With every passing day, it looks more and more likely that this year’s Red Sox will finish with a losing record. While the doom and gloom that surrounded the pre-2004 Red Sox is starting to define the post-2009 team as well, let’s not forget that Boston fans have been spoiled for a generation. The last Red Sox team to finish below .500 was the 1997 squad.
In 1997, Bill Clinton began his second term as President. Microsoft bailed out a failing Apple Computer by buying shares. The Spice Girls released their first album. Nobody but Zack Morris (a recent graduate) owned a cell phone.
In baseball, the 78-84 Red Sox finished fourth in the A.L. East. The Detroit Tigers finished third, still in the East division because the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, like Rebecca Black and Viagra, were not yet born. Mike Trout turned six. The Baltimore Orioles won the division, their last winning season. It’s been awhile.
Like their 2012 counterparts, the 1997 Red Sox hit the ball pretty well, but had below-average pitching. Like this year’s team, they were led by a rotund slugger who enjoyed one of his best seasons on a percentage basis but missed some time due to injury. Beyond that, the teams don’t have much in common.
The 1997 Red Sox had actually made the postseason more recently (in 1995) than this year’s team, but the postseason wasn’t exactly a birthright. They hadn’t won a playoff game since 1986 and hadn’t won a World Series since 1918 (perhaps you’ve heard about that drought). This year’s team has made the playoffs six of the last nine seasons and won two of the last eight World Series. Anything less than a playoff appearance is a failure.
Red Sox ownership paid $43,232,000 for the entire 1997 team, the 11th-highest figure in the league and fourth-highest in their five-team division. This year, Carl Crawford, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka will make $46,640,475 to play fewer than 50 total games. The whole team will make $173,186,617, just a hair (ok, maybe a $1.4 million ARod hair) behind the second-place Phillies.
Coming into 1997, Mo Vaughn had been an All-Star twice and even an MVP. Pitcher Steve Avery had been an All-Star with the ’93 Braves, but hadn’t been an above-average pitcher since ’94. Utilitymen Wil Cordero and Mike Stanley and reliever Heathcliff Slocumb had all been token All-Stars with other teams in recent years. Aside from them and a hobbled Bret Saberhagen, who pitched just 26 innings in ‘97, no other Red Sox player had an All-Star appearance on his resume. Expectations may have been high for 23-year-old shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, but he hadn’t proven anything in a 1996 cup of coffee.
Coming into 2012, Dustin Pedroia had been a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a three-time All-Star. Adrian Gonzalez had played in four straight All-Star games and received MVP votes in five straight years. Ortiz was a seven-time All-Star who once finished in the top five in five straight MVP votes. Jacoby Ellsbury was coming off a season in which he was an All-Star, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, and finished second in MVP balloting. Crawford and Kevin Youkilis had seven All-Star appearances between them, and the relatively young pitching staff had a combined 12.
A Red Sox fan in 1997 may have looked at the hometown nine and seen a slugger in his prime, the next great shortstop, and a team that might finish at .500 if everything broke the right way. They caught a few of those breaks- Nomar began a string of .300 seasons (enjoying a 30-game hit streak in the process), a 30-year-old John Valentin enjoyed one of his best years, and former starter Tom Gordon emerged as a bullpen ace- but not enough to win half of their games.
The future was bright in October of ’97. The team would add ace Pedro Martinez and win 92 games and its first Wild Card in ’98, then win 94 games and a playoff series in ’99 after shedding Vaughn and installing future mainstays Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon in key roles. They would be fringe contenders until changes in ownership, management, and budget in the early 2000s created a perennial powerhouse.
A Red Sox fan in 2012 may have been cautiously optimistic after last September’s collapse, but this year’s roster was loaded with talent and sure to win close to 90 games, with a ceiling somewhere over 100, should the pitching revert to 2009 form. Instead, the pitching imploded, injuries shredded the lineup, a bumbling manager drove Youkilis out of town and disenfranchised the rest of his team, and by fall, no one seemed to care. A one-run deficit in the eighth inning was a death sentence, even if three superstars with eight-figure contracts were due up in the ninth.
In fall of 2012, the future doesn’t look much brighter. Josh Beckett might be done as an effective pitcher. Crawford may be headed for Tommy John surgery and another year off. Ellsbury is a free agent at the end of the season and may view other pastures as greener than Fenway’s. Rebuilding is hardly an option, both because the team is burdened with untradeable contracts and because it’s hard to sell a bridge year to fans who have “sold out” almost 800 consecutive home games.
To further complicate things, the Rays have laid claim to the annual runner-up spot the Sox once owned, the Orioles are starting to resemble a major league baseball team and the Blue Jays have the pieces to make a run in the near future. The Red Sox may see a last-place finish before they finish first again.
Who thought Red Sox fans would be longing for 1997?
You can read more of Bryan O’Connor’s baseball musings at replacementlevel.wordpress.com.