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Free at Last

 

The liberation of Red Sox Nation

 

By Adam Hoff

 

What do you write when something like this happens?  The Red Sox winning the World Series goes beyond the scope of anything the sports world has to offer.  It was a moment treasured and shared by a team, a group of fans, a region of the country, and a sport as a whole.  Seriously, this will be one of the five most memorable things I ever witness as a sports fan.  I have no doubt about this whatsoever. 

 

For those of you who had grown tired of hearing about The Curse and the plight of the Sox, for those that were sick of the Yankees-Sox hoopla, for those that just wanted the NBA season to get rolling, I give you seven reasons why this was – to use Terry Francona’s favorite word – special. 

 

1. The Road Traveled.  No matter how many times you try to make sense of it, you just can’t.  10 days ago, Boston was done like Eddie George.  The most successful team in the history of professional sports had them down 3-0 in the ALCS.  And then the Sox won eight straight games.  Wait … what?  It simply defies explanation.  From Dave Roberts’ “stolen base heard ‘round the world” to David Ortiz’ multiple walkoff hits to Keith Foulke our-Riveraing Mariano Rivera to Schilling moving into Larry Bird territory to Derek Lowe pitching the game of his life twice in row, the Red Sox pulled off one miracle after another and somehow made the greatest comeback in the history of sports. 

 

Then, before anyone could even start thinking about The Curse or the Cardinals or how the World Series might screw everything up, it was all over.  Boston had had swept the Cards and won eight straight games, Manny had hit in 16 straight, Schilling-Pedro-Lowe became the third trio of starters in postseason history to allow no earned runs in three straight starts.  I mean, they left no doubt about it.  And while some where disappointed to see what could be considered an anticlimactic ending, it just made it that much better for the Sox.  It proved that all they had to do was get past the 200 Million Dollar Men to get this thing done.  It proved that there was no curse.  It proved that they were the best team in the majors this year and an incredibly deserving champion.  Sure, it feels like the World Series part was easier than it should have been, but all you have to do is think back to that ALCS with the Yankees – arguably the greatest series ever played – to know how hard this championship was. 

 

2. Curt Schilling.  You knew after he had his ankle tied together and dominated the Yankees in Game Six that there would be some anti-Schilling sentiment.  The blood on the sock, the emotional interviews … some people are just haters, pure and simple.  So it was no surprise to see columnists writing spiteful things about Schilling and his “love for the spotlight.”  Big freaking deal.  So what if he loves being the center of attention?  You think Michael Jordan lived in the shadows?  Schilling is a standup guy, a loyal teammate, and one of the greatest competitors in sports.  All of the writers who tried to drum up a ridiculous angle should feel pathetic right now. 

 

Now that we’ve got that straight, we can truly appreciate what Schilling did.  Forget about pitching on an absolutely ruined ankle that had to be patched together though an unprecedented medical procedure.  Just consider the way he backed up everything he came to do in Boston.  He signed with the Sox to lead them to a title.  He spent the season winning games, changing the culture in the locker room, posting on fan websites, and slamming talk show hosts from his car phone.  There hasn’t been an athlete in recent history that has put himself out there like Schilling did.  Then he shredded his ankle, got rocked by the Yankees, and put his reputation on the line.  He could have receded into the shadows and hung his hat on an injury excuse.  Heck, that’s what everyone else does.  Instead, he put his entire mind, body, and soul into the task at hand.  Schilling threw two of the most memorable games in Red Sox history this September: the incredible Game Six gem against the Yankees in the ALCS and the masterpiece in Game Two of the World Series.  He won two of the biggest games in the history of one of sport’s most colorful franchises and he allowed only one earned run in the process.  In case you missed that, Schill went 2-0 with a .69 ERA against two 100-win teams while pitching with a dislocated tendon in his ankle!  There is just no way to overstate Schilling’s performance in those games.  Simply legendary. 

 

(By the way, in case you thought Schill was done, he could now have a hand in the presidential election.  It’s a huge stretch, but not beyond the realm of possibilities.  Schilling has already come out and supported Bush on national television and is now scheduled to make an appearance on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.  In case you missed it, New Hampshire is what they like to call a “battleground state.”  Right now it’s too close to call, but you imagine that the birthplace of John Irving will swing over to Kerry, a New Englander.  But what if the Schilling Factor wins over enough Sox-crazy New Hampshire natives and gives the state to Bush?  And what if that was the difference?  If, say, Bush wins 270-268?  I mean, that would be just about the most insane thing ever.  Who would have thought that the election could come down to a battle between Schilling and Michael Moore?)

 

3. Manny’s Revenge.  Last winter, two Sox fixtures got hung out to dry when Lucchino and Epstein tried to acquire A-Rod.  One – Nomar Garciappara – was never the same and had to be traded in midseason to keep the season from imploding.  The other – Manny Ramirez – shrugged it off and had the season of a lifetime.  He cracked jokes with reporters in Spring Training, he offered Pedro half his salary in April (clearly he still didn’t understand the power of the player’s union, but it’s the thought that counts), he put up MVP numbers all season long, and he topped it all off by winning the World Series MVP award.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: there’s no one I want for big time baseball more than Manny, if only because he doesn’t know the difference.  And to top it all off with points to Peter Gammons and Mike Tyson-esque quotes?  What sweet justice this has been for Man-Ram. 

 

4. Pedro’s Encore.  Let’s be honest, the reputation of Pedro Martinez had been besmirched by the Yankees and the 2003 postseason.  The Grady Little Game, the Who’s Your Daddy thing, the 30-inch Dominican … it was all taking away from Pedro’s legacy and turning him into a novelty act.  Who is the real Pedro?  Quite simply, he’s the best pitcher I’ve ever seen.  Randy Johnson is a marvel, Roger Clemens will go down as one of the greatest starting pitches of all time, Curt Schilling is arguably the best postseason pitcher ever, and I’m absolutely convinced that Johan Santana’s arm is made of solid gold.  However, nobody can touch Pedro’s run from 1997-2002.  For six seasons, he was the best pitcher of my lifetime.  He has four of the greatest individual seasons in modern baseball history (1997, 1999, 2000, 2002) under his belt, including the completely insane 2000 campaign when he struck out 313 batters in 217 innings and posted the best WHIP of all time at .74.  Before 1997, he was finding the rhythm and trying to harness his stuff.  After 2002 he’s been battling against his tiny frame and tired arm.  But for those six years, he was absolutely remarkable.  I imagine it had to be a little like watching Sandy Koufax during his heyday. 

 

That’s what made these past two years so frustrating, not just for Red Sox fans, but for Pedro fans.  Instead of marveling at his control and ability to change speeds, we talked about his velocity slipping.  Rather than studying his powder keg mechanics and freakishly long fingers, we analyzed his pitch count like the securities board at the New York Stock Exchange.  It was all wrong.  By the time the calendar flipped to August of this year, the whole story had taken some bizarre turns.  Pedro was calling the Yankees his daddy, bringing a little person into the clubhouse, and losing more games than he ever had in his career.  It was all going up in smoke.  He pitched well against the Angles in the ALDC, but that was attribute to the warmer SoCal weather.  Then came the Yankees games.  In Game Two he threw extremely well.  His control wasn’t pinpoint but he was throwing hard and if not for a lucky John Olerud home run (I swear, he started swinging when Pedro was still winding up), he would have allowed only one run over seven innings.  Nevertheless, he lost.  Again.  Then in Game Five he pitched heroically into the sixth inning before things unraveled on him.  Jorge Posada got his 800th career dink hit of Pedro when he hit a ground ball over the pitcher’s mound.  Then a walk and a hit by pitch brought up Jeter.  You knew what was coming: inside-out swing, ball fair by two feet, three runs across.  The Yankees were going to beat Pedro again, sending him out of Boston tarnished forever.

 

Except the Yankees didn’t win.  The Red Sox battled back behind Ortiz and Roberts and everyone else to tie the game.  Eventually, they won it when Senior Octubre lofted a single into right center in the bottom of the 14th inning.  The Red Sox would live to play another day and Pedro would have another shot.  Skipping right over that “Pedro comes out of the bullpen” Game Seven debacle, we arrive at Game Three of the World Series.  The Sox have won the opener in a bizarre slugfest, complete with multiple Manny errors and more Bellhorn heroics.  They’ve snagged Game Two behind The Natural.  It was all going Boston’s way.  However.  The Cards were going home where they were 6-0 in the playoffs.  Their bats were due to heat up and a win over Pedro would completely change the series.  Lowe could be defeated in Game Four, Wakefield had little luck in Game One, and then nobody knew if Schilling could pitch again.  On the other hand, if Pedro could reach back for one more gem and put the Sox up 3-0, it would be over.

 

The first inning didn’t look good.  In fact, it had all the making of another postseason disaster for Martinez.  Bases loaded, only one out.  No control.  A head so sweat-soaked that it looked like he’d been dipped in oil.  Would he even make it out of the first inning?  He would, thanks to an unlikely double play engineered by Manny “Mr. Enigmatic” Ramirez.  The rest is history.  For the next six innings, he was the Pedro I used to stay up until all hours to watch, even if it was just a mid-summer game against the Tigers.  He broke bats, he struck people out on high heat as he pirouetted toward the plate with that vicious follow through.  He came in high and tight and then deftly floated the changeup low and away.  It was beautiful.  And when it was over he had won a huge World Series game, throwing seven innings of three-hit, shutout ball.  And he had reclaimed his legacy.

 

5. Derek Lowe bouncing back.  Might as well stick with the pitching.  Even if you are a Lowe you didn’t see this coming.  D-Lowe has never been terribly consistent but after a Cy Young quality season in 2002 (.97 WHIP, 22 wins) and a terrific ALDS against Oakland in 2003, it appeared that Lowe would come out strong in his contract year.  Nope.  They guy was a mess.  Part of the reason they traded for Cabrera was that Lowe was leading the league in unearned runs.  The thinking was: hey, he’s a sinkerball pitcher and we have a horrible defense.  If we improve our defense, he’ll improve.  Good thought, but it didn’t work.  Lowe just proceeded to rank among the league leaders in earned runs the rest of the way.  So when he was dropped from the playoff rotation it came as a surprise to absolutely no one. 

 

But baseball is a funny game.  Just when it looked like Lowe was finished in Boston and would leave town waving a towel like Mateen Cleaves, he was back.  He slammed the door against the Angels and won the clincher.  He pitched his heart out against the Yanks in what had to be a horrible spot – staring at a sweep, knowing that your manager doesn’t really believe in you.  He threw the game of his life in Game Seven, allowing only one hit in six innings and winning the clincher.  In the World Series he won – you guessed it – the clinching game by going seven shutout innings of four-hit ball.  Just an absurdly glorious turn of events for Lowe.  Now he gets to cash in (anyone want to bet that he winds up in NY?), but more importantly he was an instrumental part of history.  Hats off to the guy that cost me a fantasy championship. 

 

6. Hero for a Day.  This was a true team.  I guess you could say that about nearly every major league baseball team that somehow survives 162 games and three playoff series, but the Red Sox seemed to embody the term more than most.  Nearly every guy on the roster had a shining moment.  Almost every player single-handedly staved off elimination at some point in that Yankees series.  Johnny Damon brushed off a horrendous six-game slump to club two home runs and drive in six runs in Game Seven.  Trot Nixon was quiet all postseason then drilled the series-clinching double on a 3-0 pitch.  Jason Veritek had his usual out-of-nowhere clutch hits.  Dave Roberts had The Steal in Game Four and another tremendous pinch-running appearance the next night.  David Ortiz had three walkoff hits (two of them homers) in the first four games at Fenway, the “biggest home run that nobody will remember” in Game Seven, some huge hits in the World Series, and some surprising defensive gems against the Cards.  Wakefield had the incredible extra-inning performance in Game Five.  Curtis “Time to panic it’s” Lescanic threw a scoreless 11th in Game Four.  Keith Foulke threw like 4,000 grueling innings and vaulted into the upper echelon of the game’s closers.  (Good move by the White Sox to trade him for Billy Koch in 2002, by the way.)  The list just goes on and on.  The starting pitchers have been well documented.  Manny won the World Series MVP.  Orlando Cabrera brought his slick glove, gritty at bats, clutch hitting, and tenacious elbows to a team that needed all of that.  Bill Mueller played through myriad injuries to drive in the run that got it all started.  I could name the whole team but I’ll stop there.  I think you get the point. 

 

(By the way, this team concept is what makes it so sad that they won’t be back for another run at it.  Lowe and Pedro will be overpaid by teams desperate for starting pitching and Cabrera will need to cash in for a longer deal than Boston is willing to give.  Only Varitek is likely to return.  So sad.)

 

7. Honestly, because I picked them!  Between the anguish of he 2003 ALCS, some amazing trips to Fenway, and my unshakeable belief in Curt Schilling, I was taking the Sox all the way this year.  There was just no way around it.  Go back to the MLB Preview columns (FIND LINK) and check it out.  Before the playoffs I went with them again.  It just felt right.  So not to toot my own horn but … beep, beep! 

 

(No though, I didn’t think they could do it when it was 3-0, Yanks.)

 

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.  He can be reached at ahoff@uchicago.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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