The 1979 Boston Red Sox entered the season dealing with the wounds of heartbreak from the previous two years. Both times they lost a close race for the AL East crown to the hated New York Yankees. The ending in 1977 was disappointing, the finish of 1978 positively devastating. The ’79 Red Sox came back off the canvas and still played good baseball, but they slipped just enough to fall well off the pace in the AL East.
Boston was defined by a potent offense and they led the league in runs scored. They simply hit the heck out of the ball–the Red Sox led the league in batting average, doubles and home runs, while being in the bottom half of the AL in walks.
Jim Rice came off his MVP season of 1978 and delivered 39 home runs and 130 RBI. Fred Lynn had an amazing year in centerfield, 39 home runs of his own and a .333 batting average, had 122 RBI and scored 116 runs. That Lynn, also an excellent defensive centerfielder, finished fourth in the MVP voting, as an indictment of the voters.
The outstanding outfield was rounded out by rightfielder Dwight Evans, who finished with a .364 on-base percentage/.456 slugging percentage, while being another terrific defensive player. Evans hit 21 home runs of his own.
But the assault didn’t stop there. Carl Yastrzemski was 39-years old ,but still hit 21 home runs and finished with a .346 OBP in his DH duties. Third baseman Butch Hobson popped 28 home runs. The Red Sox acquired first baseman Bob Watson in mid-June and Watson hit .337. One only wonders how much offense this team would have produced had catcher Carlton Fisk not been limited to 91 games.
The pitching wasn’t bad–it was fifth in the American League in ERA, but they lacked depth and a clear stopper. Mike Torrez was reliable in taking his turn, logging 252 innings. But the work was often mediocre, with a 4.49 ERA. Bob Stanley, a starter/reliever hybrid did most of his 1979 work out of the rotation and had a nice 16-win season with a 3.99 ERA.
Dennis Eckersley was the best of the starters, going 17-10 with a 2.99 ERA. But the rotation was damaged badly by a terrible offseason trade–the Red Sox shipped lefthander and Yankee-killer Bill Lee off to the Montreal Expos for infielder Stan Papi.
The problems with Lee were all personal, and not business. Manager Don Zimmer didn’t like Lee–who was admittedly a pain in the posterior. But there’s no evidence the lefty was a clubhouse poison and the Red Sox lost a valuable arm for a player who never made an impact.
Relief pitching was similarly thin. Dick Drago won 10 games and saved 13, while Tom Burgmeier finished with a 2.74 ERA. But there weren’t good options after that.
Boston showed no signs of a hangover from the previous October. They won six of eight in a mid-April homestand, capping it off by sweeping the three-time defending AL West champion Kansas City Royals and scoring 25 runs in the trio of wins. The Sox put together a manageable 5-4 trip to the West Coast and then started the month of May with 10 wins in 16 games, including splitting six with the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.
The Sox briefly slowed toward the end of May, with a 5-6 road trip, but they were still just two games back of Baltimore and narrowly ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and Yankees as the calendar turned to summer.
What Boston was up against in 1979 was made crystal clear in the month of June. The Red Sox played terrific baseball and went 20-8…yet they managed to lose ground to Baltimore, and the AL East deficit was 4 1/2 games at month’s end. Winning six of nine leading into the All-Star break helped the Sox crawl back to within two games.
It was clear the Orioles, and not the Yankees, were going to be the team to beat and a terrible tragedy on August 2 finalized that. New York catcher and team captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, flying his private plane to his Ohio home on an off-day. A pall was cast over the entire season.
On the field, the Red Sox slipped into mediocrity. On the positive side, they took three of four in Milwaukee, who would ultimately win 95 games. Boston closed to within 4 1/2 games of Baltimore in late August, and still had seven games left with Baltimore in September. But a three-game series in Kansas City undid all of that.
The Red Sox faced rookie Craig Chamberlain in the Friday opener at Royals Stadium. Chamberlain had made two great starts to begin his career, and he made another tonight, beating Boston 4-2. Chamberlain began to slow down the rest of the season and never made another major league start after 1979, and this would be just one of countless instances of a pennant race being affected by the unknown player.
On Saturday afternoon, Torrez gave up a leadoff home run to Kansas City’s Willie Wilson. Torrez pitched brilliantly the rest of the way, but lost a duel to KC’s Dennis Leonard. Wilson kept it going on Sunday, with four hits and a 6-3 loss completed the sweep.
Those three straight losses in Kansas City were the beginning of a 3-9 stretch that preceded Baltimore’s September arrival in Fenway Park. By this time, Boston was eleven games out and the fact they dropped three of four to the Birds barely registered. Baltimore won 102 games and coasted home to the AL East crown.
Boston still won 91 games, and finished with a better record than the AL West champion California Angels. By the standards of today, the Red Sox were a playoff team with room to spare. In the tougher world of 1979 MLB, they were getting further from October, not closer.