One Red Sox Fan’s Journey to Redemption: Remembering the Road to 2004
It is Sunday, October 9, 2004. I am sitting in the West Concord 99, watching the Red Sox play the Yankees. The Red Sox are down 0-3 in the ALCS, trailing 4-3 in the 9th inning, Mariano Rivera is entering the game to close it out, and I am asking myself, “why am I even here? Why am I bothering to watch this game?” The previous game had been an embarrassing blowout, 19-8. No team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit in a 7 game series in any sport, much less baseball. They showed a picture of the Pru with the words “Go Sox” lit up on the side. I wondered, “Why bother?” Kevin Millar is walking up to the plate.
At least this isn’t like the disappointments of years past. Then, they would lift our spirits with come-from-behind wins, only to crush them at the end. This series has been a disaster from the start, beginning with Curt Schilling’s horrid start after wrecking his ankle in a routine play against the Angels in the ALDS. But, here I am, loyal to the end, waiting for the final nail to be driven into the coffin of the 2004 season, a season that had started with so much promise.
How I Got Here
This is a memoir, detailing my long descent into that special place of pain known as Red Sox Nation, and how I emerged from that pain, along with all my fellow sufferers, to step into the light.
I was not always a Red Sox fan. As a little kid, I lived in western Connecticut and, as any New Englander will tell you, west of the Connecticut River in the Nutmeg State is Yankees territory. My heroes were Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, rather than Ted Williams and, well come to think of it, in 1960-62 there wasn’t a lot for Red Sox fans to root for. Then, in 1962, we moved to Dayton, Ohio, and I began to follow the Cincinnati Reds. My first major league game was at old Crosley Field, where I saw Pete Rose in his rookie year. We moved to Rochester, New York when I was 12, where the local team was the AAA Rochester Red Wings. In those days, the Red Wings were the top farm club of the Baltimore Orioles, so that became my team, sort of. The nearest team to us physically that didn’t compete with the Orioles (that is, because they were in the National League) was the woeful New York Mets. I liked to root for them, because they were quirky in their own pathetic way.
1967 was the first time I pulled for the Red Sox. Prior to that, they were just an opponent; they lacked any sparkle or personality, except for that big green left field wall. When they won the pennant, and went up against the Cardinals, I had to support them as the AL team, which meant that my brother had to support the Cards, just to be contrary (he still does). Of course, I was disappointed by the loss, but charmed by the players, especially Jim Lonborg, Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, and the tragedy of Tony Conigliaro. I was glad that the Detroit Tigers took down the Cardinals and their terrifying ace, Bob Gibson, the following year.
Still, I was an Orioles fan, except in the 1969 World Series, when I had to favor the Mets, because their rise to the top was so startling and bizarre. The O’s did get to the top the next year by beating my former favorite, the Reds. After that, it was the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates, and then came three years of dominance by the Oakland A’s.
Into the Belly of the Beast
I came to Boston in 1972 to go to college (BU), and went to my first Fenway Park game that summer. I was impressed, but not quite enough to fall for the team. I was amazed as the season drew to a close to listen to Boston talk radio, as announcers and callers traded arcane mathematical possibilities by which the Red Sox might capture an increasingly unlikely AL East title, and wondered how anyone could get so fanatical. I was soon to find out.
By 1973, the Red Sox were becoming a constant presence, with games on the radio droning on everywhere I went, and several games a week on TV. Details about the team, its players and manager, began to seep into my consciousness almost by osmosis. The year ended uneventfully, and undramatically. Then came 1974. The team rocketed to the top in the 2nd half of the season, and I was totally consumed by their seeming march to greatness. The dynamic Darrell Johnson had replaced the boring Eddie Kasko as manager, and they had a spectacular new, young catcher named Carlton Fisk, but everyone called him “Pudge”. Yup, I was totally sucked in. They were leading the AL East by 7 games in the last week of August.
Then came a terrible September skid. I couldn’t believe it. Loss after loss; I watched helplessly as they tumbled. The Orioles passed them. Then even the then-mediocre Yankees passed them. They finished third. I was crushed. I was also now an official Red Sox fan.
Years of Bright Promise
1975 sealed the deal. I was living across the parking lot from Fenway Park that summer, and my friends and I would gather at the ticket booth many evenings at 6 to get unreserved bleacher tickets for $1.25 apiece (owner Tom Yawkey had a rule that bleacher seats were to be held for sale on game day, which was a great deal for us.) I went to 35 games that summer, and knew the whole roster by heart and on sight. Pudge, Dewey, Jim Rice (color man and former Red Sox player Ken Harrelson called him “Jim Ed”, and so he was eventually known), Freddy Lynn, Yaz, El Tiante, and “Spaceman” Bill Lee. They were almost personal friends. Sitting in section 41 or 42 for most games, we felt especially close to the outfielders and the bullpen, because they were right there in front of us. That World Series was like a dream. First of all, they were playing the Reds; not just any Reds squad, but one of the greatest of all time, known as the “Big Red Machine”, with Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and of course, Pete Rose, among many other top players. For Game 6, my apartment was packed with friends watching on my little black-and-white TV. By the 5th inning, we were out of beer. I went down to the little liquor store around the corner, but they were out, too. So, I walked all the way to Kenmore Square and back. I didn’t miss a pitch, however, as practically every window had speakers in it, with the radio blasting Ned Martin’s play-by-play. Kenmore Square looked like a fairground; closed to traffic, jammed with people in a celebratory mood, and bunches of TV trucks, their satellite dishes pointed upward.
The Sox ended up losing the series, but I didn’t mind. I figured that with this young and talented team, there would be plenty more opportunities. Right.
1976 soon straightened me out. They were terrible. Utterly, mind-numbingly terrible. How could a team that won the pennant the previous year finish third the next? No, how could they struggle to finish third? To make matters worse, Tom Yawkey, the man who had bought the club in the depths of the Depression, refurbished Fenway Park and revived the Red Sox after over a decade of neglect had died. It seemed like the spirit of the Red Sox had died with him.
Darrel Johnson was fired halfway through the year, and 3rd base coach Don Zimmer took over. I figured it was a temporary move. Wrong again. Zimmer was named manager for the 1977 season. Zimmer was a fine 3rd base coach. He knew hitting. He knew baserunning. Managing pitchers was not his strong suit. A lot of the pitchers hated him. Bill Lee called him “the Gerbil”. Lee would be sent packing a year later, to the Siberia of baseball: the Montreal Expos. In ’77, they battled the Yankees all year for the AL East, but the Yanks won.
Then came 1978. Once again, they led by 8 games in mid-August, had a terrible September in which their lead disappeared. This time, however, they did not go quietly. They battled,, and ended up in a tie with the Yankees, to force a special playoff game, which counted as Game 163 of the regular season.
It is Monday, October 2, 1978. The Red Sox are playing the Yankees, and I am at work as a programmer-consultant for a manufacturer in Foxborough. Most people there are real clock-watchers. They get in at 8:30 and leave at 5, precisely. I get there at 9, and leave at 6. It enables me to get a lot done, because there’s lots of system time available after they leave. They resent me for it of course, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m a consultant. On this particular day, however, I am a clock-watcher too. There is a radio on every desk. Every radio has the game on. We are leading the Yankees. I ache to get home. Maybe I can catch the last inning on TV. The clock is ticking down to 5. I am packing up, listening as best I can. Someone hit a home run. Who? Yankees. Bucky Dent. What? Bucky Dent? THE SHORTSTOP? A 3 RUN HOMER?
5 o’clock comes. I am out like a flash. I race down leaf-strewn roads, dodging suicide squirrels as they zigzag across my path. I fly up I-95. No cops. The Red Sox are rallying in the 8th. Jerry Remy doubles. Yaz drives him in with a single. Pudge singles. Freddy Lynn drives in Yaz. 5-4. We’re within a run. I dash into the apartment and switch on the TV, impatiently waiting for the tube to heat up. I pop open a beer, and plop on the couch. The Sox survive the top of the 9th. Bottom of the 9th. Goose Gossage is pitching. Last chance. Dewey flies out, but then the Rooster walks, and Remy singles! Rice flies out. It’s all up to Yaz. First pitch. A mighty swing and miss. Don’t try to crush it, I say aloud, a hit is all we need. Whack! A popup. Foul ground. 3 outs. Game over. Season over. I sit slack-jawed on the sofa. I feel sucker punched. Or, maybe I just feel like a sucker.
After a while, this experience starts to become familiar. It’s a little like that movie, Groundhog Day, about a guy (Bill Murray) who wakes up every day, and it’s the same day, and everything is the same, and he can never get anywhere, because no matter what he does, he will wake up again, and it’s Groundhog Day. Following the Red Sox was kind of like that. We kept saying, “Wait ’till next year,” but next year never came. I think it was Bob Ryan who said that the Sox keep coming up with new and creative ways to raise our hopes, and then crush them.
Collapse and Rebuild
What made matters worse was that the Red Sox ownership was beginning to resemble a soap opera. Mr. Yawkey’s widow, Jean, owned controlling interest in the team, but it was largely managed by Haywood Sullivan and former team trainer Buddy LeRoux. LeRoux had managed to wheel and deal his way into a partial ownership position, and since the death of Tom Yawkey had been trying to find a way to take over the club. There were rumors flying around that he was getting no interest loans from the team and using the money to buy dog tracks and develop Jai Alai in Florida and Rhode Island.
The club didn’t have a lot of money in those days, and with the advent of free agency, players were increasingly looking to be paid at something like their market value. In 1980, general manager Haywood Sullivan was dickering with Carlton Fisk to the last day of his contract, and sent him the renewal a day late. The blunder made Fisk a free agent, and he ended up signing with the Chicago White Sox. Sullivan was done as GM after that, and Lou Gorman took over the role. A couple of years later, LeRoux tried to take over ownership by marshalling the minority shareholders to form a new majority and oust the management team. There was just one problem. The minority shareholders held non-voting shares. LeRoux was forced to sell his stake and quit. The crisis also brought Jean Yawkey, Tom’s widow into the picture (she had been President technically, but had stayed in the background up to now).
Despite all that chaos, Gorman managed to put together a superb team in 1986. There was the right-left pitching combination of Roger “Rocket” Clemens and Bruce Hurst. We had Oil Can Boyd. We had Bob “the Steamer” Stanley in the bullpen. We even got Tom “Terrific” Seaver (late of the ’69 Miracle Mets), at the end of an illustrious career. Jim Rice was still there, the elder statesman. We had phenomenal slugger Wade Boggs. Rich Gedman was doing a good job of helping Sox fans believe there could be life after Fisk. They came back in breathtaking fashion from a 3-1 deficit to beat the California Angels (as they were then called) in the best-of-seven ALCS. They were evenly matched with the Mets in the World Series, and yet entered Game 6 at Shea Stadium leading the series, 3 games to 2.
It is Saturday, October 25, 1986. The baby is finally asleep, and so is my wife. I am in a darkened living room, in my Stressless chair. It may be stressless, but I am not. It has been nip-and-tuck all the way, and with the score tied 3-3, we went to extra innings. A hitting barrage by Dave Henderson (home run), Wade Boggs (double), and Marty Barrett has made it 5-3 going into the bottom of the 10th. I should be in a celebratory mood. I have my Sam Adams, and would be ready to party, but as the Mets come up, I notice something: first baseman Bill Buckner is still in the game. A 17 year veteran, Buckner’s legs are not what they used to be, and manager John McNamara has always put in a substitute in situations like this. I begin talking to the TV. WHY IS BUCKNER STILL IN THE GAME?
Young Calvin Schiraldi has been pitching since the 8th inning in relief of Roger Clemens. He gets the first two batters to fly out. I relax just a little bit. Then come three straight singles, to Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, and Ray Knight. A run scores. Schiraldi looks shaken. And tired. Time to take him out, I advise McNamara, through the TV. Unusually, McNamara takes my advice, which he normally never does. In comes the usually reliable “Steamer”, Bob Stanley. OK, I say to myself… we’re still OK; still leading by a run. Still 2 outs. Then I learn they flashed “Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series Champions” on the stadium scoreboard. Oh no, I mutter nervously. A jinx.
Mookie Wilson is up. He works the count full. Stanley throws a wild pitch, and Mitchell scores .I remember Buckner. Please, I implore, please don’t hit it to first. Stanley deals. A slider, outside. Wilson swings. A soft grounder… up the first base line. No! No! No! Buckner sets himself, but can’t get down on the ball. It scoots through his legs. Knight scores all the way from second base. Game over. Mets win. I sit slack-jawed. Weak. Not again.
That was Game 6. With the series tied, there was still a chance to win. The Sox had Hurst going against Ron Darling. Boston had the a 3-0 lead going into the 6th, when Hurst blew up, and left with the score tied. Once again, Calvin Schiraldi came into the game, even though he pitched 3 innings just 2 days ago. He was completely ineffective, giving up a home run (to Ray Knight) and another run on a single, a wild pitch, and another single. It just got worse after that. It was as if all the energy had gone out of the team after the crushing game 6 loss. Once again, it was Groundhog Day.
Maybe the Curse Is Real
At this point, I was beginning to think about the Babe Ruth curse. It was something I had learned about when I was in college, but it didn’t achieve common popular awareness until Dan Shaughnessy’s book The Curse of the Bambino. The curse was related to the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee in 1920. Some people seemed to think the curse was placed by Ruth himself, but that makes no sense. The Babe achieved far greater wealth and fame in New York than he ever could have in Boston, which was a quite provincial place at the time.
In fact, Frazee didn’t just sell Ruth, but a number of key players, including Ernie Shore and Carl Mays (although those deals were trades plus cash), between 1918 and 1920. He was a minor theatrical impresario, and used the cash to fund various theatrical projects on Broadway. Prior to that, the Red Sox were perennial league leaders, winning the pennant and World Series in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918. After that time, the Red Sox fortunes plunged, while the Yankees rose to prominence.
Clearly, the Babe Ruth curse was the work of the Baseball Gods. Longtime fans know what I am talking about. Baseball is such a complex sport, that when trends emerge that cannot be explained by normal scientific means, we turn to the higher powers. Sudden losing streaks, featuring odd bounces, bad calls, freakish errors, and weird weather can be explained in no other way. The Baseball Gods reward those who are true to the ideals of the sport: honest, hard play, a competitive spirit, and good sportsmanship. They punish those who offend the ideals of baseball. Nothing could be more offensive than selling the greatest natural ballplayer in history for cash. Hence the curse.
The curse has been held responsible for odd travails of the club in the 30s, the success of “Enos Slaughter’s ramble” in the 1946 World Series (I never bought the idea that Johnny Pesky “held the ball”), the 1947 collapse, the loss of the special playoff game to the Indians in ’48, the late season slides in ’74 and ’76, and, of course, Bucky Dent’s infamous home run in 1978. Bill Buckner’s error was just the latest example of the curse in action.
How could the curse be broken? I figured the club would need to show the Baseball Gods such devotion to the sport of baseball and to the integrity of the game, including daring trades, respectful treatment of players and fans, and extraordinary heroics by the players themselves, that the Baseball Gods would relent, and lift the curse.
Harrington’s Last Stand
Nothing that was going on in the late 80s and 90s indicated a change in the status quo. The Sox won the division in 1988 and 1990, but fell easily to Oakland each time. In 1992, Jean Yawkey died, and her share in the team was placed under the control of the JRY Trust. Under the terms of her will, the team had to be sold by the JRY Trust within 10 years. John Harrington, as trustee, was President of the club. He had an agenda of his own. It was intimated in the press that Harrington had a notion to make the Red Sox so valuable, that his own small minority stake, and those of his allies, could be used to leverage a buyout of the club when the time came. The only way to make that happen was to win a World Series.
The club had been pretty solid into the mid-1990s, but was coming apart as the decade neared its end. Slugger Wade Boggs was slumping in 1992 and publicly admitted to a “sex addiction”, which sufficiently embarrassed the front office, and general manager Dan Duquette that they did not extend him a new contract, and he went as a free agent to the hated Yankees. Pitching ace Roger Clemens was developing arm problems and losing some velocity on his fastball, so he was sent packing to Toronto in 1997. In 1998, hitting sensation Mo Vaughn embarrassed the club after hitting a car in the breakdown lane of I-95 while driving home from a night at “Foxy Lady”, a Providence strip club, and he too was allowed to walk away (he later signed with the Angels).
Duquette made moves to counter these developments, of course. He made a deal with the Seattle Mariners for the minor league contract of a promising catcher, Jason Varitek and a sinker ball pitcher Derek Lowe in 1997. Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and right fielder Trot Nixon came up through the farm system. The greatest deal of his career came at the end of 1997, when he got pitcher Pedro Martinez from the Montreal Expos for Carl Pavano and a player to be named later. Pedro helped take the Sox to the ALCS in 1999 where they lost, alas, to the hated Yankees. They needed a dependable slugger.
It was now the end of 2000, and time was running out for Harrington, Duquette, and company. They had one more year to win it all, or their dreams of buying the franchise would go up in smoke. So, they took what may have been the most reckless move in MLB history to that point. Manny Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians had become a free agent, and there was going to be a bidding war with our friends in Gotham. The Sox made their move and got Manny for an unprecedented $160 million 8-year contract.
The New Regime
Well, the Baseball Gods reward boldness, but not insanity. There would be no title in 2001, and the sale of the Red Sox was on. When John Henry, Tom Werner, at al. bought the club, I must admit to some trepidation. I thought, given their background with the Marlins, the Padres, etc., that they might just be here to build up the club and flip it, the way so many real estate speculators were flipping houses at the time.
I was wrong. They took the time to understand the spirit and mood of the fans. They pledged (against the common wisdom of the local sports press) to retain and improve Fenway Park rather than push for a new ballpark. And they installed baseball’s youngest general manager to date, Theo Epstein, who had local roots. The first season of their ownership, they made few changes beyond replacing Duquette with Epstein and manager Joe Kerrigan (who had taken over after Jimy Williams departed in 2001) with Grady Little. They watched and learned. Then, they acted.
2003 saw a bunch of new faces: Johnny Damon in center field, batting champion Bill Mueller at 3rd, the mercurial Kevin Millar at 1st. And, they got one of the greatest bargains in the history of baseball, signing the then lightly-regarded David Ortiz, who had been released by the Minnesota Twins. Red Sox hitting instructors told David to ignore the advice the Twins had given him about hitting for average, and just go for the big kahuna when he could. Boy, did he. Nobody regarded Big Papi lightly after the 2003 season.
Despite their new look, the 2003 Red Sox followed an old pattern, collapsing in August and fighting their way back in September. They did some odd things to get themselves motivated, including shaving their heads, and rallying around Millar’s battle cry, “Cowboy up!” No one seems to know exactly what that means. They managed to win the wild card, then come back from a 0-2 deficit to beat the Oakland A’s in a series that included a terrifying head-to-head collision between 2nd baseman Damian Jackson and Johnny Damon. Damon got the worse of it, and we feared he was out for the duration, but he came right back and played after a day off. They faced the Yankees (of course) in the ALCS, and played them even, with game 7 deciding the series in New York.
It is Thursday, October 16, 2003. I am sitting in my basement TV room, in my favorite chair watching Game 7 of the ALCS between the Red Sox and the Yankees, with my two girls. My younger is especially intense in her interest: earlier that day she heard a Yankee fan on the radio call Boston a “quaint little town” that “doesn’t deserve a pennant.” That got her fired up, and she now viewed this series as a moral crusade.
The Red Sox are in the driver’s seat. Big Papi hit a solo blast in the top of the 8th, and now they go to the bottom of the inning with a 5-3 lead. Pedro Martinez has pitched a gem, but has gone over his pitch count and is clearly tired. Though his fastball can still hit 96 MPH, his control is waning, and his breaking ball is no longer effective. No matter; Mike Timlin is loose and ready in the bullpen.
The Sox take the field. But wait, what’s this? Pedro is making his way to the pitcher’s mound. WHY IS PEDRO STILL IN? I implore the television, unconcerned that my daughters might think my shouting at the TV a bit odd. Grady must know what he’s doing, I assure myself. Indeed, things start OK, as Nick Johnson pops out. Derek Jeter comes up. Pedro works him to a 0-2 count. Bang! A double. I start to sink in my seat. Now, the left-handed Alan Embree is warming up alongside Timlin. The TV shows Grady in the dugout. What I you waiting for, I wonder. Bernie Williams comes up. Pedro is clearly struggling. He gets a 2-2 count on Williams. Bang! A sharp single to center. Jeter scores. 5-3.
In comes Grady Little. At last, I say, leaning back in my chair. Hideki Matsui is up next, a lefty. He’ll bring in Embree. Then, astonishingly, he pats Pedro on the butt and walks back to the dugout. A helpless feeling overwhelms me. I can’t believe it. I am reminded of when John McNamara left Calvin Schiraldi in too long during the 1986 World Series. Not again.
Pedro again works a 0-2 count. Again, the ball is whacked, and leaves the yard on a bounce. A ground-rule double. Runners at 2nd and 3rd with 1 out, and Jorge Posada coming up. No move in the dugout. “Daddy,” my older daughter says, “shouldn’t he take him out?” I don’t know what to say.
Wham! The fourth batter in a row hits the ball hard, as Posada gets a solid double. Two runs score. Now we’re tied. The lead is blown. Finally, Pedro is done. Sadly, I suspect, so are the Red Sox. We end up sitting through two and a half more innings of torture until, in the 11th, the game ends on a home run by Aaron Boone. AARON BOONE! This year’s Bucky Dent! I thought everything was different this time, I really did. But here we are again. Groundhog Day.
Deals Blown and Made
It was a weird off-season. The Red Sox had a shot at signing free agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez, late of the Texas Rangers. But they needed a special deferred arrangement with A-Rod, and though he was willing, the MLBPA (the players’ union) would not allow it. He ended up going to the Yankees. The proposed deal disturbed presumed franchise player Nomar Garciaparra, the solidity of whose position was now in some doubt, since A-Rod was expected to take over his position.
Then a seeming breakthrough. The Red Sox worked a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks to acquire pitching ace Curt Schilling. Schilling had appeared in the World Series for the Phillies in 1993, and was instrumental in the Diamonbacks’ Series win over the Yankees in 2001. Ironically, he got his first professional baseball contract with the Red Sox organization in 1986, but was traded to the Orioles 2 years later. They also picked up Keith Foulke as a free agent from the Oakland Athletics. They also dropped Grady Little’s contract, which stunned many veteran sports reporters. They thought it was a rank overreaction to Little’s decision making in the 2003 ALCS, though in fact, they had been upset all year that he was not using the sabermetric statistics they were compiling for him. They replaced him with Terry Francona. In my view, a great move.
Another development that was barely noticed, but which I considered significant, involved the return of Ellis Burks. Burks had been a solid contributor to the team from 1987 to 1992, but was unceremoniously dropped at the end of the ’92 season. He was now at the end of his career, and was injury-ridden. He asked to come back for his final season, and offered provisions that would mean that he would only get paid when he could play. The Sox took him and made room for him in the roster. I thought this was a very good sign, and hoped the Baseball Gods took notice.
The 2004 Red Sox roared through the first 2 months of the season, then slumped in June. They seemed to be struggling to find themselves at the All Star break. Then came the fight. When A-Rod was convinced that Bronson Arroyo hit him on purpose, and Tek moved to protect his pitcher, the confrontation boiled over into a full blown brawl. Afterward, the Red Sox were a different team. They were on fire. But they were still weak in the field. They were committing too many errors. One more adjustment was needed.
That adjustment shocked Sox fans, but they soon rallied in its support. A couple of years earlier, the idea of trading Nomar was insane. Now, the attitude was, whatever it takes. On July 31, the last day before the trade deadline, the Red Sox were in Minnesota to face the Twins. Before the game started, the trade was announced. Nomar was going to the Cubs. The Cubs sent a bunch of players to the Expos. The Expos sent shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the Red Sox. The Cubs also sent consideration to the Twins, who sent 1st baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to the Sox. The Sox also later picked up Dave Roberts from the Dodgers. Whew.
The fielding improved, the players wore their hair long (especially Damon, who looked like Jesus), they developed some attitude and swagger, and they started to win again. The Yankees were too far ahead to catch for the division, but Boston got the wild card fairly handily. When the played the ALDS against the Angels, they simply blew them away. I was amazed. They were on a mission. And that mission ran straight through the Bronx.
In Game 1 against Anaheim, there had been a little incident. As Schilling caught a foul ball, he seemed to turn his ankle. It didn’t look like a big deal at the time, but it later turned out that he had damaged a tendon. He was assigned to pitch Game 1 of the ALCS against New York. We knew the injury could be trouble. It was. He was terrible. He gave up 6 runs in the first 3 innings, and the Red Sox lost, 10-7. In Game 2, Pedro pitched quite well, but Jon Lieber shut down the Red Sox hitters, and former Red Sox pitcher Tom “Flash” Gordon and “Doctor Death” Mariano Rivera finished the job, as Boston lost, 3-1. Game 3 was in Boston. It was a humiliation. Arroyo got shelled, and no one could stop the bleeding. The Red Sox lost, 19-8. Another lost season.
So, once again, it is Sunday, October 9, 2004. Kevin Millar is at the plate in the 9th inning, facing Rivera, The score is 4-3 Yankees. Another season full of promise is about to go right down the tubes. Oddly, however, Millar works a walk. This is odd, because Mariano almost never walks anyone. Then, Dave Roberts comes in as a pinch runner for Millar. OK. I see. We are going for the steal. I know it, the whole bar at the 99 knows it. All of Fenway Park knows it. The whole baseball world knows it. Roberts takes his lead. The pitch is on its way, and he’s off! He slides head-first. Safe! This is different. I remember the line from the movie Groundhog Day: “Anything different is good.”
Will it amount to anything? I don’t have to wait long to find out. Bill Mueller singles, and Roberts scores! A tie game! New life! I have now forgotten that we are down 0-3 in the series. I am now living moment to moment. “Blown save,” I say softly to the bartender. He nods.
Well, last call comes and goes, but we stay on, even though the bar is closed. On until the 12th inning, when Big Papi sends a Paul Quantrill fastball deep into the October night, scoring himself and Manny Ramirez. The game is on again.
86 Years after 1918, 18 Years After 1986
That was the beginning of the greatest comeback in the history of professional sports. The Red Sox ended up winning the series against the Yankees 4-3. More remarkably, all the things that used to happen that went against the Sox, now went for the Sox. The strange procedure that allowed Schilling to pitch (with a bloody sock), Odd bounces. Miraculous catches (even by Manny!), close calls that went Boston’s way. By the 7th game, the Yanks seemed exhausted, and the Red Sox coasted to victory. And when it came we knew. We all knew. The Baseball Gods had seen it all. The Ellis Burks return. The selfless play. The heart. The amazing gesture by Schilling, pitching with his ankle sewn up like that. All was forgiven. The curse was lifted.
The St. Louis Cardinals must have been amazed at what they encountered in the World Series. The Red Sox were, by now, a runaway freight train. Nothing was going to stop them. The first game was the only one that was even competitive, and that was partly because the Sox had a Series record 4 errors. As Game 4 wound down, with the Sox now owning a 3-0 lead, they were coasting to victory.
It is Wednesday, October 27, 2004. I am sitting in my accustomed chair. The one I sat in for the 1986 World Series. The one I sat in for the 2003 ALCS. My younger daughter is with me again; my older one is away at college. It is the bottom of the 9th inning. Keith Foulke is on the mound. There are 2 out, with Albert Pujols on 2nd. Edgar Renteria is up. This is it. The proof that the curse is finally gone. Get this one out, and we are done. Foulke delivers the pitch. Renteria bounces it softly back to the mound. Foulke catches it and transfers it to his throwing hand. He takes a couple of steps toward first, then tosses the ball gently, ever so gently as if handling a Faberge Egg, to Doug Mientkiewicz. As the first baseman’s mitt enfolds the ball, I see the umpire, in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, raise his hand with the “out” sign. It is over.
“We won, daddy!” my daughter said to me that night. “Yes,” I replied, surprised in that moment at the sound of my own voice. I got up and went outside to look at the night sky. I think I just wanted to reassure myself that the universe was still in one piece. I half expected to see the stars falling from the sky, but there they were, all in their places; Polaris, the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt.
As part of a science assignment, my daughter had been assigned to observe the moon that night, because it was a full lunar eclipse. She was so riveted by the game, however, that I had gone out during the 7th inning. The moon was a deep red, casting the night in an eerie hue. Now that the game, the series, and the agony were over I saw that a brilliant silver glow was spreading over the moon as it emerged from the earth’s shadow to resume its normal appearance. Seemed symbolic of the evening, somehow.
I went to the celebration in Boston, and saw the Red Sox in the duck boats. I read all the accounts of the games that I could find. Then I moved on. 2005 and 2006 were disappointing seasons, due to players that did not live up to expectations, and to injuries. It was frustrating, but it wasn’t tragic. Nothing was now. The monkey was off the Red Sox’ back. We could enjoy baseball, now. We could enjoy the 2007 World Series victory simply as a great achievement, whereas 2004 was deliverance. That’s because in 2004, “next year” became “this year”. Groundhog Day was over.