of the 28 men on the Red Sox roster at week's end (including three on the disabled list), 19 had never played a game for Boston before this year. Eighteen of the 19 were not even in the organization as recently as last November. And that total does not include the new manager, Kevin Kennedy, who brought to the Red Sox his intensity—not to mention 20 pairs of boots of various animal hides—after having been canned by the Texas Rangers.
What have all the changes done for these darned Sox? Everything, considering that through Sunday they were in first place by seven games in the surprisingly lame American League East. Earlier in the week the marquee at the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge adjacent to Fenway had announced, PENNANT FEVER! 9 GAME LEAD. Boston had not opened that large a margin in nine seasons—and it did so with only two home runs combined from Jose Canseco and Mark Whiten, two big bats acquired since last season, and no victories from Clemens, all of whom have been sidelined for extended periods with injuries.
Duquette's most stunning finds on his scavenger hunt have been pitchers Wakefield, Stan Belinda, Vaughn Eshelman and Erik Hanson, all of whom were available to every other major league team via free agency or the Rule V draft. By week's end the four castoffs were a combined 17-0, which helped to lift Duquette and his staff to a near-perfect batting average in roster manipulation. "Hell, it's not a batting average," said catcher Mike Macfarlane. "What they've done is damn near illegal. From the scouts to Duquette, they've done an incredible job getting the players and knowing what kind of players fit into the mix. I think they just went out and stole from other organizations. Maybe some teams don't know how to look into the chest cavity and measure the size of a guy's heart."
Boston's runaway start has been made possible, too, by the ineptitude of its intra-divisional rivals, none of whom had a winning record at week's end. The Red Sox actually amassed identical 41-game records last year and this year (26-15) but found themselves up by seven games this time as opposed to 2½ games out in 1994. For that they could thank:
•The New York Yankees, the preseason favorites to win the division, who have slipped into a paranoid funk, having lost 15 of 19 games to drop eight games under .500 at week's end. Last week New York manager Buck Showalter called for an examination of a bat used by California Angel outfielder Tony Phillips and determined on his own that balls used by Oakland pitcher Steve Ontiveros might have been doctored, while everyone else was examining the Yankees for signs of life.
More ominously, as one Yankee employee noted, owner George Steinbrenner "is more involved with every little detail of the team than he's ever been." Recently he has threatened to sign troubled outfielder Darryl Strawberry, summoned reporters into his office to lash out at his team and ordered the Yankees to shave all beards after a 1-8 trip, thus inspiring his New York Nicks to a 2-7 home stand.
"You could see they're pressing, and they miss Jimmy Key going out there every fifth day to stop losing streaks and give them innings," said A's pitcher Ron Darling after Oakland took three out of four in New York last week. Key, suffering from an inflamed rotator cuff, hasn't pitched since May 16. Starting with that game the Yankees went 6-17 through the end of last week, and they still didn't know when Key would return.