Winter Haven Super Sox

The Boston Red Sox signed their ace, transformed their bullpen from a weakness to a strength, and even added a fourth outfielder to round out their bench. So, now what? Dan Ennis takes us back to a time when the Winter Haven Super Sox laced up their cleats in January to give baseball fans a taste of what was to come.

Stalled in the offseason doldrums, barely any hot stove activity, the chatter about the Hall of Fame subsided and weeks from Truck Day, mid-January is the Red Sox fan’s yawning emptiness.

Imagine, however, a story coming across the newsfeed this morning: In balmy Florida, at the Red Sox spring training complex, the Red Sox are playing. Not the Red Sox of 2015, that sad and uninspiring assemblage, but the Red Sox of 10-15 years ago we loved those guys! Would it pique your interest if you knew that Jason Varitek and Pokey Reese were down in Fort Myers facing live pitching? That Mark Bellhorn was likely to join them? Would you grin with pleasure at reports that Tim Wakefield (49 years old but still trim!) was throwing a knuckler with some jump in it? Ok, no Pedro, Manny, or Papi. But there’s old friend Rich Garces, convincingly rotund, and old acquaintance Lenny DiNardo, who at 35 is among the youngest players on the squad.

Even better, this stalwart and creaky band, calling themselves the “Super Sox,” is taking on other teams made up of former major leaguers. There’s Karim Garcia and Jeff Weaver on the Yankee-leaning Palm Beach team. The Orlando squad boasts Paul Konerko and Jaret Wright. The league runs on a shoestring, filling that winter baseball hole, but these aren’t old-timer exhibitions. There’s hustle (well, as much hustle as a 40 year old Michael Young can muster), heated competition (Bobby Cox is managing the Bradenton squad), and the occasional head-first slide (Rafael Furcal refuses to surrender to time).

This kind of thing actually happened in 1989. It’s true. All of it.

Super-Sox-img1In the 1989-1990 offseason, there was, in Florida, a team formed primarily of the 1975-1978 Red Sox. The Winter Haven Super Sox were managed (improbably) by Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Most of the Buffalo Heads were there, that cabal that made manager Don Zimmer’s life miserable: Rick Wise, Bernie Carbo, Jim Willoughby, and future Hall-of-Famer Ferguson Jenkins. The Super Sox signed 38 year old Butch Hobson to man the hot corner, and at first base was Cecil Cooper, two years removed from the major leagues, back in a Sox uniform of a sort.

The Super Sox were a franchise in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association, a winter league that featured retired major leaguers. Players had to be over 35, except for catchers, who were allowed to play at 32. Thus Gary Allenson at a spry 34 made the Super Sox roster. Some former Red Sox played elsewhere in the SPBA:  Luis Tiant pitched for the bluntly-named Gold Coast Suns and later the St. Lucie Legends, Dick Drago signed with the Fort Myers team. The whole operation was under-capitalised and improvisational, with teams forming, moving, and folding with little fanfare. That were more books written about the SPBA (2) than SPBA seasons (1.5).

Super-Sox-img2On the ersatz midwinter Red Sox, the Buffalo Heads were in charge. Bill Lee as manager? His team rules consisted of one rule: “If you slide, get back up.” Cecil Cooper was bemused that the anti-establishment lefty had been chosen to run the team: ”I had heard Bill had mellowed. Then in our first team meeting he started talking about how we should save America’s trees and I knew it was the same old Spaceman. We’ll be loose, I know that.” They were, in fact, very loose. Lee inserted himself as pinch hitter (he struck out), misplayed balls in left field (a position he hadn’t played since college), and was shelled when he pitched.

 

Super Sox General Manager Rick Maxwell signed Lee because he knew the Spaceman would convince other retired Red Sox players to join the team on the cheap: “The [other players] talked about the money they wanted first. Bill already knew who he could get to play for us.” Built around Lee, the Super Sox established a jokey vibe, with the Spaceman declaring that the team would not have a curfew because he didn’t own a watch. He refused to name his starting pitcher prior to each game, confusing fans and annoying the tiny local press corps covering the franchise. After a slow start, Lee was replaced at the helm by longtime minor-leaguer “Singing” Ed Nottle, who had managed the Pawtucket Red Sox to the playoffs in 1987. Nottle was fired at midseason, replaced by Leon Roberts.

Super-Sox-img3In other corners of the SPBA, things were taken more seriously. The West Palm Beach Tropics, owned by an obscure commodities broker named John W. Henry, signed legendary hardass Dick Williams to manage. The skipper of the Impossible Dream Red Sox made it clear that the league was not a joke to him. Speaking to the Orlando Sentinel, Williams declared, “’It’s not going to be a big-belly league… it’s going to be a flat-belly league. Big bellies won’t be around long.” Sure enough, the Tropics posted a 52-20 record. League Commissioner Curt Flood was infuriated when Time magazine ran a photo of a pot-bellied catcher named Joe Mincberg. Flood fumed, “Can my guys play? They can. These are world-class athletes.”

The Super Sox, on the other hand, traded competitiveness for nostalgia. Financed by Broadway producer Mitch Maxwell (who had his own “No, No, Nanette” in 1988’s “The Chosen”), their Boston-centric roster was an attempt to woo New England snowbirds. This Red Sox fetish, however, meant the team was neither balanced nor competitive. There were brave words at the start of the SPBA season, as when Peter Gammons relayed a scouting report claiming that the 42-year-old Bill Lee had “better stuff right now than a lot of successful left-handers in the majors.” The reality was that Lee’s hand-picked team could not compete.

Weak on the field, the Super Sox quickly became a sideshow. As the Boston Globe’s Larry Whiteside put it, “Whether the new league succeeds in 1989-90 is irrelevant when the Space Man is around.” Relegated to the bullpen, Lee posted a 4.96 ERA and notched just three saves. The rest of the pitching was equally dreadful. After a strong start that included a big win over Earl Weaver’s Gold Coast Suns, Jenkins slumped and ended the season 7-6 with a 5.55 ERA. Wise was winless with no saves. The only former Red Sox on the pitching staff to succeed was reliever Bill Campbell (6-2, 2.12).

Super-Sox-img4As for the hitters, Carbo posted a .263 average with no homers. Hobson scuffled at .223. Of the former Red Sox, only Allenson (.340) and Cooper (.407) succeeded the plate, and the latter “re-retired” after only 16 games. Cooper was too dignified for the ramshackle and disorganized Super Sox, stating upon his departure, “I’m a 40-year-old family man. I haven’t lost too much at the plate, but I’ve lost the killer instinct I had as a player in the big leagues, and you can’t play this game without that.” Cooper was never a Buffalo Head.

Stranded in last place, the Super Sox did not draw. The league needed to attract 2,000 fans per game to break even. With crowds averaging 529 per game, Winter Haven hemorrhaged cash. Asked how much money the team lost in the 1989-1990 season, Mitch Maxwell replied, “lots and lots.” Super Sox co-owner Jim Russek summed up the team’s ill-fated business plan: “There are two ways to do something right… one is to do it like everybody else. The other is to do the opposite of whatever they do. We chose to do the opposite. We got more than we ever imagined.”

The brief life and unsurprising death of the Winter Haven Super Sox, the last ride of the Buffalo Heads, did accomplish something. If you were mired in the New England midwinter, the sour taste of the 1989 Red Sox season still in your mouth, the image of Bernie Carbo smacking a hanging curveball in the Florida sun was a comfort. In the winter of 2016 we don’t even have that distraction. Truck Day can’t come soon enough.

Dan Ennis has written about prospect hype, an epic cage match, why the Red Sox win, sports media, and the original superfan.

Follow Dan on Twitter @DeanDanEnnis.

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