I had a nightmare just over 20 months ago to the date. At least I thought it was. After giving a long, blank stare at my 40-inch Samsung I came to the realization that what just happened was reality — and what a harsh one it was.
On Sept. 28, 2011, I, along with baseball fans from around the world, witnessed Robert Andino hit a fly ball to left field in Camden Yards. Carl Crawford gave a feeble attempt to catch it, and the ball dropped to the ground, next to his sliding body. When his throw to the plate in an attempt to gun down the winning run was late, the Orioles had the 4-3 win over the Boston Red Sox on the final day of the MLB regular season. The play was a microcosm of Crawford’s failed tenure in Boston, of the roller-coaster that was the 2011 Red Sox.
It’s well-documented what the loss meant at the time of defeat, and just minutes after. The Tampa Bay Rays overcame a 7-0 eighth-inning deficit to force extra innings against the Yankees.
It’s no wonder I stared at my big screen in disbelief for several minutes watching the last-place O’s pile on top of each other at home plate. But as a Sox fan, in a month that saw hope dwindle by the day, there was still a shimmer left. The Rays and Yankees were still in extras and a New York win meant a one-game playoff with Tampa for the AL Wild Card. A Rays’ win would give them the Wild Card outright.
The superstitious side of me — I’m a Sox fan, I have to have one — encouraged me to get out of the wretched setting of my basement man cave, and into a new one that might be of better luck. Angrily trudging up to my bedroom to root for the Yankees for one of few times I ever will, I put on YES for maybe a minute before the Rays won it on an Evan Longoria walk-off solo shot in the 12th. It was my lowest point as a Sox fan. Even lower than “Aaron Bleepin’ Boone” if only because I was too young to fully understand what transpired that October night in 2003.
In effect, the Rays trounced the Sox from the playoffs, vaulting past them into the lone wild-card spot. Not the biggest deal, things like that happen in sports.
That’s the mindset until you consider that just 27 days earlier, Boston possessed the American league’s best record. Oh yeah, and the fact that Jonathan Papelbon, who was supposed to be automatic, couldn’t save a 3-2 lead in the ninth. And the Yankees, with the AL East locked up, were sending Triple-A guys to the hill throughout the game which eventually fed the Rays’ rally. They threw 11 guys, including giving Cory Wade, not Mo, the save opportunity, which was blown. I’m convinced Girardi didn’t go through that much trouble in one game to save arms for the postseason. He did it to spite the Sox, I tell ya! Collusion! So I retract my previous statement, the way everything unfolded that fateful night, things of that nature and inimitability, very rarely materialize in sports. Especially in post-2004 Red Sox lore.
After watching a season that began with so much promise end so irksomely, I took to Microsoft Word to vent. A novice writer at the time, I ranted and rambled for about 700 words of nonsense. I expressed that it was the Great Bambino exacting revenge for ‘04 only to later find out a highly-toxic clubhouse was the source of one of the most colossal collapses in the history of sports. A period of futility for the better part of 20 months for Red Sox Nation was initiated.
A model franchise and its legion of fans were sent into an offseason of soul-searching. The beloved Tito fired, Theo off to the north side of Chicago and the cantankerous Bobby Valentine hired. A torturous 2012, complete with the franchise’s worst season since 1965, ensued.
But now, a franchise that once exercised its 86-year-old demons by overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS against its most hated rival en route to winning a world championship is once again proving resilient.
The 2013 Sox are back to their sabermetric ways that won them world titles in 2004 and ’07. And to prove what kind of worth it has had, look no further than the American League East standings. Two months into the season and the Red Sox are atop baseball’s toughest division. It’s shocking considering the state of the franchise after last season and how low its expectations were in spring training.
They built the best on-paper team in the history of baseball during prior to 2011 and it failed miserably. The first step in rehabilitating was establishing a new identity with parallels to the past. Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner and John Henry had become obsessed with building a brand, rather than a consistent ball club. Well, mission accomplished, gentlemen.
To their credit, beginning with last August’s trade, they have re-committed their focus to constructing a roster that can win in Boston, not grow the Red Sox image.
Clubhouse cancers in Adrian Gonzalez, Crawford and Colonel Sanders’ right-hand man, Josh Beckett, were ridded. During the offseason, clubhouse chemistry was valued more than talent when spending in free agency. The 2013 team resembles the most successful Sox teams of the last 15 years — a healthy mix of homegrown talent and shrewd free-agent signings.
Ben Cherington, Epstein’s successor, was given the freedom to implement his plan to turnaround the franchise. He overpaid for a declining Shane Victorino because he is a proven leader with a winning past. Jonny Gomes, who was a member of last year’s surprising A’s, provides the clubhouse with color and humor, much the way Kevin Millar did during the championship days. Mike Napoli has been a bargain, playing for $5 million, plus incentives, this year thanks to worries of a degenerative hip, and is in the top five of the league in RBIs.
But for a season that most thought would function as a bridge to the future, the wins are a bonus. For the first time in a while, the Sox are again fun to watch. Fenway once again has a lively pulse and it finally came to grips with reality by forfeiting its phony sellout streak.
Perhaps the most important sign for Boston this year and for its future is Dustin Pedroia. As much as I love and respect what Pedroia has done in the past, the things he is doing this year is on another level. Pedroia has his smile back to accompany an intense attitude and fierce competitiveness, all of which have made him a fan favorite since he won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2007.
Though he will never give less than 100 percent on the field, it seemed the Laser Show was miserable during the fall of the Red Sox. But Pedroia, who with David Ortiz makes up the heart and soul of the Sox, is leading the rise back to prominence.
There is an obvious chemistry among the team on the field, Pedey at the forefront, that has been missing since Boston’s last playoff appearance in 2009. The team is playing loose like they did before Francona’s voice went stale in 2011. No more complaining about the mean Boston media, secret players-only meetings, or Popeyes and Bud Heavies. I bet they put down the beer and went back to the Jack Daniels’ swiggin’ bunch they once were. Whiskey is just makes things more fun. And if the recent past has proven anything, the more entertaining and humorous the Sox are (i.e. Manny, Papelbon, Millar, Ortiz), the more attainment they find.
There is also this: Fans can identify themselves with this team. Barely maintainable beards have found their way back to Yawkey Way. A nice answer to the goody-two shoes, clean-shaven Yankees. And there is an assiduous work ethic that matches the talent of the squad. That is recipe for success. A downfall of recent Sox teams was an unwillingness to grind out tough games that required more than innate skill, the 4-3 loss to Baltimore being a prime example.
So, win or lose, I can enjoy watching this team, something I couldn’t say convincingly the last two years. I can read the Boston Globe with pleasure again and not have to read Dan Shaughnessy’s truthful opinions of the team’s ineptness. Through 70 games, my morning Joe reading the Globe has been a delight. Not that the content was lacking when the team was playing poor, it is simply far more enjoyable to read about a competent team.
Cherington did an admirable job over the winter of picking up players who are apt to play in the pressure-cooker that is Boston. Maybe that’s why I could never fully appreciate Sox games with Crawford and Gonzalez. You can post impressive numbers, but if you fail in the big moments, the Fenway Faithful will show no mercy.
Talent had little to do with the nightmarish collapse of 2011. Gonzo was in the top five of MVP voting, and is again performing well this season. However, the Dodgers are in last place. Crawford is playing well in Los Angeles, too, exhibiting the weight of playing in Beantown probably was too much for him. It is no happenstance a losing culture followed both players to the West Coast.
The brand the Red Sox tried to build the last two years is the antithesis of the baseball-minded prowess the organization is instilling this year and for the future.
Ownership wasted no time in making John Farrell a villain in Canada and a hero in New England. Farrell has been fruitful in reforming former All-Stars Clay Buchholz, a Cy Young favorite, Jon Lester and John Lackey. Career minor-leaguer Daniel Nava has transformed into a very capable every day outfielder. And the team has gone back to Red Sox basics, their hitters seeing more pitches per plate appearance than any other team. The span since that Andino hit has seen plenty of vainness. But those dark times may be a distant memory with these happy-go-lucky Sox and a stacked farm system.
This was supposed to be the rebuilding year. But it is becoming more and more manifest that the forgettable, loathed seasons of the last two years was really the transition period. Funny how that works. A team laden with so much talent in a rebuilding phase, and one almost consensually picked to finish last in the division is an early-season contender. It is both a blessing and a curse that in Boston, bridge years happen when least expected. This year has been the blessing. The climb back to becoming a relevant organization is happening much faster than expected, and the hauntings of the recent past are quickly fading.
Maybe the good times continue into October, or perhaps this year turns out not to be as special as I think it is shaping out to be. I hope like hell it’s the former. I have yet to witness a Red Sox postseason in which I can legally sit back, sip a Boston Lager, and enjoy some October baseball that features my team. And what a first time it would be watching this fun, overachieving team led by the scrappy underdog himself, Dustin Pedroia. Fans can identify with that. The culture change at Fenway has begun, and it looks akin to some old squads that have passed through. If that stays the mentality, maybe the Sox return to being a model franchise.
Whatever the case, it’s satisfying to once more be a proud member of Red Sox Nation. And since this is a Buffalo-base site and I have yet to mention a Buffalo sports team: Take notes, Darcy. This is how you turn around a franchise and win back a proud fanbase.