Try these Red Sox on for size: the pitching-rich Red Sox. The scrappy Red Sox. The 25-guys-in-one-cab Red Sox.
Incredible as those appellations might have sounded a few years ago, or even back in April, Boston proved them absolutely, positively accurate in a four-game series last weekend in Toronto. The Red Sox took three of four, winning the last three games by World Cup scores of 2-0, 1-0 and 1-0, to put four games between themselves and the second-place Blue Jays. O.K., you knew Roger Clemens would have one of those blankings. But Dana Kiecker, with an assist from Jeff Gray? Greg Harris, with another Gray save? All of a sudden, Boston is deploying pocket Rockets.
Let's back up for a moment to last Thursday, when, in Toronto, the roof of the SkyDome was opened to reveal, ta-da, a pennant race. Only two games separated the American League East-leading Red Sox from the second-place Blue Jays, but even beyond that, this was a very intriguing matchup. It was old franchise versus new, the Wall versus the Roof, we versus me, character versus talent, over-achievers versus underachievers. It was a confrontation aptly characterized by Boston's Dwight Evans, who has seen a few of these races. "We know we're not the rabbit," said Dewey. "We're the tortoise."
Score a big one for the tortoise, and for baseball in general. Even Blue Jay fans had to appreciate these hair-raising (as opposed to hare-raising) games, each of which left the sellout crowds on the edges of their nice new seats. There is more than a month remaining in the season, but in the word of Red Sox manager and Walpole, Mass., native Joe Morgan, this one was a "monstuh."
The Red Sox aren't exactly monstuhs anymore, but they're a lot better than they should be. or better than people thought they would be. Consider that the Sox are next to last in the league in home runs and last in stolen bases, that four of their pitchers have been previously released, that two of their starting pitchers languished in the minors for years, and that their bullpen has become a Gray area. "I've been on lots of Red Sox teams with more talent than this one," says Evans, who first came up to Boston in 1972, "but never one with more character."
Strange words for a franchise that once inspired the "25 guys, 25 cabs" tag. The way the players talk now, though, you would expect to see them all pile out of the same taxi like circus clowns. And they've done their share of clowning this season. In Milwaukee recently, leftfielder Mike Greenwell tried to exorcise a team batting slump by performing an elaborate ritual involving many candles, 30 bats, assorted toy spiders, snakes and insects, a statue of Buddha and a number 13 Red Sox jersey. In Seattle two weeks ago the Red Sox became so caught up in a rally-cap duel with the Mariners that the normally reserved Clemens could be seen on the bench with cap inside out, white towels hanging over his head, shaving cream all over his face and paper cups attached to his ears.
Much of the credit for the new spirit on the team and the blossoming of the staff goes to catcher Tony Pena, who signed as a free agent in the off-season and is a sort of Luis Tiant with face mask. "He's amazing," says Kiecker. "With men on base he'll call for a pitch in the dirt, knowing that the batter's going to swing and miss and that he won't let it get by." Says Mike Boddicker, "Tony's added new meaning to the word understanding. I can't understand a word of his Spanglish when he comes out to the mound, yet somehow I know what he wants and that it works."
As for the Blue Jays, well, they are even more puzzling than the Red Sox. Why has a team so long on talent refused to take over a mediocre division? They're short on fundamentals, for one thing. Their baserunning mistakes are legion and legendary, and they seldom bunt or hit-and-run, not because manager Cito Gaston doesn't want to, but rather because most of his players are incapable of either. Asked what he can do about his team's lack of basics, Gaston says, "Not a damn thing at this level."
Another reason the Jays are treading water is that they have not been able to seize a home-field advantage in their pleasure dome. Their home record of 33-32 is eighth in the league. When the roof is open, they are a particularly dreadful 9-17. Amateur physicists say the ball doesn't carry when the top is down. The pitchers complain about the mound, the outfielders complain about the lights, and reliever Tom Henke complained the other day that the fans aren't loud enough to intimidate the other team.
But then the Blue Jays have been something of a mystery the last few years, averaging 91 wins from 1983 to '89 with nary an American League pennant to show for it. They even inspired a whodunit, The Dead Pull Hitter by Alison Gordon, published last year. Although the book was clearly fiction—for one thing, the Toronto Titans play "in the tough Eastern Division"—one of the characters, first baseman Tiny Washington, hits home when he says, "Seems like there are too many people on this team thinking about themselves.... How 'bout we save [the fighting] for the Red Sox?"