All day, Boston waited and hoped, fretted and wished that such a celebration was coming. Then, all night, as Shane Victorino blasted a three-run double off the Green Monster in the third inning, Stephen Drew homered into the Boston bullpen in the fourth, then Mike Napoli and Victorino struck again with RBI hits for a 6-0 lead, that anticipation turned into a raucous party, a pre-Duck-Boat-parade paddle down every avenue from Commonwealth to Boylston in one huge utterly unexpected tribute.
Suddenly, a team that, 25 months and 25 beards ago, was spurned as a symbol of everything wrong with rich modern pro sports, had become the epitome of everything that’s meant by team cohesion, unselfishness, synergy and baseball at its best.
On Wednesday night, the Red Sox reversed a curse of an entirely different sort than the one they snapped in ’04. Back then, they ended 86 years without a Series win, an evil eon that frequently focused on the club’s lack of poise under pressure. With their 6-1 win to capture their third title in the past 10 seasons, the Red Sox reversed the curse of bad character, selfishness and bad faith that rotted the franchise to its core just two years ago.
One moment captured the prickly mixture of forgiveness and athletic redemption with an entire ballpark saying, “We were wrong about you.” In the seventh inning, the packed house chanted “Lackey, Lackey, Lackey,” for their winning pitcher, John Lackey, who was in a jam. This is called irony or perhaps perversity cubed. In ’11, Lackey had a 6.11 ERA and was despised here. When he missed all of ’12 with elbow ligament replacement surgery, the only way 38,447 Red Sox fans would have chanted his name was if he had been driving to Logan Airport to leave town forever.
When Manager John Farrell came to the mound to offer a reliever, Lackey roared, “This is my guy,” meaning (old-old-old-school style), “I’m not leaving this mound.” Since this wasn’t a movie but an actual baseball game, Matt Holliday — yes, “my guy” was the Cardinals’ best home run hitter — drew a walk and a reliever was called to end the jam. But the crowd gave a standing ovation as Lackey-the-Loathed left the game.
And Lackey, who has refused ever to tip his cap to the Boston fans who’ve ridden him and resented his $82.5 million contract throughout his Red Sox years, waited and waited until he had almost reached the dugout, then slowly, deliberately doffed his hat.
“This team is full of players who were driven to rewrite their stories,” Farrell said. “There was a tremendous sense of embarrassment here at the beginning of the year.” Now there is, well after midnight, a sea of fans and players, awash in the joy of a title that almost no one imagined, played out on the same field where Red Sox teams, expected to win, failed for generations.
To sense this rich, amazing present as Boston fans do, we must go back to what was, emotionally and psychologically, one of the most bitter moments in franchise history. On the last day of the ’11 regular season, Boston lost in Baltimore to complete the biggest September choke (7-20) of a playoff spot in baseball history. After midnight, the Red Sox trudged off the field a broken team and tumbled into their own baseball hell.
Then everyone from ownership through players turned on each other or retold the past in terms that turned their horns to halos. General manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, architects of two World Series titles, quit and were fired respectively. As baseball gasped, the Red Sox hired combustible, insecure Bobby Valentine as manager.
By the end of last season, the Red Sox were giving away their stars in a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar salary dump that impugned the judgment of every decision maker and scarred the competitive reputation of every player shipped cross country to Los Angeles.
What has happened since, with the acquisition of feisty, scrappy but limited or spurned players such as Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Napoli and a half-dozen others who arrived to fill roles, not to set records and make tens of millions, has been marvelously inexplicable. Even Red Sox fans barely believed that they suddenly had a 97-win team, not a 93-loss civic embarrassment. For the last two months, as the Red Sox played cohesively under increased pressure, the sport has watched them like an object lesson.
The Red Sox just won a Series in which they only had two truly functional starting pitchers, Lackey and lefty Jon Lester who won Games 1 and 5. Aging Jake Peavy, a postseason disaster his whole career (9.37 ERA) and dead-shouldered Clay Buchholz soldiered out humble four-inning starts in Games 3 and 4. The Bosox mixed and matched with almost every reliever on the roster, plus an inning from Lackey between starts, and managed to split those two games before record red-clad crowds in St. Louis.
The Red Sox just won a title with their entire team, minus star David Ortiz, batting .151 entering Game 6. The Red Sox won without their trademark base stealing (one) or their league-leading run scoring. What became deliciously clear was that they didn’t care about any of that — didn’t care who or how or where the credit went, just so they could congregate in their dugout, yank on their House of David-length beards and laugh.
“This might be most special of all Series I’ve been part of. . . . Sometimes bad things have to happen for everybody to get the message,” Ortiz said. “We didn’t have as much talent. In ’04 our No. 9 hitter [Bill Mueller won the batting title [in ’03]. This team has heart, stays focused.”
This transformation, from a team that symbolized entitled arrogance and beer-and-chicken munching in the clubhouse during defeats, to world champs is a testimony to the strengths of individual key players, like Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, but also to the centrality of personality and teamwork in baseball. No other sport forces players to be so close for so long, play so many games and expose every crack in a group dynamics.
Every few years, baseball searches for the next advance in analysis. The most recent is a fascination with defensive shifts that once would have been considered too radical.
But the next wave has to do with trying to measure and create “team chemistry.” How do different personality types, races and nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds and even quirks of character interact over a season that starts in February and ends around Halloween? Teams don’t even like to admit yet that this is their focus. But it is. They look at the Oakland A’s, the Tampa Bay Rays. They know homogeneity isn’t the answer. What’s the right mix? How many extroverts do you need? What is a leader?
From this moment, the team that will be studied as much or more than any in MLB will be the Red Sox, the very bunch that devolved into a total hot mess so recently. With the even-tempered Farrell, with new General Manager Ben Cherington and with plenty of luck, the Red Sox have gone from the anti-team to the apotheosis of togetherness. In this final win, they had players on their roster who began the season in Class AA. The save went to Koji Uehara, who had been the team’s fourth closer in the spring.
“As I stood out there on the infield and looked at the cloud of smoke [from fireworks], I thought, ‘Given where we’ve come from, this is surreal,’ ” Farrell said.
Oh, it’s much better than that. It’s actually real.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.