CLEVELAND — It was the offseason of 2005, maybe 2006 — Dave McCarty can’t quite remember — but either way he and his family were skiing in Lake Tahoe. With poles in his hands and a parka on his back, McCarty couldn’t have looked much like a major league baseball player at the end of his career.
Except for one thing: He played for the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
“We’re skiing, and some guy on the slopes recognized me,” McCarty said Monday in a telephone interview. “He’s a Sox fan, and all of a sudden I hear, ‘You’re Dave McCarty. You can’t believe how much what you guys did means to our family. Thank you.’ ”
In 2004, McCarty was a backup first baseman and outfielder who made 168 plate appearances. He did not play that postseason. His Red Sox career consisted of 120 games spread over three years. But it didn’t matter. He is part of history, a member of the squad that snapped a drought that for so long defined all of New England. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 1918, and they played 85 seasons without winning another. Until 2004.
When the 2016 World Series champion is crowned, either the Chicago Cubs will end a 108-year drought or the Cleveland Indians will have their first championship in 68 years. Decades of failure and misfortune have defined not only the franchises, but their fan bases. They may not realize it at the moment, with Tuesday’s Game 1 at Progressive Field defined more by the matchups at hand than the malaise over both clubs, but the players on the winning team will scarcely be able to pay for a meal in either city for the rest of eternity.
“I always joke around that back in Beaumont, Tex., you were just a guy,” said Kevin Millar, a first baseman and outfielder on the 2004 Red Sox, speaking Monday from his Texas home. “You got to Boston, and it’s like you’re Aerosmith. It changes. Winning a championship is very special. Doing it for a city that’s been in a drought, it’s different. For a city, now, like Cleveland or Chicago, it’ll change these guys’ lives forever.”
There are eight existing major league franchises that have never won a World Series — Texas, Houston, Milwaukee, San Diego, Washington, Seattle, Colorado and Tampa Bay. But all of those teams debuted since the Indians last won the World Series — in 1948, by beating the Boston Braves in six games. The stars of that team — pitchers Bob Lemon and Bob Feller, second baseman Joe Gordon, shortstop Lou Boudreau — are heroes here still.
The Indians have been to the World Series three times since, in 1954, 1995 and 1997. But the club’s defining moments are, for the most part, devastating — Jose Mesa’s blown save in the seventh game of the ’97 World Series against Florida, the three-games-to-one lead it built in the 2007 American League Championship Series, only to have Boston storm back, etc.
The Cubs’ history since winning the 1908 World Series is perhaps more written into the sport’s folklore. It even involves an infamous curse of a billy goat, one brought to the 1945 World Series by a local pub owner. Asked to leave Wrigley Field because the goat’s fragrance bothered some fans, the man legendarily declared that the Cubs would no longer win.
“If the baseball gods want to take it into their own hands,” Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis said, “I think it’s a serious thing to not let that goat end.”
Kipnis, a native of the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Ill., is an outlier in this series because he grew up a Cubs fan and knows all too well the deep and depressing history of that franchise. One of his neighbors, believe it or not, was a man named Steve Bartman, who tried to snare a foul ball in the sixth game of the 2003 National League Championship Series, inadvertently hindering Cubs left fielder Moises Alou from doing the same. So when he says, “If curses are real, I’m hoping theirs is going to outlive ours,” as he did Monday, it means something more.
Normally, indoctrination to a franchise’s history — whether it’s the success of the Yankees or the failures of the Cubs or Indians — comes through exposure through the media’s questions and the fans’ interactions. All year, the Cubs, who were preseason favorites to get here, have deflected questions about accomplishing the unthinkable.
But what the 2004 Red Sox can tell them: Win it, and you’ll become unforgettable.
“Everybody remembers,” said Mike Timlin, a Red Sox reliever from 2003 to 2008. “They remember what you did. They remember how you did it. They’re very appreciative of it.”
In 2014, the Red Sox marked the 10-year anniversary of the team that broke what had been known as “The Curse of the Bambino.” Twenty-nine players — from stars Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling to catcher Jason Varitek, the captain, to reserves who only played a handful of games with the club — showed up to celebrate. Mike Myers, a left-handed reliever who came over from Seattle midway through 2004 and pitched a total of 52⅓ innings over two seasons in Boston, hadn’t been back to the city since he last pitched there, in 2005. It didn’t matter. The hotel that weekend was besieged by autograph seekers.
“Somebody would notice me in a restaurant,” Myers said. “Somebody would notice me in a coffee shop. That shows you: There had to be a heightened recognition in order to recognize me. But other guys? Dave Roberts would be different. Doug Mirabelli would always get recognized.”
Roberts stole the base in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS that allowed Bill Mueller to drive in the tying run off Yankees Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, making possible the Red Sox’ 12th-inning win. Roberts played in a total of 48 games, regular season and postseason, for the Red Sox, yet he is a New England legend. Mirabelli was a backup catcher who hit .238 over parts of seven seasons in Boston, yet because he routinely caught knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, he’ll never be forgotten.
There are characters, on either the Indians or the Cubs, who are bit players who will be remembered forever. On the eve of the World Series, they just don’t know it yet.
“It’s funny,” Millar said. “When you’re a player, you’re just playing the game. You’re doing what you love, doing what you do. You don’t realize the lives that you change through the success that you have. It’s generation after generation, just the ‘thank yous’ you get for doing your job. You’re just a ballplayer, so you don’t realize the suffering that Aunt Beth had, or Papa Harold, or whoever. That was the thing that made you open your eyes and go, ‘Wow. We changed lives.’”
Millar now works as the co-host of a show on MLB Network, so he has been back to Boston somewhat regularly. He still knows some restaurant owners there, people who, when he shows up, won’t let him pay.
“You feel bad,” Millar said. “You start saying, ‘I’m not coming in if you won’t let me pay.’”
It’s a lesson to these teams. Hey, Indians — or Cubs: The drinks, for eternity, are on Cleveland — or Chicago.
“Either team that does win, the city will not forget,” Timlin said. “They will not forget who’s on the team and what they did.”