“So if we win, who gets the MVP?” I asked my father Sunday night.
“I … I don’t know,” he answered. “Ellsbury?”
“I was thinking Paps. If he gets this save, that will give him three in four games.”
“True, and all of them were tough saves. Like the ones Rivera used to get.”
“Although Lowell has probably been the best all-around player. Big hits, couple big baserunning plays, good D …”
“That’s true, Lowell could get it. I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
At the time, Boston was batting in the ninth and needed three more outs to finish off Colorado. Just 12 days before, following a listless Game 4 loss in Cleveland, this same Red Sox team looked like it was headed home for the winter. I kept a running diary of that game and ended it with a semi-eulogy for Boston’s season, writing that, “the baseball playoffs aren’t like the NBA playoffs, in which you can keep advancing with three or four big guns carrying you. For a championship baseball team, everyone chips in from Player No. 1 to Player No. 25. You have three or four heroes per game, everyone seems like they’re loose and having fun, and when you’re looking back afterward, sometimes you can’t even figure out which guy should have been the MVP. That’s how the Red Sox won in 2004, and that’s how the Indians and Rockies are winning in 2007.”
Less than two weeks later, after the Red Sox had wrapped up an improbable seven-game winning streak to win the title, you couldn’t emphasize the following three words strongly enough:
Everyone chipped in.
Beckett threw the team on his back in Cleveland and looms as a Pedro-like presence for the next decade. Drew hit the $14 Million Grand Slam and had a number of, gulp, sensational at-bats. Lowell completed one of the greatest contract years in recent memory, leading to a crowd of lingering Sox fans chanting “Please sign Lowell!” in Denver after everything was over. Two precocious rookies (Pedroia and Ellsbury) played out of their minds, and another youngster (Lester) threw a remarkable 92 pitches in Colorado for the Game 4 victory. Youkilis emerged as one of those “born-to-play-in-October” guys. Okajima extricated the team from multiple late-inning jams and wore every battle on his face by the end. Schilling and Dice submitted four decent starts between them. Timlin battled Father Time to get the biggest out Sunday night, and Bobby Kielty’s insurance homer turned out to be the difference. Papelbon tapped into his inner Rivera and might have been the single most indispensable Boston player. Julio Lugo had some big hits and played impeccable defense at shortstop. And Manny and Papi were Manny and Papi, the best tag team since Mr. Fuji and Mr. Saito.
That’s 14 guys in all … and after it was over, my father and I still couldn’t figure out which one deserved the World Series MVP. Lowell ended up getting it, which was perfect because he symbolizes the people who put together this particular team: They spent more money than everyone else but the Yankees; they were always willing to take chances; and, fortunately, enough of those gambles ended up working out. Once upon a time, Mike Lowell was nothing more than an expensive lemon that Florida foisted upon Boston as part of the Beckett trade. Nobody had any hopes for him beyond, “If he plays great defense and doesn’t completely suck offensively, maybe we won’t have to waive him.” Now he’s a World Series MVP. Amazing.
During Game 4, it was fitting that Fox’s Ken Rosenthal interrupted the eighth inning to report Alex Rodriguez was opting out of his Yankees contract — classy timing, by the way — considering that Boston’s manifest destiny as a franchise was irrevocably altered in December 2003, when the long-rumored A-Rod trade finally fell through. Would 2004 have happened with A-Rod and without Manny? What about the past four years? Could we be staring at 90 years and counting right now? What if the Sox had landed expensive (and disappointing) free agents such as Adrian Beltre and Carl Pavano? What if the Yankees had trumped them for Schilling in 2003? What if another team had simply scooped Manny up off waivers after the 2003 season? What if the Nomar trade had fallen through at the last minute before the 2004 trade deadline? You could play the “what-if?” game with about 20 different moments from the last 48 months.
Somehow, everything worked out: Not just two championships but the foundation for something much more substantial. On the phone this weekend, my buddy J-Bug kept gushing, “We’re the ’96 Yanks right now! We’re the ’96 Yankees.” But aren’t the ’07 Red Sox more loaded than that ’96 Yankees team? Other than four rising stars (Bernie, Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte) and three veteran stars (Tino Martinez, Cone and O’Neill), the ’96 Yanks were a goofy mish-mash of aging veterans and bad contracts. The ’07 Red Sox have four rising stars (Pedroia, Ellsbury, Youkilis and Papelbon), five veteran stars (Manny, Papi, Beckett, Varitek and Lowell), two more young arms (Buchholz and Lester), a reliable set-up guy (Okajima) and three overpaid players with some upside (Drew, Dice and Lugo), with the financial flexibility to re-sign Lowell and Schilling and swing another big deal (Crisp for a power reliever). Barring injury, next year’s team should be better than this year’s team. Unquestionably.
Which brings me to a larger point …
Not only are the people running professional sports teams getting smarter and smarter, but some franchises with deep pockets have figured out it’s better to funnel that money into development and scouting instead of just overpaying veterans for splashy, “quick-fix” signings. After the NBA draft in June, a friend who works for another team fretted that Portland had finally figured out how to spend Paul Allen’s money: Instead of handing out lavish extensions to the likes of Darius Miles and Zach Randolph, the Blazers started buying extra first-round picks and even stashing prospects in Europe, with the long-term goal to maintain financial flexibility, build around young stars (Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden) and stockpile as many assets as possible. My friend was petrified of a Portland resurgence, pointing out it’s one thing to have a significant financial advantage; it’s another thing to know what you’re doing with that significant financial advantage.
In the old days, big-market teams spent money like rappers happily spending record royalties, especially in baseball, where ludicrous contracts have been handed out for 31 years and counting (Barry Zito for $126 million???). Even if Boston GM Theo Epstein has a mixed record with free-agent signings (and that’s being kind), his overall mind-set hasn’t wavered since 2003: build up the farm system, build up scouting, don’t give away younger assets unless you’re getting a blue-chipper back (such as Beckett), don’t mortgage the future for one season. You can’t argue with the 2007 results or the long-term outlook. I grew up watching Boston teams that threw money at the wrong guys, traded the wrong guys and never seemed to have more than a few blue-chipper prospects per decade. The only other time in my life when the Sox had a perfect blend of young guys and older guys was 1975 — the World Series team that featured Freddie Lynn, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk and Luis Tiant — and the front office botched that situation within a few discouraging years.
That won’t happen this time around. Every key veteran will return unless Lowell and Schilling leave — not too likely — and there’s a nucleus of young talent that simply wasn’t around in 2004. There’s also a never-ending reservoir of cash because ownership reinvigorated Fenway Park and figured out an endless number of ways to market the franchise. It’s a great development for Red Sox fans and a not-so-great development for the sport as a whole; the Colorado-Boston matchup looked like a mismatch from the first inning of Game 1. Throw in the way the Yankees have restocked their farm system and baseball could be headed for a 21st-century version of the Cold War for the foreseeable future. Again, I don’t know if this is a good thing.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of this stuff Sunday night. I was thinking about a second World Series, and even better, the serenity that came with it. The 2004 run wasn’t about winning as much as surviving and enduring; those final four games against the Yankees were more like life experiences, and the World Series against St. Louis wasn’t about baseball as much as family and hope and belief and life and death and everything else that makes sports so unique. This time around, if you loved the Red Sox, you simply watched the games and savored the chance to follow such a likable, entertaining team. You didn’t have to worry about Fox bringing up Babe Ruth every 30 seconds; you weren’t worrying about the various ways the Sox could potentially break your heart; and you weren’t thinking about things like, “Am I hyperventilating right now?” and “Should I nudge my Dad to make sure he’s still alive?”
No, you were marvelling at the little things that make baseball so great — like Pedroia’s freakishly fast hands at second base, Manny’s surreal ability to turn a two-strike count into an advantage, Youkilis grinding down relievers with those 11-pitch at-bats, Beckett practically snarling as he waits for his next sign. There was even a signature moment of the playoffs: Drew’s improbable grand slam at the beginning of Game 6, the unforgettable instant when everything started to make sense even as absolutely nothing was making sense. This turned out to be a very good team that peaked at the perfect time, and unlike every other Red Sox season in my lifetime, I expected the breaks to go our way and never really worried about jinxing them.
For instance, before 2004, I never would have called my father for a “Who’s winning the MVP?” conversation before the final out. I never would have started recording the ninth inning on our bedroom TiVo just to give the World Series celebration “SAVE UNTIL I DELETE” status. I never would have pulled my daughter out of bed after the seventh so she could watch them win, even though she yelled, “No, I don’t like baseball!” every time we turned on a playoff game this month. Things are just different now. The 2007 Red Sox were really good, they will continue to be good, and that’s just the way it is. They weren’t going to blow Game 4.
I promised my daughter there would be a payoff at the end — that somebody on Colorado would make an out, that the Red Sox players would jump on each other and celebrate, that there would be dancing and hugging and everyone would be really happy. She understands absolutes (words like “happy” and “dancing” and “hugging”) and understood something special was about to happen, but she had never heard the word “celebrate” before.” She liked the way it sounded, so she kept saying it. Celebrate. Every time something happened in the last two innings — a strikeout, a groundball, whatever — she’d ask me why they didn’t celebrate and I had to keep telling her, “No, you’ll know when they’re celebrating, I’ll tell you when.”
Eventually, she started watching me to play off my reactions. When Jamey Carroll cranked that one-out, 0-2 fastball in the ninth, for a split-second, like every other Sox fan who had abandoned their anti-jinxing rituals, I thought I had screwed everything up and screamed, “Noooooooo!” before Ellsbury hauled in the catch and she asked me what happened.
“That guy almost screwed it up,” I told her
“Oh.” She thought about it for a second. “They’re not going to celebrate?”
“No, no, they’re about to celebrate,” I told her.
We moved to the edge of the bed. I was sitting down; she was standing between my knees and leaning against me. Paps uncorked a 2-2 fastball for the clinching strike (“Yesssssssssssss!!!!!!!!!”), whipped his glove in the air and flipped out like he always does. If there’s an enduring image of this 2007 Red Sox team, it’s the sight of a wild-eyed Papelbon waving Varitek towards him for a postgame embrace — he always looks like some drunken Boston kid who just sucker-punched somebody in a bar and wants the fallen guy’s buddies to run over for a full-scale brawl. COME ON!!! LET’S DO THIS!!! Once Varitek jumped into his arms, the entire Boston team mobbed them within seconds, and everyone eventually settled on jumping up and down in a delirious circle. A few seconds passed before my daughter finally turned to me with a big smile on her face.
“They’re celebrating,” she told me happily.
I don’t know how I got here.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the ravamped Sports Guy World.