Prone upon a purple leather coach in the visitor's clubhouse with a pillow over his face, first baseman Mo (Hit Dog) Vaughn enjoyed a nap before a game in Cleveland last Friday night. From under the pillow came a muffled snore that could have passed as the sound of a mulching mower. His Boston Red Sox teammate Kevin Mitchell ended the siesta by covering Vaughn with bananas and bread—an act in direct contradiction to the maxim that has guided the rest of the American League this year when facing Vaughn and the Sox: Let sleeping dogs lie.
Mitchell found himself in something of a compromising position the next afternoon before another game against the Indians. During batting practice he rushed to the clubhouse commode in time for a fit of vomiting. "Can't eat a thing in the morning and then run around," Mitchell says.
That's the trouble with the disappointing Red Sox, a team that can blow breakfast and leads with equal haste. Sleepy? Dyspeptic? Well, yes, they look that way before games, too.
The Dread Sox have lost 15 of their first 18 games—including a three-game sweep last weekend by the Indians—equaling the worst start in franchise history, a mark shared with the 1932 team. Those Red Sox lost 111 games and finished 64 games out of first place, still team records. That today's outfit is tracking the losing curve of the worst team in club history is "the story of the baseball world so far," says Boston outfielder Mike Greenwell. What has made their stumble so surprising is that the Red Sox have four former MVPs (Vaughn, Mitchell, Jose Canseco and Roger Clemens) and a $40 million payroll, and are the defending Eastern Division champions.
"It's mystifying. It's frustrating," says Vaughn.
It's also Page One news. Last Friday the Boston Globe had a Red Sox story on the first page along with articles about Lebanon and about Congress passing an antiterrorism bill. HOW COULD OUR SOX HAVE FALLEN SO FAR SO FAST? asked the headline.
It took a systemwide breakdown. Through the first three weeks of the season the Red Sox played defense as if they were auditioning for Ringling Brothers. They issued walks at a rate that would obliterate the single-season major league record (827) set by the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics, who lost 109 games. They hit with an offense softer than Butterbean's belly. They left an impression on the American League that was lasting: last in fielding, next to last in hitting and last in the division. Bostonians have never worried so early in the year about the Curse of the Bambino, that mythical force that has kept Boston without a world title since it sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season.
Boston's gruesome defense began on Opening Day, when Greenwell dropped a fly ball and shortstop John Valentin threw away a grounder as Boston lost to the Texas Rangers 5-3. "I'll be honest with you," Greenwell said afterward. "I think one of the things that's really going to hurt the team is the negative stuff about the defense. It's in our minds, and we have to overcome that."
Newspapers and talk shows were filled with more negative stuff after the April 11 game against the Minnesota Twins. Valentin allowed a grounder to roll under his glove and inexplicably held a relay throw while Roberto Kelly scored from first on a double. Third baseman Tim Naehring dropped a pop near the mound. Vaughn, in what looked like one of those TV crime-show reenactments, let a bouncer go through his legs at first base, recalling the most infamous of Boston bloopers. Three days later, Greenwell dropped another routine fly.
"We look like the Bad News Bears," says Boston manager Kevin Kennedy, "except they won it all, didn't they?"