The Inside Story of How the Red Sox Became a Baseball Power House
By Tony Massarotti
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Tony Massarotti
All rights reserved.
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 clubhouse 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 thisclose.
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 clubhouse 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' clubhouse 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 clubhouse 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 England, 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dynasty by Tony Massarotti. Copyright © 2009 Tony Massarotti. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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