Sunshine In The Cellar: Lessons The Red Sox Can Take From 1992
It’s been a long time since Boston Red Sox fans have seen a season like the one that will come to a merciful end on Wednesday night in Yankee Stadium. It’s more than just the franchise’s first losing season since 1997. It’s the first 90-loss season since 1966. But I think the year that’s relevant as a basis of comparison is 1992.
The Red Sox had been a contender in the years leading up to ’92, winning AL East titles in 1988 & 1990 and contending the bitter end in 1991. Then the front office made a decision to fire a popular manager in Joe Morgan (sound familiar?) and brought in Butch Hobson. While Hobson was considerably better received than Bobby Valentine was this year, he was no better as a manager. The 1992 Red Sox stumbled their way to a 73-89 record.
But all wasn’t lost in 1992, and it’s those positives that we want to focus on here. For those that lived through the season, the Sox were still over .500 as late as June 19 and within a game of the break-even point in the first half of July. By the standards of today’s expanded playoffs, they would have contended until a little after the All-Star break. But the real bright spots of the season came in the young talent that was being uncovered, because Hobson’s Red Sox put in place the foundation of an infield that would lead the team back to October.
Tim Naehring had gotten a cup of coffee in 1990 and 1991, and it was the ’92 season that he assumed a role as a part-time infielder. That eventually lead the way to his becoming the full-time shortstop, and in 1995 he would post a .410 on-base percentage for a team that won the AL East.
John Valentin made his major league debut in 1992, and by the time the AL East title season came around three years later, he was enjoying a breakout year at second base. Valentin’s debut year showed signs of his offensive skill, as he posted a .351 on-base percentage, and the power soon followed. He hit 27 home runs for the ’95 team and finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting. He would go on to be a key part of playoff teams in 1998-99 and gain a reputation as a clutch postseason performer. Valentin played in four postseason series, hitting .347 with five home runs. Injuries prevented what was already a nice career from becoming even better.
There were other young players that didn’t work out. Bob Zupcic was the regular centerfielder in ’92 at the age of 25, but he was gone two years later. Phil Plantier seemed like a promising outfield prospect, but didn’t pan out in Boston. But the disappointments were more than offset, by the man who was coming into his own at first base.
Mo Vaughn had introduced himself to the Fenway Faithful in 1991, getting 251 at-bats and a year later he was the everyday first baseman. The numbers weren’t dazzling—a .326 on-base percentage and .400 slugging percentage, but statsheet-stuffing years were soon to come for Vaughn. He would win the American League MVP award in 1995, all but carry the Sox offense to a 1998 playoff berth and become the most popular Red Sox player of the mid-to-late 1990s.
There were a few other historical footnotes from the 1992 team that would influence team history in the future. Eric Wedge got a handful of at-bats. He would eventually become the Cleveland Indians manager for the team the 2007 Red Sox beat in the American League Championship Series. The ’92 Sox also had a 23-year-old reliever named Paul Quantrill. He made his mark on Sox history as a Yankee. It was Quantrill who served up a 12th-inning home run to David Ortiz in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS that got a historic comeback on its way.
And beyond the footnotes and the young players, there were still veterans worth watching. Wade Boggs wasn’t the hitter he’d been his prime, but at age 34 he was still good for a .353 on-base percentage. Roger Clemens won 18 games with a 2.41 ERA. Frank Viola, similar to Boggs, was a shadow of his former self, but still a solid pitcher with 13 wins and a 3.44 ERA.
The biggest thing the 1992 Boston Red Sox gave to team history though, was the foundation for future success in the form of Naehring, Valentin, and especially Vaughn. How will we view the 2012 Red Sox a decade from now? We’ll never forget how bad the year was, but perhaps we might also remember it as the year Will Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava and Pedro Ciriaco solidified their places for the future and became the cornerstones of a future playoff team.