BOSTON — In retrospect, the first signs that things would not go well for the Boston Red Sox were evident in spring training.
When Roger Clemens decided that contract negotiations were not proceeding to his satisfaction, he decided he could get ready for the season back home near Houston, Tex., just as well as he could in Winter Haven, Fla.
That was the first crack in the wall, which turned out not to be made of bricks but merely covered with that silly ersatz brick paperwork.
Further, the club's insistence on making catcher Rich Gedman toe the salary line kept him out of the lineup until May 1 and it became quickly, painfully obvious that neither Marc Sullivan nor Danny Scheaffer could do the job.
"Look," Boston Manager John McNamara said, "I really don't want to talk about it. It's over, in the past and we can't bring it back."
But McNamara, now in the process of grooming some youngsters he hopes will take the Red Sox back to the top, offered a couple of quick reasons why things have gone downhill for Boston ever since that ground ball got under Bill Buckner's glove in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series.
"Well," said McNamara of the club now expected to finish slightly under .500, "you lose your best pitcher through most of spring training and it takes him until June to get going again, lose a 16-game winner (Dennis Boyd), take away your starting catcher, have your left fielder (Jim Rice) playing hurt ... that's a pretty good start."
Boston has a reputation as being a high-scoring team, largely because of its home, Fenway Park. Yet there were four other teams that scored more runs than the Red Sox last season and toward the end of the year Boston was scratching for runs.
It was pitching that carried the Red Sox last season, masking the offensive inefficiencies, slowness on the bases and so-so defense.
"That's right," Rice said. "Our pitching won it for us last year. This year, we've had problems."
The staff is allowing nearly eight-tenths of a run a game more this season, mainly because Boyd went from 16-10 to 1-3 by Sept. 22, and Clemens, who had surged to 17-9, slipped from 24-4.
If Clemens, Bruce Hurst, a healthy Boyd, Jeff Sellers and Al Nipper can return to top form then Boston will be infinitely better off next season.
Gedman, however, is a big question mark. After he returned he hit just .205 with one home run and 13 RBI until a broken thumb cut of his season at 52 games. Some people feel Gedman over-lifted weights between seasons and lost his bat quickness.
Rice faces another arthroscopic knee operation following a season that has seen him slip from a .324 average with 20 home runs and 110 RBI to just .277 with 13 home runs and 62 RBI through 108 games.
"He's been hit twice in the elbow and once in the hand by pitches," McNamara said. "But he never says anything about it and he doesn't ask to come out of the lineup."
When it became obvious the club wasn't going to contend again, General Manager Lou Gorman began unloading age and salaries. Buckner was sent to California and Don Baylor to Minnesota. Center fielder Dave Henderson was also found wanting and is no longer around.
But things haven't been all bleak for Boston. Ellis Burks has emerged as a potential premier player in center while Mike Greenwell shows signs of blossoming as a power hitting outfielder and Todd Benzinger also shows outfield promise.