The pressure was on for the 1988 Boston Red Sox. After their pennant-winning campaign of 1986 ended with a crushing World Series collapse, the Red Sox kept the collapse going through a poor 1987 season. Manager John McNamara’s job was on the line and everyone in baseball knew it when the 1988 season began. The urgency of the moment was underscored when the team acquired Chicago Cubs’ closer Lee Smith to shore up the bullpen before the season began.
Boston could score runs. They had the top offense in the American League in 1988 and it wasn’t via the usual 1980s Red Sox route of hitting the ball over the Green Monster. Boston only ranked 10th in the American League in home runs. But they were atop the AL in batting average, walks and doubles. And no one personified that better than Wade Boggs. The 30-year-old third baseman hit .366 to win his fifth batting title in six years. His on-base percentage soared at .476 and the slugging percentage was a solid .390.
And Boggs wasn’t even the most complete offensive player on the Red Sox in 1988. That honor belonged to 24-year-old leftfielder Mike Greenwell. He hit .325, drove in 119 runs and finished second in the American League MVP voting.
Greenwell was one part of a terrific outfield. Centerfielder Ellis Burks was a rising star and the 23-year-old finished with a stat line of .367 on-base percentage/.481 slugging percentage and he drove in 92 runs. On the other end of the career spectrum was 36-year-old rightfielder Dwight Evans, who had 111 RBI and a stat line of .375/.487.
Jody Reed, the 25-year-old shortstop, added a .380 OBP to the mix. The rest of the lineup was struggled with poor years from catcher Rich Gedman and Todd Benzinger at first base. Second baseman Marty Barrett saw his production dip and future Hall of Famer Jim Rice was on the downside of his career at age 35. Rice hit 15 home runs and drove in 72 runs.
If the offense was top-heavy, carried by a small number of excellent players, the pitching staff was even more so. Roger Clemens was outstanding, winning 18 games with 2.93 ERA and pitching 264 innings. Bruce Hurst won 18 more, had an ERA of 3.66 and also cleared the 200-inning barrier. After that, it was anybody’s guess.
Oil Can Boyd made 23 starts and finished with a disastrous 5.34 ERA. Mike Smithson was worse with a 5.97 ERA in his 18 starts. Wes Gardner did some yeoman’s work shuffling between the rotation and the bullpen, posting a 3.50 ERA, but the bottom line was that anything after Clemens and Hurst was an adventure.
Smith did his part and solidified the closer’s spot, saving 29 games—a good total in the days when complete games were more common (Clemens & Hurst alone combined for 21 complete games). Perhaps the biggest lift the Red Sox staff got was the good work of a couple veteran bullpen members. Bob Stanley and Dennis Lamp each produced ERAs under 3.50. And the Boston staff was able to finish with a composite 3.97 ERA—hitting the league average right on the nose.
Opening Day didn’t go well—Smith gave up a 10th-inning home run to Detroit’s Alan Trammell and the Red Sox lost. But they still started 14-6 and that included three wins in five games over the Tigers, who were the defending AL East champs (it wasn’t until the realignment of 1994 that Detroit went into the newly created AL Central). It also included a 5-0 record against the Milwaukee Brewers, who would be in the hunt all season long.
From April 28 to May 31, the Red Sox played teams from the AL West and the season took a turn for the worse. They lost 17 of 30 games and dipped into fifth place, seven games off the pace set by the division-leading New York Yankees. When Boston resumed playing AL East teams they promptly lost four straight to Toronto in Fenway.
By the All-Star break, the Red Sox were 43-42 and nine games out. McNamara was fired and Joe Morgan replaced him—not the Hall of Fame second baseman, but the third-base coach who was a baseball lifer and had never managed above the minor-league level. To say the team responded well to the change would be a drastic understatement.
Clemens took the mound in the first game back from the break and faced Kansas City’s Bret Saberhagen in an attractive pitcher’s duel to open a Friday doubleheader. Evans hit an early two-run homer, Clemens went the distance and the Red Sox won 3-1. And the next thing you knew, Boston was off and rolling.
They swept that doubleheader, won Saturday’s game in walkoff fashion and took the first twelve games Morgan managed. After a loss, the Red Sox promptly resumed winning, taking seven straight. Throughout Red Sox Nation they called it “Morgan Magic.” They made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even more important, they got some pitching help.
Baltimore was having a miserable season and looking to trade Mike Boddicker, a hero of their 1983 World Series championship team. Boston won the bidding war—it wasn’t exactly cheap—the price was a couple minor leaguers by the names of Curt Schilling and Brady Anderson. But in the days when the only way to the postseason were to finish first in a seven-team division and advance directly to the LCS, a deal like this was worth it…so long as your veteran pitcher delivered.
The deal went down on July 29. The next day, Clemens won another high-profile pitchers’ duel, beating Milwaukee’s Teddy Higuera 3-2, with the help of a walkoff single by Barrett. On July 30, Boddicker made his first start for the Red Sox. He threw a shutout. By the time Labor Day arrived, Boston was in first place.
It was still a close four-team race. The Tigers were nipping at the heels of the Red Sox, a game back. The Yankees and Brewers were each four out, with the Blue Jays further in the rearview mirror at 6 ½ in the hole. Boston took advantage of playing the Orioles and Indians—the only two sub-.500 teams in the AL East—in the first week after the holiday weekend and they nudged out to a 3 ½ game lead.
Clemens took the ball for the opener of a four-game home series with New York in mid-September. When he lost, the potential for another Boston fade was there. Instead, the offense rallied with 19 runs in the next three games. Hurst threw a complete-game three-hitter and the Red Sox won the next three. The Yankees were all but finished and with the AL East lead stretched to six games, Boston was firmly in command.
They made it modestly interesting, losing six of nine and seeing the lead shrink to 2 ½ games with four days left in the season. Milwaukee, New York and Detroit were still in play. Boddicker took the ball in Cleveland and threw another shutout. Burks drove in four runs and the easy 12-0 win eliminated the Tigers and assured the Red Sox of at least a one-game playoff with either the Brewers or Yankees. The magic number was one.
The clinching moment wasn’t exactly inspiring. Clemens gave up three runs in the first and lost 4-2 to the Indians on Friday night. But while that was going on, Detroit ace Jack Morris was knocking out the Yankees. Those in New England that stayed up for the West Coast games were able to celebrate when Milwaukee lost to Oakland.
It turns out that 12-0 win behind Boddicker was the final Boston victory of the season. They dropped the final two games with nothing to play for and were swept out of the American League Championship Series by the mighty Oakland A’s, with the steroid-juiced Bash Brothers of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire leading the way.
The 1988 Boston Red Sox were still a part of what was mostly a solid period in franchise history. They won another division title in 1990 and even though that also ended in an ALCS sweep at the hands of Oakland, Boston still won three AL East crowns in the five-year stretch from 1986-90. And the memories of the summer of Morgan Magic made this 1988 team just a little more special.