10/28/2004 1:38 PM ET
Sox wrap a season for the ages
Personnel changes key remarkable run
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
|Orlando Cabrera brought a tough defensive presence to the Boston lineup. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
It started at Nomar Garciaparra's Achilles' heel, ended at Curt Schilling's torn ankle tendon, and included hair, lots of it.
From expectant beginning to ecstatic finish, the Boston Red Sox wrote not only a book on outlandish perseverance, they wrote a library.
Before they broke a curse, the Red Sox broke the mold. They dumped dapper for grungy, stoic for emotional, fatalism for never-say-die.
And at the end of the strangest, longest trip, after 86 "next years," they ended the wait. Red Sox Nation embraced the club as never before, and the BoSox let down their hair, and nothing or no one else.
World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
The 2004 Sox buried old myths and gave rise to new ones, streaked and tailspun, sold out the season at Fenway but refused to sell out their beliefs.
Above everything else, however, they spent the season reinforcing a sermon as old as sports itself, delivered by everyone from Noah to Knute Rockne to Jim Valvano:
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
The Red Sox were offered numerous excuses to pack it in, and tack another "Wait till next year" to the string. The double-blow of first-half injuries to Garciaparra and Trot Nixon. The familiar, midseason supremacy of the New York Yankees. Three months of .500 ball.
Steered by resolute manager Terry Francona and their own faith in one another, the Red Sox refused to fold. And by the time they reached October, resilience was in their blood, setting the stage for their best trick yet -- the one that will become their legacy.
Not merely MLB's first recovery from an 0-3 hole to cap the American League Championship Series, setting up the World Series sweep of St. Louis.
But, more to the gut: How can a team possibly recover emotionally from a 19-8 drubbing by its historical tormentors, a humiliation in front of the home fans that gave the Yankees that insurmountable 3-0 ALCS lead?
The only answer, apparently: One last breath at a time.
They kept breathing against Mariano Rivera, twice. They breathed new life into Derek Lowe, three huge times. They stitched up Curt "Franken" Schilling, and swabbed up his blood. They pitched the breath out of the fearsome Cardinals, estranged favorite son Pedro Martinez key in that accomplishment.
As they removed their champagne-soaked uniforms, many for the last time, the words of Doug Mientkiewicz rang true.
Mientkiewicz, a latecomer to the party, was referring to the U.S. women soccer team's Olympic prospects when he declared in August, "I think they will [win]. It's their last hurrah together. It's amazing what great athletes, together one last time, can accomplish."
Martinez, Lowe and Jason Varitek gave fresh proof of that.
The manner in which the Red Sox won portrayed them as one of the grittiest comeback teams in the game's history. But they hardly engineered an upset.
Just as the Red Sox entered the ALCS as favorites, in Spring Training they were cast as the Majors', umm, hair apparent. With noted big-game pitcher Schilling and a reigning top fireman, Keith Foulke, added to the staff, Boston was a popular pick over the Yankees and their suspect pitching.
While New York added a bigger marquee (Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield) to the storied rivalry, the Red Sox added bigger manes.
The top hairliner from the outset was Damon, and the day he reported to camp in Fort Myers is vividly recalled by Lowe: "[Kevin] Millar came running into the lunch room laughing, saying we had to come out and look at Johnny. He showed up looking like the Wolfman."
Millar, with typical irreverence, said of Damon, "We call him Jesus, and he's running around sprinkling water on people to end the curse."
And Damon received the blessing of young -- but clean-cut -- general manager Theo Epstein, whose refusal to obsess over matters that do not affect wins and losses proved invaluable.
"Theo came up to me the first day in Spring Training," Damon said, "and told me it was okay to keep it. That's us. We are the total opposite of the Yankees."
The Red Sox started out like they meant business. Ignoring the absences of Garciaparra and Nixon (herniated disk), they wrapped April with a 15-6 record that included 6-1 against the Yankees -- their best head-to-head start in the rivalry since 1913.
Eighty-two games later, incredibly, they were still nine games above .500. "We spent four months being a team of frauds," said Schilling.
It had been a half-season spent in a haze and under a cloud: What about Garciaparra, as the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline approached?
"I very much enjoy our new guy. He's got a spunk about him, fire, intelligence. And he just plays. He plays every day."
-- Jason Varitek, on Orlando Cabrera
Unlike Manny Ramirez, Garciaparra had not recovered well from the offseason attempt to deal for Alex Rodriguez, which would have marked the Boston exit of both. Never of sunny disposition to begin with, Garciaparra had shown up with a chip on his shoulder the size of Plymouth Rock and played reluctantly, when he played at all.
Slowly, even those who considered Nomar the face of the Red Sox agreed that the Red Sox needed a facelift. Results of a July 1 online poll conducted by boston.com showed 70 percent of respondents favoring the trade of Garciaparra -- who sealed the deal, any deal, that very night by moping through a gripping 13-inning loss in Yankee Stadium that seemed to stimulate everyone on the baseball planet but him.
At the end of the month, Epstein acted. Couched in a layered transaction involving three other teams, Garciaparra went to the Chicago Cubs while shortstop Orlando Cabrera (from Montreal) and Mientkiewicz (from Minnesota) were brought to Boston.
The move was typical of the Epstein Red Sox, foregoing glitz for two parts that improved the whole. "I'll say this about our team now," the GM assessed, "we are a more functional team."
Be it a cliche, Cabrera was a ray of happy sunshine. Earning half of Garciaparra's salary, the Colombian said, "I'm making $6 million. Every time I get a paycheck, I have to sit down."
He was quickly embraced in the Boston clubhouse, whose leader, Varitek, said, "I very much enjoy our new guy. He's got a spunk about him, fire, intelligence. And he just plays. He plays every day."
And for whatever reason -- they were free of the Garciaparra pall, the team was better, the club was just plain due or perhaps it was totally coincidental -- the Red Sox took off almost immediately.
From the day Cabrera, Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts, who was brought over from Los Angeles in a lesser move not to be overlooked, first put on the Boston uniform to the end of the season, the Sox went 42-17.
In the process, they put a push on the Yankees, closing a 10 1/2-game gap on Aug. 15 to 2 1/2 games by Sept. 3. Although the charge could be considered vain in retrospect -- the Red Sox would finish second to New York for the seventh consecutive season -- it wasn't at all.
In shaving the deficit, the Red Sox regained their strut and their confidence to handle the Yankees.
"We're coming," Martinez declared, "and we're coming hard."
Despite a looming ALCS rematch with the Yankees that was considered inevitable by everyone and an obsession of the Red Sox, who were weary of tossing and turning at night over Aaron Boone's home run, they maintained their focus for an ALDS sweep of Anaheim.
The three-and-done series win over the Angels gave rise to New England's Señor October. David Ortiz went wall with Jarrod Washburn's first pitch in the 10th inning of Game 3 as the Red Sox walked off into the ALCS.
There, Schilling was emaciated by his tendon, Jon Lieber out-pitched Pedro, the Yankees' offense devoured Boston's staff -- and faces in Red Sox Nation were longer than fall shadows in the late afternoon.
But what appeared to be descent to a new low -- for all their inglorious and torturous history, the Red Sox had never failed to extend a seven-game series to the maximum -- turned out to be prelude to legend.
Two comebacks against Rivera's cutter were converted into walk-off wins by Ortiz, Schilling came back in sutures, Lowe won back the fans' hearts, and Red Sox Nation could thrust out its chests.
If you aren't in that Boston uniform and in that Boston dugout, you have no way to comprehend the depth of the maddening misery of all those years under the Yankees' thumb.
But perhaps the long-ago words of Pee Wee Reese give you a clue. The Dodgers shortstop, who dropped several cross-town World Series to the Yankees told "Boys of Summer" author Roger Kahn, "It gets to be more than baseball. It makes you start to wonder what kind of person you really are."
The Red Sox have to wonder no more. They are the kind of persons who laugh at adversity while laughing at themselves, the kind of persons who bond with the people whose dispositions they hold in their hands, the kind of persons who finish the deal.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.