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COMMENTARY : Boston Red Sox Take One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward


Jeff Reardon has signed with the Boston Red Sox, and some New Englanders are ecstatic. Besides having a reputation as a good guy, Reardon's a hometown kid (Dalton, Mass.) who grew up on Yaz bread and always dreamed of playing for the Sox. What could be better?

If he probably wasn't past his prime.

Sometimes, the Red Sox take two steps forward and one step back. Usually right after they've taken one step forward and two steps back. The result is the same.

First baseman Nick Esasky, a good guy who got away, is 29. He had just made his only season with the Red Sox the best of his major league career. Problem was, Atlanta is his off-season home, and the Braves were determined to sign him.

The Red Sox claimed to be undaunted. At the end of last season, Red Sox chief adviser John Harrington told a reporter that if the Red Sox lost Esasky in the free-agent market, it wouldn't be because of money. Then they offered their best slugger $4.5 million for three years while the Braves, already having adapted to the new realities of baseball's skyrocketing salary structure, offered $5.7 million. Esasky was gone with the wind.

Cut to the Nashville winter meetings, and now Red Sox General Manager Lou Gorman is looking for a first baseman. Now he's willing to offer Kent Hrbek $10 million for four years. But Hrbek is the Twins hometown kid, and he decides to stay in Minneapolis for a $14-million, five-year deal.

"Whoever gives him five years deserves him," Gorman says. "I just can't see it."

Can't see or can't add, Lou? Hrbek is 29 and in his prime, but you say you can't see giving him a five-year deal? Then you turn around and sign Reardon to a $6.8-million, three-year deal? Reardon's 34. He's already pitched 11 seasons in the major leagues. He admits he's lost something off his fastball. Won't it be great if midway through his contract, he turns out to be as effective as, say, Lee Smith?

At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Smith is a bear of a man and a no-nonsense fastball pitcher. For seven seasons with the Cubs, he was one of the National League's premier closers. Then, just as his career crested, the Red Sox acquired him. In two seasons with the Red Sox, Smith has been something less than awesome. He turned 32 Monday.

When a good hitter is past his prime, he can still hit .260 and get some game-winning hits. When a good starting pitcher is past his prime, he can still give you five or six good innings. When a closer is past his prime, giving him the ball in a clutch situation is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Closers either can or they can't. When they can't, they're useless. Closers are like field-goal kickers--most of them stay in the headlines about as long as the average celebrity in People magazine. Dick Radatz, Al Hrabosky, even the great Goose Gossage, couldn't blow smoke by major league hitters for 10 seasons. The Royals gave Dan Quisenberry a huge long-term contract after he'd reached his peak, then watched him self-destruct nearly every time he took the mound. In corporate America, it's known as a golden parachute. In baseball's front offices, it's known as a dumb deal.

Closing is a job for fearless, live-armed young men like the Orioles' and the American League's Rookie of the Year, Gregg Olson. The Red Sox's best closer last season wasn't Smith; it was Rob Murphy. Murphy is 29, but since 1989 was only his third full major league season, his arm is livelier than his age would indicate.

Why didn't the Red Sox make Murphy the No. 1 closer and spend the money they gave Reardon where it would do more good? Signing Reardon gives the Red Sox three short relievers, and that excess only serves to lessen Smith's already marked-down trade value. In an effort to keep Smith's value from further plummeting, public relations-minded Red Sox officials are trying to emphasize that Smith and Reardon, given their different styles, could be on the same staff and complement each other.

That's besides the point. Murphy should be The Man, and Reardon, whose temperament is supposedly less egotistical, more team-oriented than Smith's, should complement Murphy. Three is a logjam and unacceptable.

Gorman's aversion to awarding long-term contracts is no secret. Last month at a breakfast meeting-interview session with the general managers of the four Boston pro franchises, he was asked his biggest regret since joining the Red Sox Feb. 1, 1984. Giving Bob Stanley a five-year contract, Gorman said, without hesitation.

Stanley, who announced his retirement at the end of last season after the Red Sox said they would not pick up the option on his contract Sept. 25, turned 35 last month. His last Red Sox season, like Jim Rice's, was an ugly one. Giving them five-year deals was clearly a mistake.

But does that mean no younger players are worthy of such long-term commitments, especially if competing clubs are willing to make them? Isn't it better to be right than to be consistent?

Jeff Reardon comes to the Red Sox to fulfill a boyhood dream. But some boyhood dreams may be better left unfulfilled, especially when the dough is big, the expectations are great, the athlete is entering the twilight of his career, and the club could have better used the money elsewhere. The Red Sox lost Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Bruce Hurst and Nick Esasky in their prime. Why must they sign guys who are past theirs?

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