Exactly 45 years earlier, Jim Lonborg was on the mound at Cleveland Stadium, matching the Indians’ Sam McDowell for seven innings and leaving the Red Sox in a position to maintain their first-place tie with Minnesota after Reggie Smith delivered Carl Yastrzemski with a ninth-inning single. That win would become even bigger some 11 days later, when the eventual Cy Young Award winner tossed a complete game against the Twins to give Boston the American League pennant and propel the club to the World Series just a year after losing 90 games.
Thursday night, however, the pitching hero of that legendary 1967 team said he isn't optimistic about the chances of these modern-day Sox duplicating the feats of those Impossible Dreamers when they endeavor to recover from this disaster of a season next spring.
"No," Lonborg answered quickly when asked if he thought 2013 would be a turnaround year in the same mold. "I would like to have some hope, but I just don't see a real strong starting core."
According to the former right-hander, the seeds for that franchise-altering season were planted and sewn in the previous season, when the Sox ultimately finished with more losses than any Boston team since -- but were actually competitive in the latter part of the year. They had a winning record over their final 50 games of 1966, finishing with wins in eight of the last 13, and those achievements were made all the more important because they were accomplished even while a number of young players gained experience.
"It was home-grown players who had a chance to develop at the major-league level," said Lonborg, who made 23 starts among 45 appearances as a 24-year-old during the '66 season, when Tony Conigliaro (age 21), George Scott (22), Dalton Jones (22), Rico Petrocelli (23), and Joe Foy (23) all played at least 115 big-leagues games, and the 26-year-old Yastrzemski was among the senior members of the everyday lineup. Collectively they were allowed to establish themselves against the best competition, and when they succeeded in the midst of that process, Lonborg says it set the stage for the following spring.
"We still finished in ninth (place), but psychologically it's good to have that going into the winter," the righthander-turned-dentist said before speaking to the Saugus Business Partnership on Thursday night. "Ballplayers are very fragile human beings, and it is important to at least have some hope for spring training the next year."
That sort of hope is not something the 2012 have fostered as they've faltered toward the finish. Entering Friday's start of the season's final homestand they were 15-32 since Aug. 1, and it's not as though that woeful record can be blamed on the growing pains that can come with building for the future. Only recently have the Sox really started to present lineups seemingly penned with next year in mind -- and even then there have still been curious decisions like the one made last Sunday, when manager Bobby Valentine opted to pinch hit for supposed shortstop-of-the-future Jose Iglesias in the midst of a 2-2 count.
If the speculation proves true, and Valentine is not retained for next season, the Sox would find themselves in a similar place to where they were between the '66 and '67 campaigns. Back then, the club hired Dick Williams -- who had never before managed in the majors, and was just 37 years old at the start of his first season, but who had a knack for effectively communicating with his players. Lonborg said Thursday that Williams wasn't one of his favorite people for most of the summer, "but he knew how to get the best out of me."
"He had a harsh side to him, but he was focused on the fundamentals. He told us he expected us to make mistakes, but he didn't want us to make the same mistakes because that's not showing development," Lonborg said. "He'd say things in a way that made you not want to make the same mistake again."
In Williams' first year, Lonborg went 22-9 and posted an AL-best 246 strikeouts en route to his Cy Young, and a franchise that had lost 190 games over the two previous seasons flipped the script entirely to finish a league-best 92-70. The Red Sox can only hope for a reprisal of that dramatic turnaround next year, though speaking with the experience of 15 big-league seasons Lonborg suggested his former club may be best served by gearing its efforts toward 2014 instead.
Specifically citing Iglesias, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Pedro Ciriaco, he said he'd like to see the Sox try to build a faster, more athletic club. And he said that the flexibility gained by August's megadeal with the Dodgers presents the front office with a great opportunity to reshape the roster in a way that will reset things, and lift them out of the rut they've been in since last September.
"The timing is perfect to do it," he said.
Such an approach would certainly make it difficult to repeat what happened 46 years earlier, after the last season in which the Sox lost at least 90 games.
But as Lonborg knows full well, nothing is impossible.
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