As Red Sox celebrate silver anniversary of ‘Morgan Magic,’ former Sox skipper recalls memorable season
|07.30.13 at 6:12 am ET|
A struggling Red Sox team changes managers and quickly transforms into one of baseball’s best clubs. It’s happened this year with first-year Sox skipper John Farrell, but the turnaround was even more dramatic 25 years ago.
It was 1988 when Joe Morgan — who will be honored by the team before Tuesday night’s game — took over the disappointing 43-42 Red Sox in the middle of July and used “Morgan Magic” to transform them into a division champion.
The Red Sox were nine games behind the first-place Tigers and needed a change. So at the All-Star break, John McNamara was fired and the Red Sox had Morgan, who had been the third base coach, run the club while they looked for a new manager.
“[Morgan] was always making you feel confident in your ability, always talking about the positives that were going to happen, predicting something successful was going to happen and just kind of a down to earth — no arrogance about him,” said Rich Gedman, then the team’s catcher and now in his first year as hitting coach for the Sox’ Double-A affiliate in Portland, Maine. “He was a good baseball guy and just made it simple.”
Morgan’s local roots helped endear him to area fans. The Walpole native was a two-sport star at Boston College, as he led the hockey team in scoring as a junior in 1951-52 and captained the Eagles baseball team that spring. He played parts of four seasons (a total of 88 games, mostly as a third baseman) in the major leagues with five teams and spent 30 years in the minors as a player, manager and coach. As a side job while coaching in the minors, he drove a snowplow on the Massachusetts Turnpike, earning him the nickname “Turnpike Joe.”
Getting a major league managing job was not something that Morgan saw coming in 1988. After all, he was already 57 years old when he finally got his shot.
“I had given up all hope of being a big league manager,” Morgan said this month. “I had applied for the Sox job a couple of times when they made changes and the answer was negative, so when I became a coach there I figured, ‘I’m in the big leagues, but the odds of managing are very thin at my age now.’ ”
He was supposed to simply be an interim manager, as the Red Sox were considering higher-profile managers like Joe Torre and Lou Pinella to fill the role. But Morgan made an immediate impact, and that interim label soon was gone.
The Sox swept a four-game series with the Royals in Morgan’s first series at the helm, winning the third game on a walk-off home run by Kevin Romine in the ninth inning. And the good times didn’t end there, as the team just kept winning. Boston swept the Twins, winning the finale by rallying from two runs down in the 10th inning and walking off on Todd Benzinger‘s three-run home run down the right-field line. Then came a four-game sweep of the White Sox. A victory over the Rangers in the first game of a three-game set made it a dozen straight.
“Before you know it, one game turned into two, two games turned into three and we got on a pretty good roll,” Gedman said. “It was a pretty exciting time when you reel off 12 straight and you’re thinking, ‘Gosh. Let’s keep this going. Get back into things.’ ”
Morgan started his Red Sox managerial career on a 12-game winning streak — the longest Red Sox winning streak in 40 years — and there seemed to be a different hero every day. It wasn’t until the second game of that Rangers series — against a team managed by Bobby Valentine — that the streak finally was snapped. By the time Morgan’s Sox lost on July 26, they were only 1½ games behind the Yankees for first place, and soon earned a share of the division lead on Aug. 3.
The team returned to its winning ways after the first loss, immediately embarking on a seven-game winning streak. The Red Sox had a 24-game winning streak at Fenway Park dating back to June 25, with 19 of those wins coming with Morgan in charge.
The Red Sox knew they needed better starting pitching in late July, so they traded rookie outfielder Brady Anderson and Double-A pitching prospect Curt Schilling to the Orioles for right-hander Mike Boddicker, who was 6-12 with a 3.86 ERA at the time of the deal. Boddicker was excellent for the Red Sox in the back half of the season, going 7-3 with a 2.63 ERA in 14 starts.
“When Boddicker was in Triple-A I liked him quite a bit,” Morgan said. “He was at Rochester and we could never beat him, and their manager, Joe Altobelli, liked him too. We couldn’t believe why he wouldn’t be in the big leagues, but it turned out that Earl Weaver didn’t like him too much. That is why we got lucky and made that trade. We figured he could definitely pitch good in the big leagues.”
The resurgent Red Sox went 46-31 with Morgan as the manager and made enough of a push to win the AL East. However, that year’s dreams of a World Series ended early and quickly in the playoffs, when Boston was swept by the mighty Athletics in the ALCS.
That Red Sox club took on the personality of its manager that season, which involved a blue-collar approach to the game. Gedman said Morgan was one manager who taught him to bring a good approach and positive attitude to each day of work. Morgan’s phrase, “six, two and even,” constantly echoed around the Red Sox dugout. Nobody really knew what it meant — not even Morgan (who said he found out it was a term related to horse race betting around 20 years after he was out of baseball) — but it served as a source of pep for the team.
Another reason his team was so successful was his managerial style involved using all of the players on his roster. He went with his hunches on younger players. While his gut did not always steer him in the right direction, it often led to a lesser-known player making a difference in a game.
Morgan raised controversy in the middle of his winning streak when he pinch hit role player Spike Owen for long time Red Sox slugger Jim Rice in a game the Red Sox were leading by one run in the eighth inning. With Ellis Burks on first, Owen dropped down a sacrifice bunt to move the runner to second (although Burks did not score). The Twins came back to tie the game in the ninth and took a 7-5 lead in the 10th before the Sox won, 9-7, on Benzinger’s three-run home run (which followed a run-scoring double by Jody Reed).
Rice had disappointed fans that season by not backing up his big contract with big power numbers, so Morgan’s move to pinch hit for Rice with a light-hitting infielder was taken by some as a chance for the new manager to upstage the struggling slugger. Rice did not take kindly to the move and shouted at Morgan when he returned to the dugout. The altercation resulted in a three-game suspension for Rice, and the decision showed that Morgan was not afraid to use everybody on the team. Two months later, Morgan used Rice to pinch hit for Wade Boggs, who had a .366 batting average that year.
The 1988 turnaround earned Morgan second place in the AL Manager of the Year award voting. However, he thinks of another season when recalling his best season as a manager.
“I thought in ’91 I did a little better job than that,” Morgan said. “We had a lot of injuries, and the pitching staff wasn’t that good that year. Later on in the year we were 10 games behind and then we looked up and we were a game behind. Things fell apart after that, but I consider that year my best.”
Morgan was fired after that 1991 season with one year left on his contract, and he did not get another managerial job in the majors. He ended his career with a 301-262 record as a major league manager.
The 82-year-old appears to be enjoying retirement, as he said he returns to Fenway three or four times a year and spends most of his days “spending money, roaming around and laughing.”
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