09/28/2003 1:12 PM ET
Magical ride so far for Red Sox
OAKLAND -- Dig deep into the annals of baseball history and you'll find loads of teams that had jaw-dropping talent, but came up short in the heart department. Delve even deeper and you'll find teams that led the league in social activities, but didn't have enough talent to turn all that cohesiveness into a winning season.
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
The challenge is to find the teams with that perfect combination of talent and heart. Those are the teams that lead you to wonder: Is it the success that created the chemistry, or the chemistry that caused so much of the success?
Welcome to the 2003 edition of the Boston Red Sox.
"It's just amazing how everyone in this clubhouse genuinely pulls for one another," said Sox second baseman Todd Walker. "It's kind of unusual. You couple that with the talent and you don't find that too often. It's a rare combination."
They sometimes raised the walls with their clubhouse laughter. But perhaps not quite as often as they overcame devastating losses one day with grit-filled wins the next.
| Fenway Park
Ballpark A-to-Z Guide
The oldest of Major League Baseball's 30 venues, historic Fenway Park -- which opened in 1912 -- is ready to host postseason baseball for the 14th time.
Fenway still has that ambiance, as thousands of tourists trek there every summer to gaze at the Green Monster, not to mention various other nooks and crannies of the fabled yard in Boston's back bay.
New ownership has revamped the place with several improvements this season, most notably the highly coveted seats atop the Monster.
There are several things that make Fenway unique, such as the 37-foot tall Monster, the 302-foot hook to the Pesky Pole in right field, the triangle at the 420-foot mark in right-center, and the strikingly little amount of foul territory.
The Red Sox, with their offensive juggernaut, used the park as an advantage all season, going 53-28.
But the dimensions aren't the only thing that make Fenway a daunting place for the opposing team. Fenway fans are among the most rabid and knowledgeable in the game, providing electricity from the first pitch to the last.
Unless a game is completely out of hand -- as in a double-digit difference in the score -- the park remains full for all nine innings.
They littered record books and highlight reels with their one-through-nine offensive arsenal; the bullpen let more leads slip away then anyone would care to remember.
It was a season of contrasts, but here they are. Fittingly, they got in via the Wild Card, because wild is exactly what the last six months were for the Sox.
The Red Sox are in the playoffs for the first time in four years, and to get there, it took a regular-season ride that players, team executives and legions of fans won't soon forget.
The highs were Mt. Everest; The lows? Nothing short of a kick in the gut.
But again, here they are, battle-tested from their 162-game roller coaster, ready to take on the A's in a best-of-five Division Series, beginning Wednesday night at the Network Associates Coliseum.
The most frequent "R" word heard in the Boston clubhouse this season was not Red Sox, but resilience.
They hope that same trait carries them throughout the month of October.
"If this isn't fun, you should probably get out of the game," said rookie general manager Theo Epstein, who swiftly moved into his new role by building much of the heart of this team over the winter. "It doesn't get much better than this. To have a team that is certainly imperfect, but to have a team that has played so hard and overcome so much, that's what fun is all about."
It didn't just happen this way. In the winter months, Epstein and manager Grady Little spent many hours discussing the right type of players to bring to Boston. The type of players that could bring them a step further than the 2002 group, which peaked too early and missed the playoffs despite winning 93 games.
They wanted players who could hit in Fenway Park -- the 2002 team was a disappointing 42-39 at home. But they also wanted players who could withstand the heat that comes with playing in Boston.
What they came up with was Walker and Bill Mueller and David Ortiz and Kevin Millar.
Those players surrounded the existing cast, which included the superstar trio of Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez. Key core parts also remained, ranging from Johnny Damon to Jason Varitek to Trot Nixon to Derek Lowe to Tim Wakefield.
This recipe blended together early.
"I don't think we really realized it until we saw them operate during the course of the season and they showed right away what they would be able to do," said Little. "They showed that they wouldn't quit if they got down in a game."
A crushing 6-4 loss on Opening Day, caused by a two-run lead disappearing in the ninth? No biggie. Not when the Sox came back to beat the Devil Rays the next night on Millar's homer in the 16th inning.
"The first time you saw it was the second game of the season. We had just lost a devastating opening day game in Tampa and then came within Doug Mirabelli tag of losing the second game and went 16 innings and won it on a Kevin Millar home run," Epstein said. "The feeling in the clubhouse that night was pretty good and you sensed this might be a team that can overcome some adversity."
That sense was proved accurate time and again.
While the Sox relied too heavily on Garciaparra, Ramirez and Martinez in recent years, those players have had all kinds of support this season.
Which is why Ortiz and Mueller are getting more mention in MVP talk these days than Garciaparra or Ramirez.
Then again, picking an MVP from this team? Talk about a stumper.
"This team is an MVP right now," Millar said. "There's a lot of guys. Team, T-E-A-M, 100 percent. There's no individuals on this team. There's no individuals in this clubhouse. I think we all pull for each other."
That's the kind of talk that brings a prideful look to Epstein's face.
"That's one of the things we're all proud of," Epstein said. "We are greater than the sum of our parts. That's important. If you could name a clear-cut MVP of this team, we probably wouldn't be in the position we are today. It takes 25 men contributing throughout the course of the season and we've had a lot of guys step up."
Cohesiveness usually breeds confidence.
"We very well could be the best team there is," said Damon, the leadoff man and center fielder. "We can do everything. We've got starting pitchers who can carry us, we have the hitters, we have speed, we have the bench, we can field. We can do all of those things."
Now they are ready to test their chemistry and talent against the best October has to offer.
And all of Boston hopes the mixture is potent enough to snap an 85-year championship drought.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.