Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Cardiac Kids: A Dream Deferred

This year's Red Sox conjure memories of the Impossible Dream (Boston Globe)
With the 2016 season now underway, Red Sox fans have plenty to be excited about. This year's team features one of the best starters in the game (David Price), one of the best relievers in the game (Craig Kimbrel) and, for the final time, the great David Ortiz.

That's all well and good, but what Sox fans should really be psyched about is Boston's youth. Whereas the teams that won World Series in 2004, '07 and '13 were veteran-laden clubs, this year's outfit oozes youth. With Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Christian Vazquez, Travis Shaw, and Jackie Bradley Jr. 25 or younger on Opening Day, the Sox boast their best young core in years. In fact, one might argue it's been nearly half a century since Boston had such an abundance of twenty-something talent.

If you want to make a Baby Boomer feel old, tell him or her it's been almost 50 years since the Impossible Dream (they'll remember it like it was yesterday). For Red Sox fans, the story of the fabled 1967 Red Sox is as familiar as Paul Revere's midnight ride and the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. Tabbed 100-to-1 World Series longshots after after finishing ninth in a ten-team league the year before, the Cardiac Kids shocked the world by by winning the pennant on the season's final day. Then, just as improbably, Boston failed to win another one until 1975, by which point only two Impossible Dreamers remained (three if you count Tony Conigliaro, who played just 21 games and retired that summer) and the Sox had been re-built around a new generation of emerging stars.

The dream was ephemeral, a dream in the truest sense. While the Cardiac Kids are credited with saving baseball in Boston, revitalizing a franchise that had suffered eight losing seasons in a row and gone over two decades without a pennant, their failure to win another flag was somewhat disappointing. The '67 Red Sox were impossibly young, sporting baseball's second-youngest lineup and zero starting pitchers over 30. Considering that young players typically get better or at least stay the same, and that many Boston regulars weren't even in their primes yet, the team should should have improved throughout the late '60s and into the '70s.

Instead, the Red Sox went backwards, following up their pennant with a fourth-place finish and then three straight third-place finishes in their new six-team division. After winning 92 games in '67, the Sox didn't win that many again until 1975.

So why didn't Boston emerge as the powerhouse it seemed poised to become? The main reason is that their resurgence coincided with Baltimore's run as one of the most dominant teams in baseball history. The 1966 AL champs had a down year in '67, hired Earl Weaver midway through '68, and then ripped off three straight 100-win seasons and pennants from 1969-71. Their injury-marred '67 and subsequent re-shuffling opened a brief window for Boston and other teams to contend, but that window quickly slammed shut as Baltimore reloaded under Weaver.

By 1972, Boston's roster looked dramatically different from that which had fallen one game short of winning it all five years earlier. The entire infield had turned over with the exception of Rico Petrocelli, who had moved to third base to accommodate aging future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio. Conigliaro, Jim Lonborg, and Dick Williams were all gone, too. Carl Yastrzemski still remained, but at 32 his best days were behind him. It was unusual for teams to dismantle so quickly in the days before free agency, but within half a decade the soul of the Impossible Dream team was gone.
Aside from Yaz, the '67 Red Sox didn't have much staying power (ESPN)
So that's one reason, Boston swapping out most of its pennant winning pieces within a few years. They gave up too soon on Joe Foy and Sparky Lyle, couldn't make it work with Ken Harrelson, failed to realize Reggie Smith's value, dealt their 27-year-old second baseman (Mike Andrews) for a 37-year-old Luis Aparicio, and traded George Scott before the best years of his career (then traded back for him after they'd already happened). Some of those trades worked out and some didn't, but the point is that the Red Sox didn't make themselves any better.

One could also argue that Cardiac Kids simply weren't that good to begin with. They were heavily reliant on Yastrzemski and Lonborg, that year's MVP and Cy Young winners, and were just a handful of wins away from finishing fifth. The problem with that argument is while Boston won the pennant by a combined five games over the three closest teams, they were still the American League's best team that year in several respects, leading the league in scoring, run differential, and road record. Anytime you win a pennant on the season's final day, you're going to need some breaks, but Boston didn't luck into its flag by any means, as they had a losing record in one-run games and extra innings.

It's not like all the Red Sox happened to have career years in 1967, either. Sure, Yaz won the Triple Crown, but he was arguably just as good the following year and again in 1970. The best of George Scott and Reggie Smith was still to come, while the best seasons of Boston's double play combo (Petrocelli and Mike Andrews) remained in the future.

Maybe the real reason the dream ended so soon was that it quickly became a nightmare for two of the team's best players. Tony Conigliaro was just 22 in 1967, but he was already a home run champion as well as the club's second-best hitter after Yastrzemski. The future seemed bright for the Red Sox slugger until a Jack Hamilton fastball crashed into his face on August 18th, costing him the rest of '67 and all of '68, as well as much of the vision in his left eye. Tony C would return to produce effective campaigns in 1969-70, but he was traded to California and played just 95 games after that.  Had Hamilton's heater sailed one foot higher, Conigliaro likely would have remained a star throughout the 1970s and gone on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career. Instead, he was basically finished by 26.

Four months after Conigliaro was carried off the field on a stretcher, another Boston star suffered a career-altering injury. Fresh off signing a $50,000 contract for 1968, Lonborg shredded his knee while skiing at Lake Tahoe just before Christmas. The reigning Cy Young winner made just 44 starts over the next three seasons, effectively wasting his prime years. Losing Lonborg, who had carried much of the load in '67 by ranking second in innings pitched during the regular season before making three World Series starts, was a devastating blow to Boston's rotation. It would be several years before the team found another reliable ace and big-game pitcher in Luis Tiant, whose first season in Boston coincided with Lonborg's last. Had Lonborg stayed healthy, Boston likely would not have traded him following the 1971 season, pairing him with Tiant for years to come.

The dual-loss of Conigliaro and Lonborg likely cost the Sox around eight wins in 1968, as both were four win-players the year before by bWAR (any regression suffered by Lonborg likely would have been negated by a full season and continued improvement from Conigliaro). While manager Dick Williams was able to adequately replace Tony C by shifting first baseman Ken Harrelson to right, a healthy Conigliaro would have let Williams play Hawk at first and bench George Scott instead. The portly first baseman batted a dreadful .171/.236/.237 and was worth 2.8 wins below replacement that year, so Williams could have saved Boston several wins by replacing Scott early on. Throw in a typical Conigliaro season and a less dominant but still effective year from Lonborg, and Boston probably wins more games than they did in '67 and challenges Detroit for the American League pennant. Instead, they slipped from 92 wins to 86 and finished fourth, 17 games off the pace.

After that there was no beating Baltimore, but it seems likely that, had Conigliaro and Lonborg been healthy, the Red Sox would have been consistent 90-95 game winners with them, seeing as how they usually won 85-87 without them. Perhaps that would have convinced Boston's front office to keep the Cardiac Kids together, rather than slowly ship them out one by one until most of them were gone. They had built a team capable of competing with the Orioles; they just never knew it because fate intervened.

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