Commentary: Part Five of Five
If you missed the first four parts of the commentary you can find them, along with a more elaborate explanation of these rankings, online (keene-equinox.com). I’m attempting to rank Boston’s championship teams of the 21st century by measuring three criteria: each team’s playoff run, team likability and the historical implications of each title. It’s also just plain fun to relive some of the greatest seasons in Boston sports history. We’ve finally reached number one: the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
It was the season that changed everything. Sensationalistic headlines read, “Best team ever” and, “Hell freezes over”, while more conventional papers printed something equally improbable about the hometown team: “Champions of the world!”
In 2004 it was not trendy to be a Red Sox fan. People joke about the Curse Of The Bambino now, but it hung over everything the team did back then, serving as an ugly reminder of nearly a century’s worth of mishaps.
The Red Sox had a way of prodding the faith of their fans, stirring up false hope only to stab them with heart-wrenching letdowns. Throughout the years, they found countless ways to twist the proverbial knife.
So as the 2004 season commenced, you couldn’t blame people for waiting for things to go wrong—that’s simply the way fans had been conditioned.
Even as an ace was established (Curt Schilling) and a deadly lineup emerged, no one was thinking that it could be the year.
The truth is, the 2004 team ripped through the American League, winning 98 games to secure the two seed in the playoffs.
The problem was not the Red Sox. The problem was the only team in front of them.
The New York Yankees, winners of 101 games, had knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs the year before with a game seven walk-off home run that was still burned in most people’s minds. If Boston was going to “break the curse” in 2004, it would have to upset the Bronx Bombers and their 183 million dollar payroll.
The team didn’t exactly exude confidence. Manny Ramirez spent the season belting home runs but looking lost in the outfield. Kevin Millar drove his motorcycle to the park everyday and looked more like a country singer than he did a first basemen.
Mark Bellhorn, Pokey Reese and Bill Mueller filled the infield with specialty players that weren’t known for winning, and centerfielder Johnny Damon’s wild beard spawned bumper stickers asking “WWJDD”, or “What Would Johnny Damon Do?”
They didn’t look like the stars fans thought they needed to drag the franchise out of a historically long title-drought. Then again, they didn’t look nervous about another year of failure, either.
They looked and acted—truthfully— normal.
And it was that carefree mindset that they entered the playoffs with.
Boston would sweep Anaheim in the first round, but the late game heroics of Orlando Cabrera and Ortiz made the series seem more one-sided than it actually was. The Red Sox would need stellar pitching performances from Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe to win.
And then came the series fans had been waiting for all season.
The Red Sox arrived at Yankee Stadium on October 12 confident in Schilling to take game one. You can imagine their disappointment, then, when Schilling was shelled until manager Terry Francona mercifully pulled him from the game in the fourth inning. Boston would drop game one.
There were reasons to be confident, however. The Red Sox had scored seven runs in game one—proof that they could hit with anybody, fans reasoned. That idea was shot down the next day, however, when Boston mustered only five hits en route to a lifeless 3-1 loss.
Despite the disarray of the first two games, hope still flickered in the hearts of the Fenway Faithful.
The team would be coming back to Boston with three days to rest before game three.
Surely they could still find a way to turn things around, right?
Wrong. In fact, the Red Sox had one of the season’s worst performances: a 19-8 loss that got out of hand when New York scored it’s eleventh run in the fourth inning.
The team had been badly embarrassed at home.
In the long history of the league no one had ever come back from the 0-3 series deficit that the Red Sox now found themselves in.
Boston fans just wanted to avoid a sweep to the dreaded Yankees. No one believed the lovable losers that affectionately called themselves ‘The Idiots’ had a chance…Well, almost no one.
“Don’t let the Sox win this game,” Millar told Boston Globe reporter Dan Shaughnessy three hours before the first pitch of game four, slamming his fist into his glove with every word.
Millar reiterated the thought to teammate Alan Embree as they stretched in the outfield moments later, then told the same thing to anyone who would listen in the clubhouse after that.
It was the kind of senseless self-confidence every underdog needs.
Still, as Millar walked to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, his team trailed 3-4. Even after the first basemen forced a five-pitch walk, things looked bleak.
But pinch hitter David Roberts stole a base, and Bill Mueller poked a single into centerfield to force extra innings. Now Fenway Park was alive again.
The game was played through 12 frigid innings and lasted over five hours before David Ortiz launched a fastball into the right field bullpen to give the Red Sox their first win of the series.
The Red Sox were not going down without a fight.
But they certainly didn’t make things easy on themselves, either.
They would trail game five the entire night until an Ortiz home run tied the game in the bottom of the eighth. Six innings later, Ortiz came through again with a walk-off single. This time the game took five hours and 49 minutes, but the season miraculously continued.
Game six was a 4-2 win and game seven a blowout as legend started blending with reality for this Red Sox team.
Roberts’ game-four stolen base was forever immortalized, reports that the team was taking shots of Jack Daniels before every game surfaced and people who had treated Millar like he was crazy now regarded him as a prophet.
Some might see the World Series sweep against the St. Louis Cardinals one week later as anti-climactic, but after the greatest comeback in playoff history there was simply no way the team was losing again.
The win went beyond baseball.
Fans whose loved ones never got to see the Red Sox win (it had been 86 years, after all) put newspaper clippings and memorabilia on graves.
“My mom didn’t get to see it. There isn’t anything else I can do for her,” New Hampshire resident Neil Van Zile told “Sports Illustrated.”
When a parade date was announced over three million people showed up to stand in the freezing rain and watch The Idiots roll by in duckboats.
The players would go their separate ways; Ramirez wore out his welcome and was traded, Millar signed with the Orioles and Damon even played for the Yankees.
But the team seemed frozen in time.
The players were constantly being stopped on the streets by Red Sox fans that just wanted to say “thank you.” Even Roberts, who didn’t play in the World Series at all, received a standing ovation every time he came to the plate in Fenway for the rest of his career.
Looking back on it, there is a sort of transcendent quality about the team.
People have tried to capture it in books, documentaries and movies. It couldn’t have simply been a lucky baseball team. There had to have been some divine intervention to explain it all.
That’s the great thing about sports: you can remember it how you want to.
The Lasting Image
The whole team, jumping and rolling around the pitcher’s mound after the final out of the World Series. They were screaming and laughing and looking utterly dysfunctional.
They looked like idiots.
Zach Winn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org