FORT MYERS, Fla. — Beware of the World Series Hangover. It has not been a friend of the Red Sox.
As the Sox’ pitchers and catchers report for duty in defense of the 2013 championship season, we look back at the last five seasons after the magic years in which the Red Sox made it to the World Series.
■ 1968. 86-76. Fourth place in the 10-team American League, 17 games behind the first-place Tigers.
There was Big Yaz bread in every supermarket in New England, but the follow-up to the Impossible Dream was derailed when Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg tore up his knee skiing in Lake Tahoe on Christmas Eve. Lonborg came back in midseason, but went 6-10 with a 4.29 ERA. That’s not all that happened. George Scott’s batting average plummeted from 1967’s .303 to a hideous .171. Tony Conigliaro missed the season in the wake of his beaning and all the magic of ’67 dissolved. Dick Williams, everybody’s favorite rookie manager in 1967, was wobbly at the end of 1968 and would be fired late in the 1969 season.
■ 1976. 83-79. Third place in the American League East, 15½ games behind the first-place Yankees.
An unmitigated disaster. Worse than 1968. The 1976 Red Sox came to spring training with great expectations after getting to the seventh game of the World Series five months earlier. And then everything went wrong. Labor strife triggered a brief lockout in March and young Sox stars Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, and Rick Burleson broke Tom Yawkey’s heart when they staged a brief holdout after the lockout ended. Lynn, Fisk, and Burleson were all clients of 1970s super agent Jeremy Kapstein. Today, Kapstein is famous as the Larry Lucchino operative who sits behind home plate wearing yellow headphones, but in 1976 he was Scott Boras. The Sox started 13-16 and never recovered. Ace lefthander Bill Lee tore a ligament in his throwing shoulder in an early-season brawl with the Yankees (Lee called them “Steinbrenner’s Brown Shirts”) and manager Darrell Johnson lost control of the clubhouse. Yawkey briefly purchased Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers in a Charlie Finley fire sale, but the deals were killed by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Yawkey died July 9 and Johnson was fired two weeks later.
■ 1987. 78-84. Fifth place in the AL East, 20 games behind the first-place Tigers.
This team was still hurting from a brutal World Series loss and nasty manager John McNamara made it worse when he held a meeting and told his players to erase 1986 from their minds. Marty Barrett said, “We became the first team in history to be told before the first workout of the spring not to think or talk about making it to the seventh game of the World Series.’’ It was downhill from there. News leaked that the ’86 team had been cheap with World Series shares. Reigning MVP Roger Clemens stormed out of camp over a contract dispute, prompting general manager Lou Gorman to say, “The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I’ll have lunch.” Messrs. McNamara, Clemens, Buckner, Stanley, and Gedman were haunted by the Game 6 gaffes against the Mets. Gedman held out until May and was never the same player. Oil Can Boyd was harassed by Winter Haven cops seeking overdue video cassettes (Boyd’s VHS tapes all turned out to be adult films, giving birth to the Maniacal Chuck Waseleski’s observation that this was the “Can’s Film Festival”). Buckner was released in July, and 1986 heroes Don Baylor and Dave Henderson were traded for nothing in August. It was only the Sox’ second sub.-500 full season in 20 years. McNamara’s friendship with Haywood Sullivan enabled him to survive, but he would be fired in July 1988.
■ 2005. 95-67. Tied for first with Yankees. Swept by White Sox in Division Series.
The Red Sox of the 21st century have done a far better job dealing with the World Series Hangover. The spring of 2005 represented the absolute zenith of Sox popularity. “Everywhere we went people were bowing and [expletive],’’ observed manager Terry Francona. Spring was a legitimate circus, including a club-sanctioned visit from Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” The Sox went to battle without Pedro Martinez and Orlando Cabrera, adding veterans David Wells and Matt Clement, plus rookie Jonathan Papelbon. “I told our players to go ahead and have fun, but not to forget they were baseball players,’’ said Francona. The season opener in Yankee Stadium coincided with the national opening of “Fever Pitch,’’ as the Sox were constantly reminded of their great deeds of 2004. They had to play hard in the final weekend of the regular season, pitching Curt Schilling on the final day, which took Schilling out of the playoff series against Chicago. The end of the season marked the end of Johnny Damon in Boston, which was followed by the shocking and short-lived resignation of Theo Epstein.
■ 2008. 95-67. Second place, AL East, two games behind first-place Rays. Lost ALCS in Game 7 against Tampa Bay.
Francona won two World Series in eight seasons, but believed this might have been his best team. Again, the Sox were hindered by their own hubris. They were the top draw in baseball, and Boston’s owners agreed to start the title defense with the worst road trip in the history of baseball. Leaving Fort Myers in mid-March, Boston’s baseball ambassadors embarked on a 16,000-mile, 18-day, three-country, 10-time-zone odyssey that included exhibition games in Japan, two real games in Japan, then a return to spring training play at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where 115,000 fans watched the Sox and Dodgers play on a makeshift diamond where O.J. Simpson starred. The Sox were in last place in the American League East when they finally came home to start the season, and won 95 games despite the seasonlong disruption of Manny Ramirez. This was the year Manny knocked over the traveling secretary and got himself traded to the Dodgers. Dustin Pedroia emerged as an MVP, Jon Lester pitched a no-hitter, and the Sox looked like a back-to-back World Series team until Matt Garza stuffed them in Game 7 at the Trop.
And now we gather in Florida in the spring of 2014, wondering how the Red Sox will fare as they attempt to follow the worst-to-first championship season of 2013.