-- Baseball has never before seen a team like the 2004 Boston Red Sox -- from their introverted owner, who made his fortune in the mysterious world of hedge funds, to their 30-year-old general manager who plays guitar in a rock band, to the singular collection of idiots, extroverts, divas and dirtballs who make up their roster.
And it is entirely possible that baseball will never see a collection of players like this one again, not even in Boston in 2005.
In every corner of the Red Sox clubhouse late Wednesday night, following their victory over the St. Louis Cardinals to clinch the World Series in a four-game sweep, were scenes too outlandish on their own to make sense, but which when taken together, helped paint a picture of this once-in-a-lifetime team.
In one corner, ace pitcher Curt Schilling -- still limping, but no doubt thankful he won't have to have his ankle stitched up again for what would have been a Game 6 start -- sneaked up behind catcher Jason Varitek, doused him with champagne, then leaned in, hugged his hairy face and planted a kiss on Varitek's ear.
In another corner, the owner, John Henry, spoke in a voice so soft, it was swallowed whole by the loud music -- Eminem's "Lose Yourself."
David Ortiz walked around with a Wheaties box featuring his likeness and the words, "Boston Red Sox / World Series Champions" -- words that still, perhaps an hour after the final pitch, seemed shockingly incongruous.
Derek Lowe answered wave after wave of media questioning, a smile never leaving his face. Pedro Martinez held aloft the World Series trophy as if it were Nelson De La Rosa, his 28-inch-tall companion.
But these being the Red Sox, and this being the pinnacle of a phenomenon called "Red Sox Nation," the championship celebration was barely minutes old when the questions began to fly about next season.
Among the Red Sox players who became free agents at about 10:40 p.m. Central Time, when the final out was secured, were Varitek, Lowe and Martinez -- three components of what the Boston papers this season dubbed the "Big Four." The fourth of those big-name free-agents-to-be, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, was traded in July, making this, one supposes, a "Big Three."
Perhaps never before have the rigid economics of baseball crashed so violently against a region's passionate determination to keep its team together. If Red Sox fans, who perhaps invest more emotional capital in their team than anyone, were once nonchalant about Lowe's future with the team, they are so no longer. If they once decided they could live with the notion of seeing Martinez and his suspect shoulder move along, that, too, has changed.
Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox president, acknowledged that this World Series title may have changed the organization's thinking about its mission this winter.
"I hope we'll make sound, rational baseball decisions," Lucchino said, drenched in champagne and beer in the chaotic clubhouse. "But we also recognize we have an obligation to honor what this team has accomplished. That will have to factor into our decisions."
Weeks ago, it seemed a virtual certainty that Lowe was on his way out the door -- more because of the team's exasperation with him than his own personal preference. Martinez, too, was assumed to be leaving, because the Red Sox were unwilling to show the "respect" -- which is to say, the exorbitant dollar figures -- he so believed he deserved.
Varitek, whom Red Sox insiders agreed, nearly unanimously, was the team's most valuable player this season, was assumed to be the one player the Red Sox would not, under any circumstances, let get away.
And now, there is no telling how those notions have shifted. Lowe's value alone, for example, may have risen by several million dollars per season because of what he did in the postseason, giving up just one hit to the New York Yankees and three hits to the Cardinals in the clinching wins of those series.
There are also decisions to be made about a host of supporting players, a list headed by shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who replaced Garciaparra at the trade deadline.
The Red Sox front office, headed by young Theo Epstein, did a masterful job of blending sometimes disparate personalities into a cohesive unit.
"Our approach was, we wanted to find guys who could succeed in Boston, and we wanted to avoid guys with bad makeup," Epstein said. "We're not going to acquire Mr. Rogers just because he can fold sweaters for you. But makeup is definitely part of the equation, along with things like scouting and track records."
Because they have been juxtaposed against the Yankees for so long, the Red Sox often are portrayed as the scrappy underdogs, when the truth is far different. Their payroll this season -- about $130 million -- was higher than every other team except the Yankees.
But even the Red Sox resources are not unlimited. And their salary commitments for 2005 keep getting higher. Just Wednesday night, when the Red Sox clinched, a clause in Schilling's contract kicked in that bumped his 2005 salary from $13 million to $15 million. The balancing act that is modern baseball economics shifted again.
"We're fortunate here," Epstein said. "Our payroll has been above $100 million the last few years, and we're confident it will be above $100 million again next year. We'll be capable of fielding a winning team, unless I screw it up by making bad decisions."