Mike Greenwell, for all relevant purposes, was the Boston Red Sox for most of my childhood. He was a rookie on the 1986 pennant winners, he was nearly MVP in 1988, he was an All-Star twice, and he accepted the torch of patrolling Fenway Park’s left field, passed from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice to him.
He was a sleek hitter, inside and out. He had a cool look with his beard, shaved head and sunglasses. He was a text-book, line-drive hitter, with a sweet swing that guaranteed him about 15 home runs a year, a mess of doubles and a .300 batting average, back when being a .300 hitter was still one of the pinnacles of a baseball player. He was an aggressive left-fielder, alternating between making no errors for months and, occasionally, leading the league in errors. He was popular — I remember spotting a number of no. 39 jerseys on my first trip to Fenway Park — and respected, serving as the Sox’ union representative for a good chunk of his career.
His speed was decent (he averaged 10 stolen bases a year), but his ability to walk was less-so. He only walked four times in one game once in his career. He didn’t strike out much, either — on average, only 46 times a season, which seems remarkably low. Greenwell, I always figured, considered himself a hitter, and rarely saw a first pitch he didn’t love. I remember watching a game in 1995 or ’96 where Greenwell walked on four pitches his first two times up, and the announcers (Sean McDonough and Jerry Remy, I believe) were besides themselves with shock. “Who is this guy, and what has he done with Mike Greenwell?”
All these traits, coupled with the fact that the Red Sox were a middle-of-the-pack team for the majority of his career, made Greenwell the perfect no. 3 hitter. His high average and low strikeouts meant that he could make contact pretty reliably, drive in runners and set the table for the cleanup hitter, whether that was Jim Rice, Nick Esasky or Mo Vaughn. He moved a bit in the lineup towards the end, but in my mind, I always envision Greenwell hitting third.
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The 1996 Red Sox got off to a horrible start. They opened in Texas, were swept, and quickly lost the first two games in Kansas City for an 0-5 introduction to the season.
There were several things going wrong: after winning the division, several key parts were swapped out. Luis Alicea was out at second base, and Wil Cordero was in. Erik Hanson left the rotation, and Tom Gordon entered. Heathcliff Slocomb took over at closer for Rick Aguilera. Mike Stanley took over for Mike Macfarlane behind the plate. Kevin Mitchell was brought in to play right field. And except for Gordon and Stanley, none of these moves were working out.
On top of that, Dwayne Hosey, who’d spent nearly a decade in the minors, was not getting the job done in center field and in the leadoff spot. Cordero was given a chance to hit first, too, but that didn’t fly. So, in the sixth game of the season, improbably, there was Mike Greenwell batting leadoff.
It made almost no sense. But, they won, 3-1, behind a strong start by Jamie Moyer. Greenwell went 3-for-5, and when something breaks a losing streak, there’s a tendency to stick with it.
The home opener was two days later, against the Minnesota Twins, and there was Greenwell, predictably and hilariously, hitting at the top of the order again. He went 3-for-5 again, hitting two doubles, bringing home three runs and scoring twice.
As a long-time Greenwell fan, this delighted me to no end. I made out my own artistic version of the box score and taped it to my door for the next few months. Mike Greenwell, on Fenway’s Opening Day, hitting leadoff, smacking doubles and serving as the catalyst for the Red Sox’ first two wins of the season. It was all too much.
Greenwell hit in the leadoff spot two more times that season before settling back into the middle of the order, typically hitting fifth behind Vaughn and Jose Canseco. The Red Sox lost 15 of their first 18 that year, before climbing back to .500, into the race, and then falling apart in late September. After the season, Canseco was traded, Roger Clemens left for Toronto, manager Kevin Kennedy was fired, and Greenwell hung up his spikes.
I didn’t know any of that on Opening Day. All I could see was one of my favorite players thriving in a fish-out-of-water moment and my favorite team winning, even if it was only a blip on the screen.