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How did we get here?
Given the history of heartache, maybe it was only fitting that champagne settled on the brim of Theo Epstein's cap in the form of a single, solitary teardrop.
But in the immediate aftermath of Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, there was little regret in the visiting club house at Coors Field, home of the National League champion—and terribly overmatched—Colorado Rockies. For the second time in four baseball seasons, the Boston Red Sox were champions. Epstein stood near the center of a room filled with Red Sox players old and young, as sure a sign as any that the Red Sox had undergone a transformation, that they had truly evolved, that these Red Sox, above all others, were different. For nearly a century, after all, the Red Sox had been a team weighed down by its past, haunted by ghosts, interminably arrested in its development. The Red Sox had not been regarded as losers as much as they had been looked upon as tragic failures, a team that unfailingly stumbled after coming this close.
But now, in the wake of a second World Series championship in less time than was typically required to earn a college degree, the Red Sox had graduated, matured, and blossomed into everything they had always thought they could be.
Better late than never.
"There's always luck involved, but this shows we've started to build a great organization," said a beaming Epstein, still two months shy of his 34th birthday. "It's nice that we have two [championships] now and that no one can say it was an accident."
Echoed Red Sox principal owner John Henry during the club house celebration: "This means the first one wasn't a fluke. It means this is an organization capable of more things over time with great credentials. We're not just stat geeks. We're a well-rounded organization and we do everything we can all year to win."
Indeed, for all of the torture that the Red Sox and their fans had endured during the extensive history of the franchise, a funny thing happened during the final days of the 2007 baseball season: the Red Sox suddenly became the standard against which all other major-league teams were measured. From 2000 through 2006, years that marked the turn of the millennium and baseball's entrance into an entirely new age, not a single team in baseball won as many as two world championships. After the New York Yankees dynasty of 1996-2000 ended with the Yankees' victory over the New York Mets, the six subsequent seasons in major-league baseball produced champions in Phoenix, Anaheim, Miami, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis. Baseball officials, beginning with commissioner Bud Selig, took this as a delightful sign that the game had reached an age of parity, that the gap between the richest teams and the poorest ones had so considerably dwindled that most every team entered every season with at least some measure of hope. Given the economic gap that had existed in baseball in the years immediately prior to all of that—the period of the latest Yankees dynasty—this was no small statement.
But in 2007, while becoming baseball's first repeat champions of a truly new age, the Red Sox took over first place in the American League East during the early stages of the season and never relinquished it. Subsequently, the Red Sox never really teetered so much as they paced themselves. The team's greatest challenge came during the best-of-seven American League Championship Series with the Cleveland Indians, against whom the Red Sox faced a series deficit of three games to one before steamrolling their opponents in the final three games, a comeback that was decisive and, at times, seemed inevitable.
Entering the World Series, the upstart Rockies had won an incredible 21 of 22 games, including all seven of their postseason contests against the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively, in the National League Division Series and National League Championship Series. The Rockies were so damned near perfect that they had more than a week off before their first game against the Red Sox, who had to play the maximum seven games against the Indians. And while much was made of Colorado's unusually long layoff—excluding the midseason respite known as the All-Star break, baseball teams rarely go more than one day without playing during the season—the reality was that Colorado simply was no match for a Red Sox club that had effectively led from wire to wire in the far more competitive American League.
As it turned out, the Rockies were a fitting opponent for a Red Sox organization whose identity seemed to change instantaneously, for all the world to see, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains for which the Colorado team was named. How many times had the Red Sox been the team on a hot streak entering the big games, only to see their momentum dissolve? How many times, at the most inopportune moments, had the Red Sox reverted to their old selves and proved incapable of overcoming their demons? How many times had the Red Sox been in complete control—or so it seemed—only to come apart at the seams, prompting even the cruelest Red Sox adversaries to feel, of all things, pity?
How many times?
And always, without exception, the story seemed to end with the same refrain: Same old Red Sox.
But now, after so many years, the old rules no longer seemed to apply. As the Red Sox systematically took apart the Rockies in the World Series, the entire baseball world had time to think. For all of the nonsense penned (and recited) about baseball being a microcosm of life, for all of the poetry and romanticism and nostalgia, the Boston Red Sox dragged the 2007 World Series to new depths and completely sucked the life from what should have been the most climactic games of the baseball season. The long-standing theory is that the beauty of baseball comes in its pace, in its deliberate nature, in the fact that players have time to reassess before each and every pitch; the game never was intended to be played solely out of reaction or athleticism. The stops in play were part of the attraction, particularly to those who watched baseball and wrote about it, because the details changed constantly. Ball one. The batter has the advantage. Strike one. The scale is balanced. The subtleties triggered emotions, which played on the mind, which invariably got in the way.
Among all of those who played and watched baseball, the Red Sox and their fans knew that better than anyone.
Yet, in 2007, Boston's deconstruction of Colorado was so thorough, so swift, that there was never really any doubt. The Red Sox completely dominated the series, just as they had in 2004 against the St. Louis Cardinals, another team that proved terribly overmatched. During the 2007 World Series, for as much time as there was to think, to evaluate, and to reassess, the Red Sox had seemingly done the impossible: they had given onlookers virtually nothing to dwell on, because they were so vastly superior to the Colorado Rockies team opposite them.
So, in the absence of any drama on the field during the four games of the 2007 World Series, most of those watching from Colorado to Cape Cod (and beyond) turned their sights to the horizon, to what the future held in store. Wasn't that the logical thing to do? Some people spend their time dealing with the past; most are caught up in the present. Few enjoy the freedom to prepare for the future, to survey the landscape, to truly know that nothing is behind them and nothing is gaining, that the world before them is truly an endless vista of possibilities.
In the final days of the World Series, that was where the Red Sox found themselves. And that was where most everyone saw them. "It allows this organization to move forward," Red Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek succinctly stated in the celebratory champagne drizzle of the visitors' club house at Coors Field. "Instead of the piano on our backs or the weight of the entire Red Sox nation . . . once that was lifted, it built confidence. And that confidence pushes its way through a club house over time."
He was right, of course.
The Red Sox were done doubting themselves.
Finally, in Boston, there was no looking back.
With the Red Sox, always, some reconstruction of their history is required. To understand where the Red Sox are—or, more specifically, how far they have traveled—one must understand from where they came. For the first 20 years of the twentieth century, the Red Sox were the model franchise in major-league baseball. Boston won five of the first 15 World Series ever played, ending with a victory over the Chicago Cubs in six games in 1918.
Back then, no one could have imagined the decades of trauma that would ensue.
Over the next 85 baseball seasons, from 1919 through 2003, the Red Sox won more games than all but five franchises in baseball; they had a higher winning percentage than all but seven. All of that only made it more maddening—and downright inexplicable—that the Red Sox went that same, entire period without winning even a single World Series, prompting Red Sox followers to adopt the notion that there were greater forces at work, that perhaps they had sold their souls in a previous existence, that they were paying for sins of the past.
That they were, as many would come to believe, cursed.
In its essence, of course, the curse was nothing more than a clever gimmick concocted by author Dan Shaughnessy, a longtime reporter and columnist at the Boston Globe who created the concept as a lure for his landmark book, The Curse of the Bambino; figuratively, it came to represent so much more. While effectively mocking the Red Sox for selling the greatest player in baseball history (Babe Ruth, nicknamed "the Bambino") to their most hated rivals (the New York Yankees), Shaughnessy put forth the notion that the Red Sox were being eternally punished for committing an inexcusable blunder of monumental proportions. Under normal circumstances, such a theory might have been mocked and ridiculed in a region so staid and conservative as the six-state region of New En gland, but the Red Sox did more than their part to support believers over a near century of masochism.
It wasn't just that the Red Sox lost, after all. It was how.
And more important, for how long.
For the Red Sox and their followers, as with most everyone else, the deepest wounds left scars. Where most teams hung championship banners to identify their most significant years, the Red Sox might as well have placed headstones in the outfield at Fenway Park. Here lie the Red Sox of 1946, 1948, 1967, 1975, 1978, and 1986. In four of those seasons, the Red Sox qualified for the World Series; in the two others, they probably should have. Had the Red Sox followed the laws of logic and won the World Series in three of those years—maybe even two or just one—there is no telling how the history of the organization might have changed, how differently the Sox might have fared. At the very least, there would have been no grounds for a curse, if only because one of the greatest and most curious droughts in the history of professional sports would have been cut in half. Relatively speaking, then, the psychological and emotional damage done to the Red Sox and their legions would have been relatively minimal.
Instead, the Sox became a historic case study on the cruel effects of deprivation.
The specifics of Boston's frustrating pursuit of a world title were not nearly as important individually as they were collectively, which is undoubtedly true of any spectacular failure. Like Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open golf championship or Phil Mickelson at the 2006 U.S. Open, the Red Sox had countless opportunities to escape the trouble they had wrought for themselves, only to make matters worse. An errant tee shot might have been the start of it all, but there was considerable opportunity to minimize the damage. Ultimately, the mistakes piled up on one another like a series of lifetime indiscretions, resulting in a rap sheet that could be uncoiled like a roll of paper towels. By the end of it, the Red Sox had a well-earned reputation of being not losers, but something worse—chokers—a team with the talent to win and that frequently put itself in position to do so, only to crumble under the considerable weight of the Boston uniform at the most pivotal of times.
And so, 1946 became connected to 1948 and to 1967, 1975, 1978, and 1986 when, in reality, the years had absolutely nothing to do with one another.
Nonetheless, like victims of a serial killer, each team had its own story. In 1946, despite winning more regular-season games than any team in baseball, the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, the last of which was decided, according to lore, when Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky held the ball as Enos "Country" Slaughter scored the decisive run, from first base, on a single by Harry "the Hat" Walker; in 1967, a year that generally remains pure in the heart of every Red Sox follower, the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox came out of nowhere to win the American League pennant before succumbing to the Cardinals, and the godlike Bob Gibson; the '75 Sox lost to one of the greatest teams in history, the Big Red Machine known as the Cincinnati Reds, after a pair of unforgettable bloopers—the first a lollipop curveball from eccentric left-hander Bill "Spaceman" Lee that slugger Tony Perez hit into orbit for a home run, the second an RBI single from Joe Morgan (against rookie left-hander Jim Burton) that delivered the final and decisive run of the Series; in '78, the Red Sox blew a 141.2-game lead to the hated Yankees and ended up paired against New York in a historic one-game playoff, a game Boston appeared to have in hand until lightweight Bucky "Fucking" Dent homered into the left-field screen; the '86 Sox had the World Series won—a 5-3 lead, two outs, bases empty in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets—before a succession of events that felt more like a mudslide, culminating in the unforgettable Mookie Wilson grounder that went through the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
Naturally, the Red Sox' losses on all of those occasions were far more complicated than any one splinter of misfortune, but to acknowledge this would have destroyed the idea that the Red Sox were the unluckiest of sorry souls.
In '78 and '86, in particular, the breakdowns seemed especially cruel abuse, in part because the Red Sox collapsed against teams from New York, in part because they came nearer the end. By then, the weight of frustration and failure had piled up so high on the Red Sox and their fans that the slightest bump in the road created a crisis in confidence, awakened self-doubt. And so anytime the Red Sox subsequently found themselves in a position to succeed, those even remotely affiliated with the team could not help but handle defeat—and victory—in a most predictable manner.
When the Red Sox ultimately lost, they and their followers expected to.
And if the Sox were about to win, the Sox and their legion of doom all too often made the mistake of looking over their shoulders.
Among those who were unfamiliar to Boston, it was this latter phenomenon that took getting used to, though most never did. The Red Sox' fear of failure became so great during the 85-year period from 1919 to 2003 that it was inescapable. Most every good Red Sox team during that period made the mistake of trying to outrun the past instead of facing up to it, which helped create an antagonistic and tension-filled environment that only perpetuated the problem. Snarled inimitable and annoyed Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez when asked about the alleged curse during the 2001 Red Sox season: "Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I'll drill him in the ass."
In reality, of course, there was no curse on the Red Sox, only the belief in one; at times, because their psyches and souls had been damaged, the curse seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The much greater problem that the Red Sox faced throughout their history was the fact that Boston played in the same league and, later, division as the mighty Yankees, their unrelenting rivals just 200 miles to the south. Prior to 1969, the only way to get to the World Series was to win the American League pennant during the regular season, which meant that the Red Sox had to finish ahead of New York (and everyone else in the American League) over the course of a full season. Baseball split to two divisions beginning in 1969, which added another tier of playoffs to the equation, but the Red Sox still had the same problem: Boston and New York were both in the AL East. It wasn't until 1995 that baseball introduced a football variable into the mix—the now-familiar wild card—which meant that a second-place finisher could finally be rewarded for its efforts and qualify for the postseason despite the absence of a division title.
Looking back, given the way the Yankees had hovered over the Red Sox for the large majority of the 20th century, one cannot help but think that the wild card was tailored almost exclusively for Boston, a city that simply could not grow beyond the shadow of its bigger, more accomplished sibling, no matter how hard it tried.
In Boston, as it would turn out, the wild card was not a curse, but a blessing.
FOR THE RED SOX, more than any other team in baseball, the irony was obvious. As much as the Red Sox learned to hate the Yankees, the ultimate goal in Boston was to become more like New York.
During the years of the last baseball dynasty—New York's reign from 1996 to 2000—the Yankees were perceived as an army of mercenaries, a team of high-priced players brought in exclusively for the purpose of winning championships. One of the most popular and obvious theories was that the Yankees bought their greatness, plain and simple, because New York had the most money. Unlike the National Football League, for example, Major League Baseball had an unbalanced economic structure that allowed large-market teams like the Yankees to generate far greater revenue than any other team—and to keep it—which allowed the Yankees to spend far more on their players. New York did not have to share its wares with Kansas City, for example, so most people believed that the financial gap between the Yankees and everyone else was nearly impossible to overcome. Thus, the Yankees seemed to be storing championship trophies in the attic as if they were jamming birthday cards into a shoe box.
In reality, the money was only part of the story. Relatively speaking, the Yankees spent as freely in the 1980s as they did at later points during their existence, yet New York went the entire decade without winning a world title. In fact, after winning the World Series in 1978—the team's 22nd championship during a span of 56 years—the Yankees did not win again until 1996. That title began a stretch during which New York won the World Series title four times in five years while averaging more than 97 wins per regular season, highlighted by a 1998 campaign during which New York went a historic 114-48, a record so eye-popping that those Yankees were regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. That '98 Yankees team, too, went a sterling 11-1 in the postseason, including a four-game sweep of the outclassed San Diego Padres in the World Series; overall, from Game 3 of the 1996 World Series through Game 2 of the 2000 World Series, the Yankees won an incredible 14 straight World Series games, a record that still stands and that defined their greatness more than any other mea sure.
In theory, anyway, the World Series was intended to pit the two best teams in baseball against each other. Sweeps were supposed to be the exception rather than the rule. Yet as surely as the leaves changed color in October, the Yankees were humiliating opponents that were alleged to be their peers.
From 1996 to 2000, if the Yankees were the number one team in baseball, it really didn't matter who was number two.
Still, those critics of baseball's economic system who credited New York's wealth alone for the Yankees' success missed the point. In 1996, the Yankee shortstop and the American League Rookie of the Year was none other than Derek Jeter, who was drafted and developed by the Yankees. For that matter, center .elder Bernie Williams was also drafted by the organization. Left-handed pitcher Andy Pettitte, left .elder Gerald Williams, backup catcher (and postseason hero) Jim Leyritz, and setup man extraordinaire Mariano Rivera were all products of the Yankee farm system, as was a catcher then relatively unknown, Jorge Posada. Of course, the key players of that group were Jeter, Bernie Williams, Pettitte, Rivera, and Posada, each of whom became a central figure in New York's run of success that extended well into the next decade.
For all that the Yankees spent on pitchers like David Cone, for instance, it was impossible to overstate the impact of the Yankees' scouting and player-development departments on the long-term success of the franchise. Always, the Yankees had been regarded as peerless when it came to evaluating young talent; in this case, it was especially true. According to baseball philosophy, the best players always play in the middle of the field, from the catcher out to center field. It is as if an axis were drawn directly down the middle of the diamond. That line pierces the pitcher's mound and second base, the center of the infield, which is shared by two players: the shortstop and the second baseman. The latter of those two players is generally considered less important, which leaves the shortstop as the most important infield position outside of the catcher and, of course, the pitcher.
In the case of the Yankees, here is what their farm system had produced as the team entered the .nal half of the 1990s: an All-Star catcher in Posada; a Hall of Fame shortstop in Jeter; an All-Star center .elder in Bernie Williams. As for Pettitte and Rivera, the former was an All-Star starter and the latter a Hall of Fame closer, providing the Yankees with fundamental building blocks in their starting rotation and bullpen for years to come.
For all of the talk about the Yankees' spending, then, the truth is that the Yankees built their foundation from the ground up, then spent lavishly on the furnishings that turned Yankee Stadium into a king's palace. During those years, the Yankees had the best of everything: youth, promise, and money.
As a result, as baseball continued to struggle through labor wars and economic crises, the Yankees had what every team wanted, a team that could win now and win later. Jeter was the centerpiece of a youthful group that would allow the Yankees an extended run at multiple championships; meanwhile, owner George Steinbrenner had the means (and the madness) to spend what ever was necessary to ensure that the Yankees fully exploited their empire at a time when the game's economic realities favored a larger-market team like the Yankees. All along, the goal was to balance youth and experience, hunger and wealth, all with the hope of giving each team, each year, the necessary ingredients to win a championship.
For much of the 1990s and beyond, that was what the Red Sox were up against.
And that, too, was their model.
IN BASEBALL, as the saying goes, any player can have one good year. The trick is to have several, over and over again, because consistency is the true challenge of the game. During a 162-game season over the span of six months, the best players produce every day, from April through September. And then they do it again the next year. And the next. And the next.
In the case of baseball teams, for obvious reasons, the challenge is even greater. A team frequently relies on the performance of all players. A team has far more variables. Injuries alone can undermine a club. Inevitably, there are contract disputes. And none of those things even begins to mea sure the day-to-day distractions that can affect any individual on a team, from marital difficulties to a child's illness to a death in the family.
In their history, like many teams, the Red Sox had their opportunities to make extended runs at multiple championships only to be thwarted. In 1967, for instance, the Red Sox lost slugger Tony Conigliaro for the season when he was struck in the eye by a pitch; his career—and life—were never really the same again. Following that season, 1967 American League Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg broke his leg skiing and never regained the greatness of his '67 campaign. Until the present day, the Sox of the mid-and late 1970s were, to many, the golden years of the franchise, largely because the Sox had a collection of good young players that included, among others, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, and Carlton Fisk. In the case of the last, the Red Sox made the colossal administrative blunder of failing to mail Fisk's contract in time, allowing him to become a free agent following the 1980 season. Fisk subsequently agreed to a new deal with the Chicago White Sox, with whom he finished his career before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.
Regardless of the specifics in a season that featured a near miss, the Red Sox consistently succumbed to the pitfalls that prevented them from finishing the job.
At least until 2004.
And, to some extent, until 2007.
But by the time the Red Sox completed their sweep of the Colorado Rockies in the World Series, all of the pieces finally were in place. In Game 4, for instance, the Red Sox' winning pitcher was 23-year-old left-hander Jon Lester, a Washington State native who had been diagnosed with large-cell lymphoma slightly more than a year earlier. Boston's second baseman and leadoff man was the feisty 5-foot-9 (on stilts) Dustin Pedroia, who batted .317 during his first season (and .319 in his last 11 postseason games) en route to the 2007 American League Rookie of the Year Award. The team's center .elder was a 23-year-old budding phenom named Jacoby Ellsbury, who joined the club for good only in the final month of the season before displacing starter Coco Crisp in the World Series, during which Ellsbury went 7-for-16 (a .438 average) with four runs scored, four doubles, three RBIs, two walks, and a stolen base.
Indeed, unlike the 2004 Red Sox, who ended 86 years of futility by winning the World Series with a largely veteran team that underwent immediate renovations, the 2007 Red Sox were, finally, built for the long haul. Along with Lester, starters Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka were both under team control through at least 2010; neither had yet to celebrate his 28th birthday. Closer Jonathan Papelbon turned 27 a few weeks after the World Series and was similarly under team control through 2011. Surrounding these young centerpieces of the Red Sox' future were accomplished veterans like Varitek and designated hitter David Ortiz, left .elder Manny Ramirez, and pitcher Curt Schilling. Among that group, only Schilling was eligible for free agency after the 2007 campaign, though the Red Sox subsequently signed him to a one-year contract that ensured Schilling would remain in Boston for at least 2008.
Even in the case of third baseman Mike Lowell, the free-agent-to-be who was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series, the Red Sox avoided a potential land mine. Other Sox players left the team following comparable seasons, but Lowell was retained by virtue of a three-year, $37.5 million contract ensuring that he, too, would be under the team's control through 2010.
So, as the Boston Red Sox completed the 2007 season with the World Series championship, they had done a great deal more than win a second world title in four years. Along the way, the Red Sox had extinguished decades of futility. They had erased the past. They had positioned themselves for the future and wiped away all self-doubt, as was evident in the actions and faces of their new generation, the 20-somethings like Lester and Pedroia and even Clay Buchholz, a minor-league pitcher who appeared briefly in Boston during the season and threw a no-hitter in his second major-league start. Couldn't people see now? The Red Sox had completely changed the direction and identity of the franchise defined by its monumental gaffes, replacing it with a team on which the older players cultivated the young as if they were their children; where players were no longer asked about past failures as much as they were about recent successes; where the name on the front of the team uniform—Red Sox—came to symbolize achievement, perseverance, commitment, dedication, relentlessness, and, yes, consistency.
"I noticed it when we played the [Los Angeles] Angels [in the American League Division Series]," Red Sox owner John Henry told Sports Illustrated after the club defeated the Rockies in the World Series. "Red Sox fans were extremely confident. The expectation now is that the Red Sox are going to win."
Indeed it is.
But in between there and here, it was quite a journey.
Excerpted from DYNASTY by Tony Massarotti
Copyright © 2008, 2009 by Tony Massarotti
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.