The Epics is a series of nostalgic looks back at individual games that hold a special place in our hearts as Red Sox or Yankee fans. These are the games that constructed our outlook on baseball and helped shape us into the fans we are today.
Baseball was very different when I was eight. Those distinctions were particularly evident this week while I re-watched the last regular season game of the 1990 Boston Red Sox’ season.
Let’s start with the fact that there were seven teams in the American League East, among them the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers (now in the AL Central), and the Milwaukee Brewers (now in the NL Central). The Red Sox (87-64), led the division by a single game over the Toronto Blue Jays, whose lethal offensive attack featured Fred McGriff, George Bell, and the criminally underrated Kelly Gruber, along with a studly pitching staff including Dave Steib, David Wells, Jimmy Key, and Tom Henke. The Sox were in control of their own destiny, needing only to win the final game of the season against the Chicago White Sox in order to clinch.
The problem was that the White Sox were legitimately better than the Red Sox in 1990, despite being well out of playoff contention for weeks prior to game 162. Chicago had the misfortune of being in the AL West alongside the defending world champion Oakland A’s, who were concluding their three-season scorched-earth campaign across the American League. Despite ending 1990 with a record (94-68) that was six games better than Boston’s, the White Sox finished a whopping nine games behind the 103-win A’s.
For a pair of teams that were in playoff contention all season long, the Red Sox and White Sox offenses were both pretty weak. Both teams were built around standout pitching and timely hitting. Ellis Burks was the only member of either team to top 20 home runs (21) or 75 RBI (89).
The marginal Red Sox offense largely centered around Burks, in-season pickup Tom Brunansky, and my original baseball idol, Mike Greenwell. Even Hall of Famer Wade Boggs struggled through one of his worst seasons, barely eclipsing the .300 mark that he routinely shredded (.302). This team’s offensive claim to fame was setting a still unbroken Major League record for hitting into 174 double plays in a single season. That’s well over one per game. They also somehow grounded into two triple plays in a single game (July 17th vs the Twins), another MLB record that still stands tall.
Chicago looked even more pedestrian at the plate, helmed by a pre-anabolic Sammy Sosa, ex-Red Sox legend Carlton Fisk, and bastions of nineties mediocrity such as Ivan Calderon and Dan Pasqua. However, things were beginning to look up for the Pale Hose in 1990, at least on paper, due to the emergence of a pair of rookies that would go on to man the corner infield positions for most of the next decade. Robin Ventura sputtered to a .249 average while making 25 errors at third base in 1990, but Frank Thomas earned his future moniker “The Big Hurt” immediately, hitting .330 with seven homers, 31 RBI, and a transcendent .983 OPS in his first 60 big league games.
It’s amazing how much our perceptions can change after a few decades of unprecedented success for your city’s sports teams. Back in 1990, the Red Sox winning the AL East meant everything to me. They’d just won it two years before, and they even reached the World Series two years before that. But when you have zero memories of any of your teams winning a championship, the very idea of even reaching the playoffs is enough to make your stomach do hula hoops.
I somehow conned my dad into watching this game in its entirety, although it undoubtedly extended beyond my 9:30 bedtime. Before re-watching it at age 40, all I could remember was the last play of the game, a vivid childhood memory that I will take to my grave. However, the magic of YouTube unlocked a few more recollections that had lingered a hundred layers deep in my memory banks for the past 32 years.
One of those recollections was a sense of dread that the Red Sox would have to go through rookie sensation Alex Fernandez in order to clinch the division. In a scenario that is literally unheard of in this day and age, Fernandez made his minor league debut in 1990. Four quick months later, the 21-year-old was pitching for a 94-win Major League team. He was the first super-hyped rookie I remember seeing play, to be supplanted the very next season by the Bozworthian-level Oakland bust, Todd Van Poppel.
The Red Sox countered with Mike Boddicker, who would have been the toast of Beantown that year if not for Roger Clemens. Boddicker went 17-8 with a 3.36 ERA in 1990, was one of the best number two pitchers in baseball, and even won a Gold Glove. With the Rocket unavailable, Boddicker was clearly the next best option.
This game is an outstanding representation of what baseball was all about before home runs and strikeouts essentially laid small ball to waste in the mid-nineties. A grand total of three pitchers toed the rubber in this game. Three! Boddicker went seven full innings and 103 pitches before giving way to one of the league’s very first dominant closers, Massachusetts native Jeff Reardon. Fernandez pitched all eight innings for Chicago, throwing an incomprehensible 130 pitches!
Naturally, my boy the Gator started Boston’s only rally of the game, leading off the bottom of the second with a double to left. Dwight Evans, who seemed to notch a big hit in every meaningful Red Sox game of that era, drove Greenwell in with a single up the middle. Brunansky then hit a line drive to right that Sosa butchered, allowing it to roll to the wall for an RBI triple (a hometown scorekeeper’s call that probably should have been a single and a two-base error).
After a Tony Pena groundout, two things occurred that happen in today’s game about as often as a Joey Gallo sacrifice fly … and they happened at the same time! Luis Rivera, perhaps the most unremarkable shortstop in baseball history, squared around to drop down a suicide squeeze. Carlton Fisk, actually anticipating the move, called for a pitchout from Fernandez.
Imagine a world where suicide squeezes not only happen, but happen so often that an opposing catcher accurately predicts one, before counteracting it with a pitchout.
Anyway, Fernandez and White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen blew the ensuing rundown that followed this double-unicorn event. The ball rolled into left field, Brunansky scored, and the Red Sox took a 3-0 lead. The White Sox couldn’t answer back until the top of the seventh, when Guillen singled to left to drive in Thomas. For some reason, Pasqua tried to score from second behind Thomas, despite the ball being hit hard directly at a shallow Greenwell. An easy one-hop throw home retired Pasqua and ended the threat. Greenwell’s defense was usually pretty bad, but he did rack up 13 outfield assists that year.
Beyond Clemens, Mike Greenwell was the best player the Red Sox had from 1988-1990 (yes, that includes Boggs). I’d be happy to Brawl with anyone who disagrees.
The score held at 3-1 until the top of the ninth, one of the most memorable innings of my childhood.
After retiring Pasqua and Ventura, Reardon gave up a 0-2 single to Sosa and then hit Scott Fletcher in the back. With the tying runs on base, Guillen came up to bat as I waited for the perennial Red Sox meltdown. Ozzie was a light-hitting defensive specialist (as all but three shortstops in the league were at the time) and Reardon was an overpowering closer. However, the Red Sox were 72 years into a pitiful curse where everything always cratered at the end of the year. I was just as certain that they’d lose this game as I was that I’d never see them win a World Series.
“And just like that, the ghosts of Septembers and Octobers past return to Fenway,” said Norm Hitzges, ESPN’s color commentator.
“Nothing comes easy in a Red Sox uniform,” echoed Gary Thorn, ESPN’s play-by-play announcer.
Even back then, watching ESPN was freaking nauseating.
The Fenway crowd boomed as Reardon got ahead of Guillen 0-2. On the next pitch, Guillen hit a hard line drive into the right field corner. Brunansky sprinted toward the foul line and executed a sideways, glove-first Hail Mary slide. The ball hit his glove just as he disappeared behind the wall, the one spot in fair play that was out of the camera’s view. Fans jumped onto the field before I had any idea whether or not he even caught it. I stood on my tiptoes awaiting the call, and jumped the maximum height a fat kid could possibly ascend to when Sean McDonough, the best play-by-play man in Red Sox history, confirmed that the catch was made and the Red Sox had won the 1990 American League East Title.
It was, by far, the most incredible ending to a Red Sox win I’d ever seen. Other than Mo Vaughn’s Opening Day walk-off grand slam in 1998, none would even come close to it until the 2004 Yankee brawl game. The BoSox were headed to the playoffs to avenge the embarrassing sweep they had suffered at the hands of the A’s two years prior.
The next week, the Red Sox suffered another embarrassing sweep at the hands of the A’s. They would not win another game in 1990 after “The Catch,” as it was known afterward for a time. The Blue Jays leapfrogged the Red Sox in 1991 to take over division supremacy. Boston would not reach the postseason again until it was the Cleveland Indians’ turn to sweep them in 1995.
A few more things that really stood out in this game:
- The old netting above the left field wall looks so ghetto now that I’ve grown accustomed to the Monster seats.
- Home plate umpire Durwood Merrill’s strike zone was the size of a Sherman tank. Hitting really was a lot harder before the K-zone.
- The 1990 Boston Red Sox lineup may have had the strongest moustache game in the league. Aside from that bum Carlos Quintana, everyone in the batting order was rocking some serious lip foliage. Of particular note were Jody Reed’s highway patrolman, Boggs’ epic Selleck, and Brunansky saving the game while donning a kickass Cowboy.
This was the first epic, last-second victory I’d ever seen from my favorite sports team. It was incredible to witness, and I’d have called you a liar if you told me back then that I would get to enjoy so many more of them in the decades to come. 2004 was still 14 years away, so the Red Sox were not even close to getting over the ultimate hump yet. Yet even after the A’s bulldozed the Red Sox in the ALCS, the 1990 season kinda felt like a victory simply because I got to enjoy that win under those circumstances. At eight years old, I already felt like a long-time, long-suffering fan who had watched the Red Sox play in a lot of heart-wrenching games.
It was really cool to finally see them win one.