We don’t have to worry about the Boston Red Sox cheating their way to another World Series title this century, after the team was eliminated by the equally dirty Houston Astros over the weekend in the American League Championship Series. MLB would have had a credibility issue, either way, so while we are spared one way, we’re damned the other. Welcome to modern sports. Ahem.

This episode of Fenway Frauds takes us back to the final season of the twentieth century as we examine suspect performances by players on the Boston roster, as the team finally was pushed to cheat by circumstance, jealousy, and flat-out financial need. With the rival New York Yankees thriving with a new dynasty—and the Red Sox without a World Series title since 1918—the organization had to keep up with the Joneses, or the Evil Empire, as it were.

And this is how they tried to do it as the team was able to make the postseason as a wild-card team and reach the ALCS against New York … only to lose in five games and extend the misery—and firm the fraudulent resolve.

Exhibit A: Brian Daubach

When a team is “cheating”? It doesn’t mean that every player is doing so. It just means the organization turns a blind eye toward, or even subtly encourages, certain choices. That’s what most fans don’t understand, especially when they try to claim, “Everyone cheats!” Well, no, they do not. Only some players do, and only some organizations look the other way, etc. This middling-talent player is a perfect example.

Daubach was never going to be an MLB star, debuting at age 26 with the stripped-down, rebuilding 1998 Florida Marlins a year after the team won the World Series. And after he hit .200 in a cup of coffee with the club, they decided they didn’t want him—and he ended up with Boston for the 1999 season. A .278 career average in the minor leagues was no deterrent for the Red Sox, either.

Lo and behold, Daubach hit .294 with power (.921 OPS), and while he did show power in the minors, this was sort of shocking for a 27-year old that the Marlins released to suddenly do well in Boston. The Florida franchise was known for acquiring cheap, young talent, and they gave up on Daubach pretty readily. Maybe they figured he was too old? The Red Sox obviously felt he was someone they could, ahem, work with.

The average and the OPS were career highs, and Daubach was out of the majors by 2006, never able to repeat this success elsewhere. While this can fit the profile of a late bloomer with a short career prime/peak, it’s still a very outlier season for a player that didn’t show the same ability in the minors (hence, the late MLB debut and Florida’s throwing in the towel on him).

Exhibit B: Bret Saberhagen

We were surprised to see his 1999 performance raise the red flags in our analysis here, because we always liked Sabes. Furthermore, even though we stripped Saberhagen of his 1985 AL Cy Young Award, we did affirm his 1989 one. He was a good guy in our eyes, but now we’ve started to wonder what was going at the tail end of his career—it would not be a surprise to see a once-godly star try to sustain his glory days well past his prime.

Saberhagen’s last truly effective season was at age 30 in 1994, and after that he suffered so many injuries that he missed the entire 1996 MLB campaign as a result. At age 33, he tried to make a comeback with the Red Sox in 1997, to the tune of a 6.58 ERA in limited appearances. By 1998, he was pitching effectively again at age 34, which wasn’t likely considering his injury history, but 15 victories in 175 innings pitched was pretty good, nonetheless. Looking at this now, we are certain something was amiss.

In 1999, at age 35, Saberhagen posted a 2.95 ERA in 119 innings before injuries caught up with him again (think about that). He missed 2000 entirely, and he was ineffective (6.00 ERA) in his final MLB appearances in 2001, also with the Red Sox. So, after being injured and out of the majors, he came back at a late age to post some pretty solid seasons in Boston before breaking down again. What was the special sauce he was dipping during the 1998 and (especially) 1999 seasons? Your guess is as good as ours.

Exhibit C: Rhéal Cormier

This Canadian American passed away earlier this year at age 53 from cancer, which is sad, but we look at his 1999 season as significant in his career, because before this season, he had been a below-average starter for St. Louis, Boston, and Montréal (4.22 ERA over 700-plus innings from 1991-1997). Then he basically missed both the 1997 and 1998 MLB seasons while stuck in the minors, and in 1999, he came back to the majors as a reliever—never starting another game in his career at age 32.

His career ERA turned out to be 4.03 overall, so his 1999-2007 stint as a reliever produced a high-3s ERA. In 1999, with the Red Sox, after being out of the majors in 1998, he posted a 3.69 ERA—which was just about a career low at the time. He had mixed success, with up and down years, from there on out. And while it’s not unheard of for a mediocre starter to switch to the bullpen and become more effective, this case is interesting for two red-flag reasons.

First, between 1996 and 1999, he had one MLB appearance total. So, he went away as journeyman starter at age 29, and he came back as a good reliever at age 32. And when Cormier did come back, he posted career bests in hits allowed per 9 innings and home runs allowed per 9 innings. Yes, this can happen when a southpaw reliever is used in specific spots only, rather than having to face the whole lineup a few times as a starter. But you start combining circumstances, and it becomes less likely to happen naturally.

Conclusion: Not lock-tight examples, but still …

We know that known PED users David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez had yet to join the Boston organization, but sifting through this information, we can start to see the beginnings of a systematic approach to getting the most out of players that no one else in the league wanted. We have seen this pattern with the San Francisco Giants, of course, in The House That Steroids Built. We can see the same pattern here in Boston during the late 1990s as the organization tried to chase down the Evil Empire in New York.

When these circumstantial cases start to add up, it creates a pattern. And that’s what we’re doing here: establishing the pattern that bears major fruits by the mid-2000s for the Red Sox organization that had not won a World Series since 1918 and was rapidly being forgotten by the East Coast fans and media it so desperately needed to stay financially viable. Combined with evidence later on from the first decade of the twenty-first century, it’s pretty clear Boston was up to no good already by this time.