The Catch: Tom Brunansky, ESPN and the 1990 American League East


If you are to ask Red Sox fans about “The Catch,” if they are of an age to remember 1990, they might be able to tell you when they saw Tom Brunansky‘s play (or at least part of it) that saved the 1990 American League East for the Red Sox. Jump back in time with me to an age when “social media” didn’t exist and you could still smoke indoors. Something like Bosox Injection would have to be printed out and mailed to your home. The period from 1986 to 1990 was an age of success for Red Sox baseball. There was the excruciating close call of 1986, then there was another AL East crown 1988, so by the 1990 season, Red Sox fans were not unaccustomed to postseason play. Things were different back in those days for another reason. We did not have the Wild Card yet in baseball so you had to win your division to make the playoffs.

As the 1990 season drew to a close, the Red Sox were in a dogfight with the Toronto Blue Jays for the division. If you can remember 1990, you can also remember that from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Toronto was a perennial contender for the playoffs, winning five American League East titles in the period 1985 to 1993. The Red Sox had gone up four games with only 18 left to play, but the Jays had hung tough, twice tying for the division lead in the remaining games. Going into game 162 on October 3, 1990, Boston’s lead stood at one game, as Toronto took on the Orioles in Baltimore that night. Roger Clemens was already in Toronto, waiting to start a potential playoff game.

Standing between the Red Sox and their third division title in five years was a very capable Chicago White Sox team that had won 94 games already that season. Featuring two future Hall of Famers, Carlton Fisk and Frank Thomas, and Hall candidate (and PED poster child) Sammy Sosa, they had come up short, second to the juggernaut 103-win Oakland Athletics who were to appear in their third straight World Series that fall. In addition to the Hall of Famers, they had Bobby Thigpen, in his third of four straight 30-save seasons, posting 57 in 1990 to set the record later broken by Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) in 2008.

On the hill for the Red Sox in that pivotal game was Mike Boddicker. We didn’t know that it was a lopsided trade at the time but Boddicker had been the Red Sox’s reward for sending Curt Schilling and Brady Anderson for the stretch run in 1988. We know who Schilling is. Anderson went on to hit 50 homers for the Orioles in one season later in those steroid-drenched 90’s. Boddicker was money in this Game 162, when that trade still looked good for the Sox. In the seventh, he surrendered his only run of the game, but Mike Greenwell made the first great defensive play of that game, ending the inning by throwing out Dan Pasqua at the plate to squelch the White Sox’s rally. Ozzie Guillen was the man responsible for that hit. We would come to hear his name again.

Apparently, Red Sox manager (don’t call me Hall of Famer) Joe Morgan was a bit spooked by this rally, as Morgan brought on closer Jeff Reardon to start out the 8th inning. What would seem almost unheard of in this age of one-inning closers, Reardon had pitched at least two innings on seven previous occasions in 1990 (even going three innings one time), although none since he had returned from the disabled list on September 14. Reardon had surrendered a double in the eighth but had escaped unscathed, striking out the dangerous Thomas.

Much like other unlikely rallies, the White Sox ninth inning threat had come from a surprising source, the bottom third on the White Sox order. The as-yet mortal Sammy Sosa singled with two outs on a little dunker to center field. Scott Fletcher was promptly hit with the next offering by the suddenly teetering Reardon. Another future legend of Chicago sports history, Guillen strode to the plate once again. Recall that he had knocked in the only run of the game so far for the White Sox. Of course Reardon had gone ahead of Guillen 0-2 in the count. Inexplicably, the Red Sox closer left a pitch up that he could hammer.

This is where our hero, Tom “Bruno” Brunansky comes into the picture. Bruno already had a good day, knocking in a run with a triple. It was quite a big deal when he had come over from the Cardinals for Lee Smith on May 4, 1990. Before Mariano Rivera came along, Smith was the all-time saves leader with 478, though he had none of the postseason pedigree that Rivera later established, which is perhaps a reason he has not attained Hall of Fame enshrinement. It is likely that Smith saw the writing on the wall when the Sox signed Reardon after the 1989 season — he actually preceded Smith as the all-time saves leader before Smith took it over in 1993.

The strangest part of this story is that fans watching the game on ESPN could not tell what happened on the final play. When Ozzie Guillen tomahawks the 0-2 Reardon pitch toward the right field corner, the ESPN feeds show Brunansky sliding on his straight left leg and back, on his glove side, the ball entering the glove, then disappearing from view as the fans start to run on the field. ESPN announcer Gary Thorne actually reported that Bruno had dropped the ball even as fans spilled onto the field. Reardon celebrated with an arm motion something like calling a player “out” and Sox players jubilantly galloped on the field. Some newspapers (remember those?) reported that ESPN would not show any replays of the final play. In reality, ESPN did not have the angle that one fan with a video camera had, that made it to New England newscasts.   Brunansky had made the play. Thorne’s mistake was that he thought when Bruno went back to get his cap that it was actually the ball. In 2010, the Red Sox Hall of Fame inducted the play as a Memorable Moment, as they did with Roberts steal in 2004. The article describing the event suggested that the full play could still only be found on YouTube, which is still the case, as no TV camera caught Bruno’s acrobatics.

Unfortunately, this was the last good thing that happened to the Red Sox that season. They were completely shut down, scoring just four runs in a four-game sweep by the Athletics in the ALCS, hitting an anemic .183. The Final Four has its “Shining Moment” montage after the final game and for the 1990 Boston Red Sox, Brunansky’s sliding game saving catch in Game 162 was just that.

Today, Tom Brunansky is the hitting coach for the Minnesota Twins. He is in his third season with the major league club. When the strike of 1994 happened, Brunansky decided to walk away from the game. A decade later, he decided to get back into the game on the high school level. In 2010, he started working his way up the ladder with the Twins which included a stop in New Britain, Connecticut, one-time home of a Red Sox minor league team.

Certainly, in New Britain, Pawtucket, Salem and Trenton and all the other towns associated with the Red Sox there are fans that remember Bruno’s 1990 heroics. If you weren’t around, or don’t remember 1990, check out the video below, or search for the footage on YouTube. It is one for the ages.