Tonight, twenty five men with facial hair, of varying lengths and styles, will take the field in Detroit. They will be playing for something familiar, yet novel. It will be the 171st time these men have taken the field together this year, and if things go according to plan, it might just be the 103rd time they walk away victorious. The Boston Red Sox were, a decade ago, a band of “Idiots” who – despite a massive payroll, passionate fan base, and legitimate super-star power – had not won a championship in 85 years. That year would be just as unlucky for the Sox as they watched their last hope sail over the wall as Aaron Boone sprinted around the bases and into the mob waiting for him at home plate. Boston, and the rest of Red Sox Nation, sadly took off their hats, looked at each other with a familiar sheepish gaze, and muttered the words they had been saying for the better part of a century, “there’s always next year.”
And then suddenly it really WAS “next year” as 2004 marked the most improbable comeback in baseball postseason history. The Red Sox fought off elimination for four consecutive nights and then kept running all the way to a World Series title. Suddenly, Red Sox fans were left in a state of shock. Suddenly “there’s always next year” sounded a lot worse than it ever had before. And suddenly the bandwagon carrying Red Sox fans was overflowing as people tried their best to find more room. Red Sox Nation continued to expand, and three years later the city of Boston celebrated again. But this time the aura about the victory was less of magic and more of malice. The wonderful fans in Boston suddenly had to explain themselves. “Oh yeah I’m a Red Sox fan but I was a Sox fan before they won the series too.” I’ve had to say that phrase more times than I care to admit. It’s a bit humiliating, to tell you the truth, that I can’t simply be a fan of the team I grew up loving and rooting for. I now have to justify my fan-dom to random strangers. The dirty water was becoming poisoned, too, and the Sox weren’t quite so lovable.
Fast forward to 2011. Terry Francona continues to manage the Red Sox, and they begin the final month of the season more than 10 games ahead of the next-closest competitor. Perhaps the newer Sox fans didn’t remember, but September has not, historically, been the best time for Boston baseball. I watched in horror as the noose closed tighter and tighter until, during game 162 of the regular season, the Red Sox completed an epic collapse and failed to make the playoffs. That marked the end of the Terry Francona era in Boston, and began the most baffling season in recent Red Sox history.
Bobby Valentine? Really? The same guy who was just managing teams in Japan? That Bobby Valentine? The former Mets manager who never really got anywhere and was known more for his personality than his effectiveness? Coming off of the bitter disappointment of 2011 I think Red Sox Nation was willing to at least see what would happen. But no one was expecting a disaster on the scale of what eventually occurred. At the end of the 2012 season, the Sox found themselves at 69-93, and in last place of the American League East division. The fans watched their brand new manager drive away one of the most beloved players in Kevin Youkilis. Then watched as the management decided to increase salary space by trading away 4 players for a bag of peanuts and cracker jacks. Beckett, Gonzalez, Crawford, and Punto whose contracts totaled more than $270 million were moved across the country and everyone in Boston immediately saw the signs. This was going to take a lot of rebuilding.
But I doubt anyone outside of the Red Sox front office was prepared for what was about to happen. Not only did the Red Sox get rid of those huge contracts, they didn’t use all that money one one guy. The used that money to build a TEAM. Yes, a team. Not a collection of players who get paid lots of money to do individual things really well. That method has worked for one team, but that team plays in New York. The Red Sox broke the curse with a collection of guys who were not necessarily the biggest names in the free-agent pool. Sure Ortiz and Manny and Schilling and Beckett were high-dollar all-star guys, but the spirit of the team was in the Millars and Muellers and Damons of the group. The outrageous facial hair, the charismatic way they interacted, and camaraderie that was visible. Those guys would do anything for each other. They would play with only one foot if they had do (which they did, as you might recall). In fact, during that season one of the name-recognition-former-all-star-type players was dealt away for a player who fit that team better. They even had a Pokey.
And now the Red Sox realized that was exactly where they went wrong. They had brought in a Manager that was more well-known than some of the players. They had talented guys who couldn’t really get along and the clubhouse was in utter turmoil. When Ben Cherington finally said “enough” and traded away millions of dollars worth of talent, there was new life.
That new life translated to 102 wins. So far. But it’s less about the number and much more about the method. In years past the Red Sox would mash home runs, strike you out 20 times, and win by sheer force of talent. The wins this year have been about sheer force of will. It never matters how they win, only if they win. And the team in Boston has realized that they can win any game, at any time. Down by 6 in the 9th inning? No problem. Can’t get a hit through 6 innings? They still have 3 more. Ace starting pitcher is going to miss 3 months? Sounds like a challenge. Sure they may smash telephones, but this team always plays for one another, not with one another. Heck, Shane Victorino has been fighting injuries nearly all season, but never let it sideline him for any extended time. Mike Napoli has a chronic hip injury and lost a longer-term contract because of it. Instead of bitterness, he let it fuel his fire and has delivered time and time again. Most recently last night when he air-mailed the only run either team would score to help Boston to a 2-1 lead in the ALCS. Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Jake Peavy all have brought passion, fire, and drive to a team that was lacking much of anything in those departments last year. And let us not forget about John Farrell, the manager who has brought everyone together with the idea that they can win regardless of what is thrown their way.
Tonight, the Boston Red Sox will take on the Detroit Tigers in game 4 of the ALCS. No matter who you have chosen to play villain and hero in this story, you cannot deny its excitement. If the Red Sox down the Tigers and make their way to the World Series, it will not be because the Tigers were blown away. The first 3 games have all been decided by 1 run, and the Red Sox did not begin an inning with the lead until the 8th inning of game 3. But the players have refused to let each other down. Winning with improbable comebacks and grinding out close games. This is not 2004 all over again, that is perfectly clear, but this team has been born out of disappointment, and thrived on mutual success, just as that team did. Red Sox players might no longer be the “lovable losers” or “Idiots” of the MLB, but now they have become the “bearded bandits.” And losses are coming less frequently than razor deliveries these days.
From the West Coast Office