The Stuff of Legend

The World-Champion Boston Red Sox

You could not write this story any better, and if you tried to pass it off as fiction, you’d get buried in rejection slips.

The tale of the 2004 Boston Red Sox — who won the World Series (and the team’s first championship since 1918) on October 27 — is among many other things a beautifully constructed narrative.

The opening shots are wistful, invoking a history of near misses and heartbreak. The setup involves an impossibly young executive taking undervalued ballplayers and finding just the right place for them over the course of his first two years on the job. The season itself is ripe with foreshadowing, colorful characters, genuine doubt, great drama, and surprising but apt redemptions. The signature images, anecdotes, and moments are vivid, none more so than a bloody sock.

And even though the World Series against the Cardinals was a stinker — by all accounts, the least competitive in memory — it serves as a dramatically necessary denouement following the epic American League Championship Series against the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees. You’re simply not allowed to throw another climax at an audience after that barnburner.

If anything, this tale of triumph is too perfect, faithfully following the formula of dozens of cliché-ridden, cornball underdog movies. (The blood-seeping injury? Stolen from The Natural, naturally.) But because it really happened — it did happen, right? — it gleams, unflawed.

The fairy tale starts in 2002, when John Henry bought the Red Sox in spring training. In November of that year, the team made two bold moves: It hired Bill James, the game’s most famous stat-head but pretty much an outsider, as an advisor, and it promoted 28-year-old Theo Epstein to general manager. On May 10, 2003, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball was released, describing how the Oakland A’s adopted a new way of evaluating baseball players. Basically, the A’s stopped relying on traditional scouting and started using sophisticated statistical analysis to measure and acquire players. Bill James was one of the pioneers of the field, and Theo Epstein was a believer. You see where this is going?

In 2003, the Red Sox added Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Todd Walker, and David Ortiz. All were essential to the team’s success that year, but Ortiz had the biggest impact. Waived by Minnesota in the offseason, he finished fifth in the balloting for 2003 American League Most Valuable Player, even though he played in less than 80 percent of his team’s games and was primarily a designated hitter. (Ortiz is such a bad fielder that in 2004 a ball went through his glove, best anybody can figure.)

That 2003 team had an awe-inspiring offense, a shaky defense, and a very average pitching staff led by wiry Pedro Martinez, the once-great ace whose declining skills were apparent to everybody but their owner, creating a Curse of the Bambino writ small — a fervent hope for greatness accompanied by a dread of terrible things to come.

The campaign ended predictably badly, with a heartbreaking loss to the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees in game seven of the American League Championship Series. Not predictable because of some mythic curse — “mythic” both in terms of being fallacious and being a sacred belief — but because by any measure last year’s Boston team simply wasn’t as good as New York’s.

The winter of 2003-4 was filled with urgency for the Red Sox, because the upcoming season was the team’s best chance to win in the near future, with its large number of high-profile free agents who, history told us, were likely to be in different uniforms come 2005.

So the Red Sox in the offseason traded for workhorse starting pitcher and lovable asshole Curt Schilling, and signed closer Keith Foulke away from Oakland, addressing the team’s pitching weakness in a way that inspired reasonable thoughts of the World Series. Boston also got second baseman Mark Bellhorn (to replace Todd Walker and up the team’s ugly quotient considerably) and reserve shortstop Pokey Reese, expected to improve the Red Sox’s middle-infield defense.

The addition of Reese proved prescient when franchise shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was hurt in spring training. Reese didn’t do much with the bat, but his glove was golden, and he filled in ably at short. Without him — even though he didn’t figure much in the team’s second-half or playoff fortunes — the season probably would have gone very differently.

And there was plenty of dumb luck to go along with the shrewd acquisitions. The team was supposed to feature leftfielder Magglio Ordonez and pretty-boy shortstop Alex Rodriguez, of course, through a pair of trades that would have unloaded the lovably oblivious Manny Ramirez and Garciaparra. It’s hard to believe that one of the keys to the Red Sox’s championship season was a botched blockbuster deal, but when you’re talking about Boston’s 2004 campaign, credulity is pretty scarce. It’s all about a good yarn.

These 2004 Red Sox had a goofy charm from the outset — much of it a carry-over from the 2003 “Cowboy Up” team — with out-and-out flakes Ramirez, Millar, and Martinez. They were joined by Unfrozen Caveman Outfielder Johnny “Manson” Damon (whose beard and flowing locks were the result of a concussion suffered during the 2003 playoffs [don’t ask]); his only-slightly-more-evolved second-baseman counterpart, Bellhorn; the confidence-challenged Derek Lowe; cornrowed blond boy Bronson Arroyo; and the hilariously effortless Tim Wakefield, whose knuckleballs seem better suited to Looney Tunes cartoons than the real world. I doubt the Bad News Bears were close to this eccentric.

That looseness was countered by the grit of all-business third baseman Mueller; aging ace Schilling; don’t-fuck-with-me catcher Jason Varitek; Trot “Pig Pen” Nixon; relievers/serial murderers Mike Timlin and Alan Embree; and Foulke, whose unblinking, wide eyes when he’s on the mound suggest that he’s either trying to win a staring contest or is about to crap his pants in fear.

And somewhere in between these two extremes was Ortiz, the hulking, top-heavy DH with a physique and swing to crush any ball or human and a smile to melt virtually any heart. By tapping into both aspects of the team’s composition, he became its symbol and the fans’ favorite player.

But that balance we can see only in hindsight. The season from the start had its share of bumps. In addition to Nomar’s boo-boo, Nixon was nursing a pair of injuries. And when the Red Sox followed a great April with three months of .500 ball, I was fed up enough that I thought it wise to get as much value as possible in trade from the team’s myriad free-agents-to-be, particularly Lowe and Garciaparra but also, for the right price, Martinez. I had very nearly given up on 2004, and advocated building for 2005 and beyond.

I wasn’t alone. Fans who demanded the head of manager Grady Little following the 2003 season got their wish and were rewarded with Terry Francona, whose lax managerial style earned him the nickname “Francoma” among the faithful. Third-base coach Dale Suevm sent runners to their doom at the plate with startling regularity.

The team itself seemed to harbor doubts, too. In early July, Lowe — who in April 2002 had thrown a no-hitter — wondered aloud to sportswriters why his poor performance made him a “mental Gidget.” And on September 24 — when things were actually going well for the Red Sox — Martinez famously bowed down to his nemesis and conceded New York’s superiority: “I just tip my hat and call the [God-Damned, Mother-Fucking] Yankees my daddy.”

Management didn’t fold or panic, though. On July 31 Epstein pulled the trigger on a trade that at the time looked at best risky, swapping Garciaparra and a prospect for sure-handed infielders Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz and speedy outfielder Dave Roberts. Epstein either had a flawless master plan — shoring up the Red Sox defense and getting a pinch runner just in case the team needed a pair of fast legs down three games to none to the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees in the playoffs — or he should try playing the lottery.

But what, really, did he have to lose? In retrospect, it should have been obvious that Garciaparra — always humorless, and no longer in the self-sacrificing “dirt dog” category because of regular injury and ceaseless sulking — just didn’t fit in any longer. (And the fucker didn’t even return the RSVP card to our wedding. We should have invited Manny.)

It wasn’t just his disposition; Garciaparra’s first-pitch-hacking approach at the plate was a stark contrast to the rest of the lineup’s patience — which, as Moneyball and our mothers taught us, is a virtue — and in the 2003 playoffs he could be counted on to make an out in virtually any situation.

Without Nomar, the Red Sox tore through August and September, easily securing the American League’s wild-card spot and giving the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees a good ol’ scare to close out the regular season.

The playoffs were the season in miniature, with the sweep of the Angels matching April, the first three games and eight innings of the American League Championship Series mimicking the downs of May, June, and July, and the remainder representing the stretch run. Three wins, followed by three losses, then eight straight wins.

The collapse of the Yankees and the feeble World Series of the St. Louis Cardinals could even be seen in style as the ultimate vindication of the Nomar trade and the new brand of Boston baseball. As opposing hitters flailed their way to easy outs — just like Garciaparra! — Red Sox batters showed an almost otherworldly calm and were handsomely rewarded.

These Red Sox — outside of Schilling — will never be mistaken for smart or articulate. They are solid ballplayers of widely varying skills assembled almost perfectly to form a team good enough to win the World Series and silly, dumb, and clueless enough to accomplish three nearly unthinkable feats: save what was fast looking like a lost season; become the first baseball team ever to win a seven-game series after being down three-love; and sweep the World Series against the class of the National League.

But the real magic of the season is found in the October details, just as the strength of a novel or movie is in the minutiae. It’s a literally sewn-together Schilling, gutting out two improbable playoff wins with blood on his sock. It’s Martinez, dashing any Cardinal hopes with a pitching rather than power performance that showed he might have learned to live without his good fastball. It’s Lowe, rescuing a miserable, whiny contract year with the Series-ending win. I expect we’ll be saying goodbye to Martinez and Lowe before next season, and there’s no better way to remember them: dominant, tough, and smart, making the Cardinals look absolutely helpless.

This is not only a great Red Sox story. It’s a great baseball story, a great sports story, and a great story, period. It is, absolutely, the stuff of legend.

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