Viola gives Jays his best, but Red Sox still are worst


TORONTO -- Only the Boston Red Sox. They almost get their first no-hitter in 27 years and it comes on the night they clinch their first last-place finish in 60 years.

Frank Viola took a no-no into the ninth last night. Devon White led off the inning with a single, but he was stranded at second and the Red Sox were 1-0 winners.

And so when they splice together that 1992 Red Sox highlight film (a short-subject feature, no doubt), you will see Red Sox players smiling and embracing Viola while the narrator says, "And this was the night the Red Sox clinched last place."

Despite the victory, the Red Sox got a lock on last because the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees won their games. You might say Boston backed into it.

A no-hitter only would have added to the ironies. Boston's last official no-hitter came on Sept. 16, 1965, and that was the day the Red Sox fired general manager Pinky Higgins. The '65 Boston ballclub lost 100.

Viola originally wasn't scheduled to pitch. He'd thrown 133 pitches in Baltimore Saturday, and Matt (he of the non-no-hitter in April) Young was scheduled to start against the Blue Jays.

But something happened once the Red Sox got to SkyDome. The Oliver Stone in us forever will suspect that interim commissioner Bud Selig (also owner of the Milwaukee Brewers) suggested that Viola get the nod over Young "in the best interests of baseball [also in the best interests of Selig's Brewers]." Young hasn't won a game since May 20, 1991. Viola is a former Cy Young and World Series MVP winner.

Tuesday the Red Sox couldn't get their stories straight when they were asked who prompted the switch to Viola. Manager Butch Hobson said it was his idea. Pitching coach Rich Gale said it was his idea. Viola said he went to Hobson and asked to pitch the game.

And so there he was, Frankie V., pitching a game the Blue Jays badly needed to win (going into the game, Toronto's magic number over the charging Brewers was three).

Viola was loose. Twice he bounced balls in front of the plate. Both times he came in laughing.

The Blue Jays were typically tight. They never got a nibble. They went to bed hoping those Brewers (commissioner Selig must be delighted with the Red Sox's switch to Viola) would lose in Seattle, which they did, 7-4. Toronto finishes with three against the Tigers. If the Blue Jays blow this one, Viola will be credited with sending them into a tailspin from which they could not recover.

Tim Naehring made a terrific play to save the no-hitter in the eighth. We were afraid Butch "The Wheels Are Always Turning" Hobson might bring on Tony Fossas for the ninth and later tell us that Tony needed the work. But there was Viola.

White was first, and he ran the count to 2-2 before driving a single up the middle. End of no-hitter. Just after the hit, the wire services moved final scores indicating that the Yankees and Tigers had won. The Red Sox had clinched. What a moment.

It was 25 years ago today that Red Sox fans stormed the Fenway field and chanted, "We're No. 1." They tore at Jim Lonborg's jersey. Boston police tried to protect the players from jubilant fans.

It was good that the Red Sox were on the road when they clinched last. One shudders at the thought of a Boston mob chanting, "We're No. 7," vaulting over the rails and tearing at Young and Jack Clark.

Cellar. Basement. Bottom rung. These are words we've not associated with the Red Sox in 60 years.

Remember the Washington jokes -- first in war, first in peace and last in the American League? Now it's Boston: Cradle of liberty, hub of the universe, home of the worst team in the American League East.

If it's any consolation, we can tell you that the 1932 edition was far worse than Butch Hobson's sleepwalkers. The '32 Red Sox went 43-111 and finished a whopping 64 games behind the Yankees. Manager Shano Collins quit in midseason and the Red Sox went 11-47 down the stretch.

There's some nice symmetry here. Thirty-year-old Thomas A. Yawkey bought the Red Sox a few months after the end of the '32 season. The Yawkey era ended one month before the start of this '92 season when Jean Yawkey passed away. Like bargain basement bookends, the '32 and '92 flops flanked 60 years of Yawkey tradition.

For more than a month, we've known that there was a good chance of the Red Sox finishing Last Alone. The Tragic Number countdown has been part of your daily reading for more than a week.

There wasn't much preparation in the Red Sox clubhouse. They didn't need cellophane taped over the lockers to keep out the champagne spray.

And so the '92 Red Sox observed the moment with the same numbing nonchalance that characterized their play in 1992.

"This was a team effort," said Viola. "That's something we've been lacking this year a lot. Maybe the young kids will see what it's like to be in a pennant race."

The Red Sox didn't know they'd locked themselves in the basement.

"Is that right?" Steve Lyons said. "With that win, we clinched last place? Outstanding. Beautiful."

Nice guy, Steve Lyons. Hobson is another nice guy.

And you know what Leo Durocher said about nice guys.

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