Editor’s note: The Globe is reaching into its archives to bring you “Replay,” articles from the past that highlight something interesting, timely, or revealing. This commentary by Peter Gammons on the mood surrounding the Red Sox appeared on Sunday, Aug. 17, 1980, under the headline “Fun, fear and the Red Sox.”
It’s tough enough to play baseball, but it’s worse when it becomes work.
Certainly, there are responsibilities that go with the game and the purpose for which 25 semigrown men are gathered together in silly-looking uniforms. There are individuals — like a Bob Montgomery or a George Medich — who could be successful at almost anything.
But the state of mind in which baseball is best played is that of a 12-year-old. And if you could have gone into the Pittsburgh Pirates’ clubhouse before the last three games of the last World Series, you would need no further proof. When they were 12, they played baseball because it was fun. And because it was fun, they kept playing and began the climb up the pyramid, to the major leagues. All along the climb, it was a jock-group experience, and that isn’t in any way related to a 9-to-5 job.
But the game is a job to the Red Sox. That is what Tony Perez was talking about in a recent interview; it is what Carl Yastrzemski feared when he said, “They’ve torn out our heart and soul,” when Luis Tiant left; it is what Tommy Harper was talking about when he said, “If Willie Stargell came to the Red Sox, they’d tell him to take his gold stars and stuff them”; and it is what Jim Rice was thinking about a couple of weeks ago when out of the blue he said, “Nobody on this team has any fun.”
The Red Sox remind me of the Eagles’ lyric: “You don’t care about winning, you just don’t want to lose.” And therein lies a big part of the reason they have underachieved these last two years. No one is saying they should win the pennant, but they should be in contention, and they haven’t been, despite the fact that they may have more players who play with the pedal to the metal in adversity (as opposed to the Brewers) than any other team in the league.
But why? There has long been a puritanical streak in the Red Sox front office, a fear that players are enjoying themselves and too much worrying about off- and on-field behavior, forgetting about Babe Ruth, the 1972-74 Oakland A’s, and 1979 Pirates.
So they traded Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater and cost themselves the 1972 divisional title because they didn’t like Lyle. So they dumped Ferguson Jenkins for John Poloni and cost themselves the 1978 divisional title. But that is only part of it, as was the departure of El Tiante, who had a unique and great ability to divert his Red Sox teammates’ attention. Sometimes I wonder how much fun a lot of adults now have at Fenway Park or in just following the team.
The most vivid example was last August, when the Red Sox were leading the Twins, 12-0. Bill Campbell pitched the ninth and allowed a run that finished it at 12-1, and not only were fans screaming at Don Zimmer, but when Campbell was walking off the field, a group of men were hollering obscenities at him. One even flung an empty gin bottle past his head.
The Red Sox are expected to win, and when they don’t, heads must be held accountable. Fans, too, have forgotten what it’s like to go to a game at the age of 12. A favorite player, a special play or just the atmosphere of the ballpark isn’t enough, because the Red Sox must win.
The media helped create that tension in the administration of Haywood Sullivan and Buddy LeRoux, who act as if they’re afraid they’ll be skewered if any moves they make turn out wrong. How many times have we heard, “What would you people say . . . ?” from Sullivan after three years of public cross-examination?
It has affected Don Zimmer’s managing. He has said hundreds of times, “I can just hear what they’d be saying on talk shows if I had . . . ” Earl Weaver can take beatings in May and June to win games later, but Zimmer cannot.
Zimmy is a gambler, a fun-loving man by nature, and when he manages by nature and puts Tom Burgmeier in left field or sends all three runners at 3-and-2 with one out without fear of what happens, he is a far better manager than the one who too often has managed for the public’s fickle favor.
And the players play as if they’re being interviewed by Mike Wallace. They’re afraid to say what’s on their minds, because the Red Sox historically don’t tolerate self-expression, and they’re afraid to have much of a sense of humor. That is at the heart of what Frank Duffy meant when he said, “We’re the only team that gets off the plane and leaves in 25 separate cabs.” It isn’t just a reflection on the individuals, but on their environment.
The job-bill plank of the Democratic Party platform may be a life-and-death matter, but the Red Sox aren’t. They are just athletes doing what they do best, shouldering the weight of a 12-year-old’s world.