The Boston Red Sox had let a potential dynasty slip away in the late 1970s. After winning the 1975 American League pennant with a rising group of young players, the Red Sox were hit by injuries in 1976, lost close division races to the New York Yankees in 1977 and 1978, and faded to 83 wins by 1980, triggering a managerial change from Don Zimmer to Ralph Houk.
Baseball was marred by a strike in 1981 and the Sox were a respectable 59-49. The 1982 Boston Red Sox represented not only an overachieving high point in the first half of the decade, but laid the groundwork for the success that would come in the 1980s latter half.
Boston wasn’t on anyone’s radar coming into 1982, a time when the AL East had seven teams and only the winner advanced into postseason play. The Yankees had won the division four times in five years, the Milwaukee Brewers were the rising force and the Baltimore Orioles always respected under Earl Weaver. After an offseason with no notable changes, there was no reason to think about the Red Sox.
But the early part of the season quickly changed that. Boston went on a 13-1 stretch from April 20 to May 4 that gave them a two-game lead. By the end of May they were 30-17. While the lead was only a half-game, it was over the Detroit Tigers, even more lightly regarded than Boston. The Sox were plus-five on the Yanks, with the Orioles and Brewers a couple games further in the rearview mirror.
Jim Rice was delivered what was now expected, a reliable season hitting for power and average. Rice batting .309, hit 24 home runs and had 97 RBIs. Carney Lansford, a talented 25-year-old third baseman, hit .301. Dwight Evans had a huge year, on on-base percentage of .402, to go with 32 home runs and 98 RBIs.
And the most heartening part of the season? Carl Yastrzemski, now 42-years-old, had an OBP of .375 and popped 16 home runs. The only people chasing a World Series ring longer than Yaz it seemed, were the Fenway Faithful themselves and now 1982 provided unexpected hope.
Pitching was a problem though. Dennis Eckersley and John Tudor each had good years, winning 13 games with ERAs below 3.75. But neither was an ace, and that was the role they had to fulfill in a Red Sox rotation where every other starter had an ERA over 5. The bullpen relied heavily on Bob Stanley and Mark Clear, who combined to log 273 innings and win 26 games between them.
But there’s a lot of innings in a baseball season, and being top-heavy in the rotation and the pen isn’t a recipe for surviving the summer.
Milwaukee made a managerial change in late May and when the Brewers found their footing, they got very hot, very fast. In late June, they came to Fenway Park for a four-game weekend wraparound series. After taking the Friday opener, Saturday afternoon’s game was tied 8-8 after seven innings. Clear came on, walked the bases full, gave up a two-run single and the Red Sox lost. They fell again on Sunday before avoiding a sweep on Monday.
Boston made a return trip to the Midwest on Fourth of July weekend. The Brewers were now within two games of the lead. This writer, growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, remembers the electricity in the community for the Brewers and how packed old County Stadium was for this series. Milwaukee battered Boston pitching for 21 runs on Friday and Saturday in easy wins that tied the race, before Eckersley shut down the Brewer bats in a 4-1 win on Sunday that briefly delayed what seemed to be inevitable—that the Red Sox would fall from first.
Baltimore was also lurking and by mid-August would begin a sustained push that led them and Milwaukee to race to the season’s final day in a fantastic race. The Red Sox had the Orioles’ number this season though, going 9-4 against the Birds and splitting four at old Memorial Stadium in July helped stem the tide.
The problem, as it often is, when a team lacks pitching, was consistency. Boston lost five of six and slipped 5 ½ games out. They didn’t go quietly, and briefly got to within 3 ½ games in the early days of September. But a 14-game stretch that saw games mostly against Detroit and the Cleveland Indians, who won 83 and 78 games respectively, saw the Red Sox struggle to 5-9. The hopes of another October chance for Yaz were all but gone.
Boston still won 89 games in 1982 and achieved more than anyone would have thought possible. They finished ahead of the disappointing Yankees in the standings, something that can always bring a smile to a New Englander’s heart. The biggest long-term consequence though, was the players who began to get their feet wet.
Wade Boggs didn’t have a regular positon yet—it would take the trading of Lansford to make that happen—but Boggs got 381 at-bats, and posted on OBP of .406. His career as one of the great contact hitters of his era was just beginning and he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Marty Barrett was a September call-up and would eventually take the second base job from veteran Jerry Remy, who had a fine career as a Red Sox analyst that continues to this day, ahead of him. Barrett would end up MVP of the 1986 American League Championship Series, with his 14 hits still an LCS record.
Rich Gedman, the 22-year-old catcher had been second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1981 and continued his development, splitting time with veteran Gary Allenson. Gedman would become one of the game’s most productive offensive catchers.
And most important, pitching was on the way. Bruce Hurst was 24-years-old and 1982 was his first season of regular work. He got hit hard, with a 5.77 ERA in 19 starts, but he got his feet wet. Hurst would be the #2 starter on the 1986 pennant-winning team and had been voted MVP of the 1986 World Series before the epic Game 6 collapse.
Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd was the #3 starter on that ’86 team, and he was a September call-up, getting his first big-league start in 1982.
The 1982 Boston Red Sox aren’t one that’s remembered in the rich lore of this franchise. But a team that overachieves, contends all year and provides the groundwork for what would be three division crowns and a pennant has left a legacy worth remembering.