No matter how the Boston Red Sox finish up their surprising season, they will be hard-pressed to top the summer of 1988 for excitement. Those of us who watched 25 years ago as the Sox rebounded from a lackluster 43-42 start to go on the hottest stretch in team history will never forget the summer of Morgan's Magic.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with the architect of that incredible turnaround, former Red Sox manager and lifelong Walpole, Mass. resident Joe Morgan. He's been removed from the game at the big-league level for more than two decades, since his unpopular firing by Sox ownership after the 1991 season, but at age 83 he still has his sharp mind, quick wit and the good sense that helped him win a record 12 straight games to start his managerial career.
The streak eventually reached 19 wins of his first 20 contests, which launched Boston into first place and to an improbable AL East title. Under Morgan, Boston won another East crown in 1990, but the Sox were swept in the ALCS by the Oakland Athletics both years, which he admits now “were just a better team than us.”
A second-place finish in 1991 led to his firing, after which he warned that "these guys aren't as good as you think." He was right; the '92 Sox finished last under manager Butch Hobson.
These days, Morgan goes to a handful of Red Sox games at Fenway each season and watches the rest of them in the basement of the modest ranch house he's shared with his wife, Dottie, since Ted Williams roamed left field at Fenway.
Morgan has enjoyed watching the current Sox exceed all expectations. He says they remind him (gulp) of the 1986 team that racked up a number of weird, early-season victories en route to the AL pennant and an ill-fated World Series against the New York Mets.
He was a coach on that club under John MacNamara, and he remembers saying early on, “'Mac, if we're winning games like this now, we're going to have a hell of a year.' And we did.”
Morgan isn't sure what will become of the 2013 Red Sox, but he had some insights to offer.
On whether Clay Buchholz can come back
"I'm not counting on him, for one reason. Even if he comes back, you don't know if he is going to be successful right away. It's almost September, and this crazy thing he's got...He's had more problems. Every year it's something—stomachache, backache."
On Jon Lester's inconsistencies
"He doesn't get ahead of the hitters enough—that's one thing. I thought he started throwing too many cutters, and he lost that real good curve he used to have. He got to the point where he was trying to nitpick all the time. Get ahead of the guys! If you send 10 men to the plate in the big leagues today, maybe three of them will swing at the first pitch. So throw the damn thing in there with a little heat, and get ahead of them!"
On which current Sox pitcher would start a must-win game for him, if Buchholz wasn't available
"I haven't seen enough of [Jake] Peavy, but I'd be leaning toward him. Lester has been so inconsistent."
On popular infielder Jose Iglesias, traded after a surprisingly hot start at the plate
"I had not seen him play at all before this year. I watched him a lot in spring training, and I came away with one thing about him: He had enough bat speed to be a decent hitter and play in the big leagues every day. I still think that.
"I was little shocked by it [the trade]. But then you figure you've got [Xander] Bogaerts coming up, and [Stephen] Drew—a good fielder—who is going to be here the rest of the year. Plus you've got [Will] Middlebrooks coming back at third, which is good."
On walk-off hits
"Those guys should be careful. They keep celebrating like that and somebody is going to get hurt. I notice that some guys now are doing a little stutter-step before they get smacked around, so nobody steps on their feet."
On David Ortiz's comeback from injury
"Oh yeah, that showed me something, I was surprised his ankle was still hurting him when the season started, after all those months. He looked really doubtful. They pitch around him all right, but he's still got it going. Incredible."
On the “Morgan's Magic” reunion this year at Fenway
"Those guys who came back really had a great time. It was fun seeing them too. Big Lee Smith—he's a character. I like him a lot. Oil Can, Dewey, all of them. They were all glad they came, and so was I."
On his first pitch (or pitches) to current manager John Farrell
"I've been having trouble with my right [throwing] arm, so I've had to use my left arm to raise it above my head. My son Billy told me to go sidearm—just sling it up there sidearm. Well I went about a mile left of John with that throw, so I said, 'Give me another one of those things.' This time I raised my arm up with the left hand, and I got it in there."
On whether it feels like 25 years since 1988
"No, but I've been lucky. I hear guys talking about the 'golden years,' and they're sick all the time, or their wives are sick. I've had 25 great years.
"The thing was, I knew when my days with the Red Sox were over, that was it. I was going to roam around, not take another baseball job and have fun in this life. I told [then Red Sox president] John Harrington that if they didn't fire me, it was probably going to be my last year anyway. Planes, hotels, I had enough of that routine. There are only so many years you have left, and you want to enjoy them.
"Some guys [who retire] complain they have nothing to do. I have plenty to do. Gardening, golfing, seeing the kids and grandkids, going to the Kentucky Derby, whatever. I golf about two or three times a week, with whomever shows up. And of course I watch the ballgames."