On Saturday, July 3, the Red Sox had a five-game first-place lead over Tampa Bay when they took the field for a night game in Oakland. They led the Blue Jays by eight games and the Yankees by a whopping 10 games.
Fast-forward five weeks.
In the wake of Sunday’s hideous loss to Toronto, in which they blew a five-run lead and lost for the ninth time in 11 games, the Sox fell to four games behind the Rays in the American League East. Toronto and New York have pulled within one game of Boston in the loss column.
This is what you call a collapse. An implosion. A Manila folder. Blowing a midsummer division lead makes these Sox a bit of a throwback edition. But the recent slump is nothing like the ghoulish stuff these eyes have seen over six-plus decades of Sox watching.
In long ago days before Franchy Cordero roamed the Earth, a summer/fall plummet of the Red Sox was something of an annual Hub happening, like the Pops on the Esplanade on the Fourth, and U-Hauls peppering the streets of the Back Bay on Labor Day. You could set your watch by it. All that changed in 2004 with the first of four World Series championships of the new millennium.
Now the Sox of 2021 have brought back the bad old days that stoked the fears of the Fenway fandom for so many years.
I am here to tell you that this is not like most of those.
Young, spoiled Boston baseball fans have only the 2011 Sox in their memory bank of misery. The 2011 team was a monster Sox edition, picked to finish first by most prognosticators. The vaunted Herald anointed them “Best Team Ever” in spring training, and after a 2-10 start (a little like this year’s 0-3 disaster against Baltimore), the Franconamen went 81-42. Like the 2021 team, they were in first place at the All-Star break. They went 20-6 in July.
They were, in fact, nothing like this year’s team. They were a true wagon and saved their collapse for September, when they imploded under the weight of chicken and beer. They lost 20 of their final 27, getting bounced from playoff contention on the final night of the season — a game that marked the end of the Red Sox careers of Terry Francona, Theo Epstein, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek, Jonathan Papelbon, J.D. Drew, and Heidi Watney. Those Red Sox were the first team in baseball history to fail to make the playoffs after holding a nine-game playoff lead in September.
This is nothing like that. The 2021 Sox were not expected to win. They played over their heads for three months and only now have seen the wheels come off.
We know why. Alex Cora’s starting staff was a mirage. The bullpen could carry the weight for only so long. And there are too many holes in the lineup on a daily basis (what does Bobby Dalbec have to do to get sent to the minors?).
Things got worse when Chaim Bloom was a still-life masterpiece at the trading deadline, sticking to the company line and staying under the luxury-tax threshold. We watched the Rays, Jays, and Yankees spend money (and prospects) to get better. Tampa Bay, Toronto, and the Yankees are a combined 24-6 since the deadline. The demoralized Red Sox are 2-8.
But what we are seeing now represents reality more than collapse.
Take it from one who has seen collapse.
From 1972-88, the Sox led the AL East after the All-Star break nine times, yet won the division in only three of those seasons.
Anybody remember 1974, when a talented first-place Sox team led the Baltimore Orioles by eight games Aug. 30, only to finish in third place, seven games behind Baltimore? They went 14-24 down the stretch.
And then we have 1978, the capo di tutti capi of Red Sox folds.
On July 20 of 1978, the Red Sox were 62-28, led the second-place Brewers by nine games and had a 14-game lead over the fourth-place Yankees. By Sept. 16, after a 3-14 stretch, they were 3½ behind the Yankees.
Boston’s All-Star shortstop Rick Burleson said, “The abuse we have taken and the abuse we must be prepared to take for the entire winter, we richly deserve.”
Reliever Dick Drago added, “You won’t know what humiliation is until you’ve been through what we’re enduring right now.”
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a collapse. It’s when a great team inexplicably goes south and doesn’t even make the playoffs after dominating all of baseball for four months.
This is nothing like that. This is a mere market correction from a team that overachieved. The Sox still have 48 games left and are very much in contention. If the playoffs started today, the Sox would be in Oakland for a one-game playoff, and Chris Sale no doubt would be starting that game.
All is not lost.
It just feels that way.