BALTIMORE — Just before 4 a.m. last Sunday, a reign of terror broke out at the Cross Keys Inn. A man began telephoning members of the Boston Red Sox in the middle of the night and yelling in their ears.
The culprit was Red Sox Manager John McNamara, one of the most tight-lipped men in baseball. What had driven good ol' Johnny Mac out of his right mind?
"We got Tom Seaver!"
Those were McNamara's words to one Red Sox coach after another.
Diagnosis: insanely happy.
Not everyone was delighted, of course. When Don Baylor, judge of the Red Sox kangaroo court, got word that Steve Lyons was dealt for Seaver, he was furious. Lyons, the Red Sox' top space cadet, specialized in all the mental gaffes for which Baylor levies $5 fines.
"Trading Lyons took away our major source of income," said Baylor, who is saving the money to throw a team pennant party. "If Seaver's not here by the first pitch today, he's fined. I don't care if he's got to fly all night to get here. I've got to make up the deficit somehow. (President) Reagan has his problems; I got mine."
It's hard to find a Red Sox problem. Unless you count McNamara's bloodshot eyes. By evening, after his club had swept a three-game series from Baltimore and pushed its division lead to eight games, he looked as if he could barely stand. "I slept an hour," he fibbed.
Who needs sleep? The Red Sox are running on high-octane joy. Remember 1918? Seems like yesterday, doesn't it?
For any follower of the Red Sox who is younger than President Reagan, this could be the only season of a lifetime when a World Series flag flies above Fenway Park.
No, it's not too early for fantasy. In the last two weeks, the Red Sox have just about won the AL East pennant. Of course, they may yet find a way to unwin the cursed thing. The schedule-maker insists that July, August, September and part of October be played to conclusion. New England always has thought this a picky codicil. Red Sox teams don't collapse often in the summer heat. Not more than five or six times a generation.
This, however, is no day for Boston doubts. A fortnight ago, the Red Sox had a skinny 3 1/2-game lead on New York, 4 1/2 on Baltimore and a horde of doubters. They also had three of their best pitchers disabled as they faced a dozen games in a row with the Yankees and Orioles.
"People said we weren't for real," said McNamara.
So, Boston started business with a three-game sweep in Yankee Stadium and now has finished its first huge test with another road sweep in Memorial Stadium, where the normally elegant Orioles are in a state of confused self-doubt.
Maybe Baltimore's Earl Weaver said it best for those chasing the Red Sox: "I'm gonna go home, jump in the damn swimming pool and hope I don't come up."
This weekend, Boston showed why it is a powerful division favorite. Friday night, before a thunderous sellout crowd, Roger Clemens struck out 11, ignored two home runs by Eddie Murray and ran his record to 14-0 in a 5-3 game that was a masterpiece of tension. Saturday, Oil Can Boyd got halfway to his 20th win. Hey, who needs Bruce Hurst anyway?
Sunday afternoon was the real eye-opener, however. Boston sent winless Jeff Sellers (0-3), an unimpressive sidearmer, against Mike Boddicker (10-2). Boddicker got shelled for seven runs, four of them early, and Sellers got his first major league complete game. That's what happens in special seasons. The Orioles only need to think back to 1983 for a parallel. Then, they got crucial wins from men such as Allan Ramirez and Bill Swaggerty who'd done nothing before and have done nothing since.
The 1983 Orioles also were forced to use a pitcher they had dumped back to the minors five times and didn't consider to be a prospect: Boddicker.
This Boston team doesn't need too much magic. Its lineup contains two batting champions (Wade Boggs and Bill Buckner), three home run champions (Jim Rice, Tony Armas and Dwight Evans) and an RBI champion and MVP (Baylor).
With the best chance at a league ERA title since World War I, with Hurst returning after the all-star break, with Armas, Evans and Buckner just starting to get hot with the weather, why is this team so happy to get Seaver?
The answer can be seen on their fingers. Until Sunday the whole Red Sox team owned only one ring for being a member of a world champion (Sammy Stewart as an Oriole). Seaver doubles the total.
Boston reliever Joe Sambito gave the perfect capsule comment: "We get Seaver. The Yanks don't. I get to play with my idol. And I'm not the oldest pitcher on the team anymore (at age 34)."
The stability and leadership that Baylor has provided all year should be compounded by Seaver. "He'll be able to help our young pitchers and not step on any toes," said Baylor. "Believe it or not, he'll even help Roger Clemens. Seaver has been though all the wars.
He'll have the right word when if he (Clemens) has a problem."
The Red Sox now have only one team motto: Grind everybody to dust.
"This team feels like the early Orioles in '79 when we were hungry," said Stewart. "You get a league lead, tear off your rearview mirror and drive like the Italians. Let 'em look at your smoke. . . .
There's not going to be any of this 'Red Sox Curse of September.' It's irrelevant."
It can't help the Orioles' mood to know how their tormentors are using the former Orioles as their inspiration. "In the old Oriole days, they were looking to build a 20-game lead," said Baylor, laughing. "I remember when Weaver pinch-hit Brooks Robinson for Bobby Grich in a game when we were 17 games ahead. It was always 'Add on. Never get swept. Let's go for 20.' "