When you mention the name “Joe Morgan” in New England, the reference isn’t to the Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Fame second baseman—even though he got the hit that beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. The reference is to a beloved manager of the same name.
That Joe Morgan took over in 1988, led the memorable “Morgan’s Magic” summer and won a pair of AL East titles. His tenure was short, and ended after 3 ½ seasons. The 1991 Boston Red Sox looked like they might cook up some more magic, before fading at the end.
Change was already in the air at Fenway Park. Prior to the season, the Red Sox cut ties with rightfielder Dwight Evans, second baseman Marty Barrett and starting pitcher Mike Boddicker. Boston signed Jack Clark on the free agent market and the DH hit 28 home runs, but the offense was not up to usual Red Sox standards, finishing seventh in the American League in runs scored.
It’s not that there weren’t some good hitters in the Boston lineup. There was still Wade Boggs at third base, who churned out a .421 on-base percentage. Carlos Quintana has a .375 OBP at first base, while left fielder Mike Greenwell and second baseman Jody Reed kept themselves on base consistently. But the lack of power from anyone other than Clark prevented the whole from being as good as the sum of the parts.
And the pitching certainly wasn’t going to cover for anything. The rotation came around to Roger Clemens every fifth day and the Rocket covered for a lot of ills, winning 18 games with a 2.62 ERA and logging 271 innings. But everything behind him—from Mike Gardiner to Tom Bolton to Matt Young to Kevin Morton to Danny Darwin—was a train wreck.
Morgan was able to get good work from Greg Harris, who both started and relieved and finished with a 3.85 ERA, and closer Jeff Reardon saved 40 games. But finding pitching on the days of a non-Clemens start was always a roll of the dice.
Boston still got off to a nice start, with an early 7-1 stretch that included a three-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers, who would finish over .500 in the old AL East. By Memorial Day, the Red Sox were 24-17, and led the division by a half-game over the Toronto Blue Jays, with the Detroit Tigers and Brewers not far in the rearview mirror.
It was a stretch just before and immediately after Memorial Day that the Sox started to unravel. They went 3-8 against divisional rivals, then dropped three straight on the West Coast to the California Angels before recovering. Just prior to the All-Star break they made another run through AL East teams, and again struggled, this time going 6-7. Boston stumbled into the midway point at 42-38 and trailing Toronto by 5 ½ games.
A 2-10 sequence out of the All-Star break seemed to spell the death knell for the season, as the Red Sox were run over by the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox, who were the top three teams in the old AL West. Boston fell into an 11 ½ game hole on August 7. It was over.
Only you couldn’t tell that to a friend of mine. We were in college and my friend was a hard-core Red Sox fan. During a hang-out session at which too much beer was consumed, he insisted the Red Sox were going to win the AL East and bet me a bottle of Crown Royal straight-up that they would do it. I gladly jumped all over the bet.
Call it coincidence, but that was the point the Red Sox began to make one final push for their beloved manager. They went to Toronto for a four-game series that, by rights, should have been the formal burial of the season. Instead it was where a revival meeting was called.
Quintana hit two home runs in Friday night’s opener, four other players had three hits and the Red Sox won 12-7. Harris came out on Saturday and threw a four-hitter, while Clark and catcher Tony Pena drove in three runs apiece to win 7-1. Greenwell delivered a four-hit game on Sunday, with Quintana and centerfielder Ellis Burks getting three hits apiece in a 9-6 win.
Clemens pitched Monday’s wraparound finale and struggled, but Clark, Greenwell and Burks had his back. Batting in the 4-5-6 spots in the order, the trio combined to go 9/15 with ten RBIs and lead an 11-8 win. The Red Sox were still 7 ½ games out, but they were breathing.
And they didn’t slow down. They won eight out of ten and cut the lead to 3 ½ games by August 22. Momentum briefly slowed, but the Red Sox regained steam and were back within three after taking a series from the then-lowly New York Yankees in the Bronx.
With three weeks to go in the season, the Red Sox met another struggling AL East foe in the Baltimore Orioles, took the series and cut the lead to a game and a half. As a broke college student with a serious drinking problem, I was now looking to find the budget funds for that bottle of Crown Royal it seemed like I might owe.
On the season’s penultimate weekend, the Red Sox went to Milwaukee. It was here that the dream died. Morton pitched on Friday and gave up six runs in the sixth inning of a 7-5 loss. Brewer starter Jamie Navarro—a decent pitcher, but nothing special—threw a four-hitter at the Sox on Saturday. Boston led on Sunday 4-3 in the eighth, but Reardon blew a save and they lost 5-4.
Even though the Sox salvaged the Monday finale, there were now 3 ½ out with a week to go and it was all but over. As if to underscore the point, Boston mailed it in and lost five of their last six, finishing 84-78.
Morgan was let go when the season was over, as the organization turned to Butch Hobson, a decision that worked almost as poorly as the one to go from Terry Francona to Bobby Valentine two decades later. It would be four years before the Red Sox became a contender again.
And that bottle of Crown Royal? Well, my friend never paid up. Two years later, I quit drinking and five years later I became a Red Sox fan. Can’t accept it now.