A Summer Of Discontent Revisited: The 1987 Boston Red Sox

Rich Gedman & Roger Clemens each clashed with the front office prior to the 1987 season.

The Boston Red Sox remain in contention for the playoffs in late July, although to watch them play on a night-to-night basis can increase one’s longing for football and the start of camp for the New England Patriots. While the prospects for an August and September revival certainly exist, and if that happens anything can happen in October, it’s still fair to label the 2012 summer as one of discontent at Fenway Park. Maybe the franchise is in a Silver Anniversary mode, because that’s exactly what went down at the Fens 25 years ago, in the summer of 1987.

1987 was another year that saw the Red Sox trying to shake off the hangover from a heartbreaking collapse. The collapses of 1986 and 2011 were decidedly different. On the one hand,  the ’86 team let a World Series title slip through their grasp, while the ’11 team was still three rounds away even if they had hung on in the wild-card race. But while 1986 was more heartbreaking, it was also just a case of a disastrous sequence of four at-bats undoing a tremendous year and losing to the 108-win Mets. That’s a little more noble than a month-long chicken and beer party that sees you lose to a low-budget team you spend the previous offseason raiding. But a hangover’s still a hangover and the 1987 Red Sox dragged their own unique set of baggage into the Season After.

Catcher Rich Gedman, a vital part of the pennant-winning team the year before and one of the game’s better catchers was in a contract holdout and he missed the first month of the season. To make matters worse, his replacement was the son of team president Haywood Sullivan. When Marc Sullivan hit .198 in his sixty games, no one was feeling better about any potential nepotism going on at Fenway. Oil Can Boyd began the collapse that would ultimately get him into treatment for a drug problem. Jim Rice’s career descent became painfully obvious in ’87. While his home runs had been dipping each year for the past four seasons, once they plummeted to 13—the first time the future Hall of Famer had been below 20 and he’d never get back over—it was a sign the end had come.

Boyd wasn’t the only pitcher struggling. Bruce Hurst might have been taking the ball every fifth day, but with a 15-13 record and 4.41 ERA, he wasn’t really #2 caliber, which is where he was situated behind Roger Clemens. Al Nipper, the fourth starter on the pennant-winning team, had a bloated 5.43 ERA and Bob Stanley, the man on the mound at the end of Game 6 the previous October, fell apart. The Steamer went 4-15 with a 5.01 ERA. The bullpen had no one reliable, as Calvin Schiraldi never got his confidence back following the Game 6 loss in Shea Stadium.

With all that as the backdrop the Red Sox were 28-31 on June 10 and 9.5 games out of first place. In the days when the American League was split into two divisions with only first-place teams going to the playoffs, this was a tall order. But Toronto, who was setting the pace in the AL East, could be reasonably expected to cool off from their 104-win pace at the time. Indeed, the division would eventually be won by the Detroit Tigers, who were only three games ahead of Boston at this time. And if we apply the standards of today to the 1987 team, the latter would have been right in the mix for a playoff spot—indeed, the 2012 Red Sox were 29-31 at the same point on the schedule.

So the opportunity was there for the ’87 Sox to make a run at redemption, and if nothing else, have a good season. A road trip to Detroit was just the place to make such a stand, and leapfrog the team directly in front of them. In the summer of discontent it naturally follows that Clemens was hammered late in the game of the series opener and that 11-4 loss was the start of a series sweep. A series loss at Cleveland followed. The Sox tried to right the ship and Clemens, who’d a publicized rift of his own with management in spring training–got back on track—the righthander would follow that track to 20 wins and a second straight Cy Young Award—by beating the Yankees in a June 21 home game that won a series. Boyd won his only game of the year a day later against the Brewers, who were on their way to 93 wins. The six weeks leading up to the end of July followed this pattern—a burst of hope followed by a sequence of losses and a record that never got real separation from .500. This sounds oddly familiar and contemporary.

No one could fault Dwight Evans for the ’87 debacle, as he broke the .300 BA & 30 HR barriers.

The efforts to get the team moving again weren’t limited to Clemens. Dwight Evans began playing first base after a career as one of the game’s best defensive rightfielders and “Dewey” batted .305 with 34 home runs. On the other side of the infield, Wade Boggs churned out a proto-type .363 batting average and an on-base percentage of .461. Boggs also had a surprising power surge, with 24 home runs. The long ball was up all over baseball, giving rise to suspicion that the ball was juiced (it wasn’t until 10-15 years later that the thought of the players being juiced came up). No one knows for sure, but with Boggs’ power coming and going so quickly, it does lend credence to the idea that the ball might have been wound a little tighter than normal in 1987.

But while a team built on one superlative pitcher and a couple everyday players having great years might be exciting in a short series, it’s hell over the long haul and hell is exactly where the ’87 Sox took their fans on a West Coast swing to begin August. Against exclusively mediocre-to-awful teams, Boston lost two of three in Oakland, with Hurst getting beat up, were swept by the Angels and could only split a four-game set at lowly Seattle. Playing the same teams back at home immediately thereafter went little better and when the record hit 43-51 it was all over but the shouting.

Boston was active at the trade deadline, but they were sellers in 1987. Don Baylor, the veteran DH with 16 home runs, was traded to Minnesota where he got the World Series ring that narrowly eluded him a year earlier. Dave Henderson, one year after being an ALCS hero and an almost-World Series hero, was shipped out to San Francisco where he played on a division-winning team. And Billy Buck was given his release on July 23, hooking up with the Angels in time for them to join the Red Sox on the road to oblivion.

The 1987 Red Sox never did get to .500 and settled for a 78-84 record. But before this turns too morbid, it’s important to remember what did come out of the season. A rookie centerfielder named Ellis Burks was called up, given the job, played respectably and set the stage for a solid career. Mike Greenwell played a variety of positions, hit 19 home runs and had a .386 on-base percentage and one year later would be the team’s best everyday player. And the problems in the bullpen inspired the Red Sox to make an offseason trade of Schiraldi and Nipper to the Chicago Cubs for a bona fide closer in Lee Smith. And over the next three seasons, the Red Sox won the AL East twice. Good can still come out of the roughest of seasons.

The1987 arrival of rookie centerfielder Ellis Burks signaled better days to come.

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