TFI Offseason Files: The rise and fall of the Red Sox fairytale

The endless wheel of American sports keeps turning, and now the time has come for baseball’s spring training. Last season ended in a spectacular flourish, with the most memorable final day of the regular season in baseball history followed by a postseason of superlatives. Last year featured the two largest collapses in the history of baseball, by the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox. That was simply stunning. The insane sequence of events in the Rays-Yankees and Red Sox-Orioles games will not be quickly forgotten.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals pulled off a fairytale playoff run, beating World Series favorite Philadelphia in an epic, 1-0 pitching duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in the decisive Game 5. All four divisional series were decided by one run in the final game, and three of them went to five games.

After a (relatively) low-drama second round, the Rangers-Cardinals World Series exceeded all expectations. Albert Pujols’ spectacular show in the Cardinals’ 16-9 Game 3 win was, quite simply, the greatest offensive performance in the history of the World Series. In Game 6, the Rangers were one strike away from a championship in two different innings, before the Cardinals finally prevailed 10-9, setting up the first World Series Game 7 in nine years. St. Louis took care of business to complete their improbable run, and the greatness of baseball was on full display.

All of this managed to mask the ugliness unfolding at Fenway Park. The team’s collapse had been ghastly and inexplicable, but Red Sox management’s response to the situation was, in this writer’s mind, the debacle that removed the last shred of dignity from this proud franchise.

Growing up far from the Northeast and forced to pick a side in baseball’s defining rivalry, the choice was obvious to me. The Yankees were the Evil Empire, a soulless winning machine that dominated without trying, overwhelming the puny resistance of all who dared oppose them. I became aware of them during the Joe Torre Dynasty of the late 1990s, when the Yankees had shaken off a decades-long malaise and had returned to the glory years of old. On the other end of the spectrum were the Red Sox, the long-suffering lovable losers, the crusaders against the unstoppable forces of evil. Boston was the Cubs with a nemesis to make every failure sting all the more. At least, that was the impression that the Sox gave off.

Then came the upheaval. The Yankees’ run of world domination ended early in the 2000s, and although they remained one of baseball’s best teams, they were suddenly beatable. Meanwhile, the Red Sox were on the upswing. In 2003 the arch-rivals clashed with a World Series spot on the line. After a back-and-forth series, the Yankees prevailed in crushing fashion, coming from behind to win an 11-inning seventh game. In the aftermath, Boston fired manager Grady Little, implying that a few arguable judgment errors late in a playoff game were more significant than the team’s greatest run in decades. The Red Sox hired Terry Francona to replace Little, and they were not disappointed.

The Sox made the postseason again the next year, and once again faced the Yankees for the American League crown. New York opened the series with three straight wins, including a 19-8 rout in Game 3 at Fenway. However, the Sox proceeded to pull off a legendary comeback, beginning with two come-from-behind extra-innings wins and culminating in a 10-3 domination of Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. The curse was over, the rivalry upended. The World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals was merely a formality at that point, and the Sox swept the Cardinals with ease. They were only the third major professional team to recover from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 series, and the only non-hockey team to achieve the feat. (Currently, the Sox share this distinction with the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Rangers, and the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, the most recent addition to the extreme comeback club.) If only the ride could have ended there, as the Sox achieved a fairytale ending to their long story of woe. Boston instead continued to be one of the dominant teams in baseball, winning another World Series here in Denver in 2007 over the Rockies. They were now another big-money juggernaut, without any sad backstory to mitigate this reality.

Then, the losses returned. First was the mishandling of the team’s relationship with Manny Ramirez, arguably the most memorable contributor on the championship teams, that led to Manny being abruptly shipped off to the LA Dodgers midseason in 2008. Then came the sudden ascendance of the Tampa Bay Rays that same season, which led to the Rays upstaging the Sox and Yankees for the division crown and holding off Boston in a seven-game ALCS that was more lopsided than the final tally would indicate.

The following year, the Sox were swept out of the first round by the LA Angels, before missing the postseason entirely in 2010, as Tampa Bay won its second AL East crown in three seasons. In 2011, the Sox were projected as an unstoppable juggernaut, a team of destiny, one that could overwhelm everyone else in their path en route to another World Series berth. The Yankees were weaker than usual and no one seriously expected the Rays to continue their improbable run of success for another season.

After a ghastly 2-10 start, the Sox rebounded and began to dominate everyone for much of the summer. The high-water mark came on August 27, when the Sox swept a home doubleheader against the Oakland A’s to move to 82-51. The Red Sox immediately lost their slim division lead in a poor showing against the Yankees, and never recovered. The team’s volatile superstar pitching staff fell apart and the Sox had runs of 2-9 and 1-7 en route to a 7-20 September record that let the quietly-overachieving Rays back into the hunt. Boston’s collapse continued unabated, and the team went 1-6 against Tampa Bay to set up the incredible drama of the season’s final night. After the stunning collapse ended, the fallout began.

The first scapegoats were the pitchers, who contributed most directly to the team’s collapse by allowing obscene run totals in the final month. Only one of Boston’s seven wins came when the team scored less than seven runs in a game, because the pitching staff could not hold a lead without an offensive explosion. Starters Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and John Lackey were grilled in the media for allegedly showing little interest in games they were not starting, infamously drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse while their team imploded.

However, flushing out a few bad-apple pitchers was far from enough to soothe the blame-hunters in Red Sox ownership. For the second time in eight years, the team parted with its successful manager based on the results of a single game. Had Boston made the playoffs, Terry Francona would have almost certainly retained his job, but as it was, the man who returned the Sox to greatness was shown the door unceremoniously. Even this might be taken as a harmless business decision, but immediately after the firing, anonymous “team sources” alleged that Francona had been distracted during the season by marital difficulties and the painkilling medication he had been taking following multiple knee operations. The final straw had come, the great leader had been turned out and publicly humiliated for events largely beyond his control. Even in the cynical world of professional sports, that marked a new low.

The main message of this story is that, in attempting to best the hated Yankees, the Sox lost who they were. The fairytale ending had turned into a tragicomedy, a farce worthy of Shakespeare. Say what you will about the Yankees, they know how to handle winning, and the team’s leaders–Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in particular–are the very personification of class. The Yankees knew that stoic consistency and patience were the keys to consistent winning; indeed, it was the effortlessness of their brilliance that made them so reviled to begin with. Boston became spoiled on success and tried too hard, and in the end the team’s management proved that not only is the losing culture still psychologically in place, it has morphed from resigned losing to sore, petty, cheap-shot losing.

Perhaps the team will take home another World Series crown in the near future, maybe even this season. However, after the shameful way the team has treated the people who made it great again, the Boston Red Sox will continue to be the eternal losers in this writer’s estimation. This will be the first time in my life that I will actively support the New York Yankees against the Red Sox. Admittedly, as one of the seven Tampa Bay Rays fans in existence, I have no love lost for the Yankees, but given the counterexample that Boston has provided, I must say I admire the class and nobility that is exuded by the franchise in modern times. The Yankees are winners and I consider it an accomplishment when my team beats them, but the Red Sox are losers and I enjoy watching them lose. And to all those neutrals out there who have supported the Sox on principle, I say that now is the threshold where allegiances must switch. The Red Sox had their chance to be winners, and they blew the opportunity. I have no sympathy to spare for them anymore.

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