Commentary

Red Sox will never be the same

Originally Published: October 12, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPNBoston.com

Dustin Pedroia's soft floater curled downward into the open, waiting glove of Erick Aybar to end the 2009 postseason for the Boston Red Sox, and the old inevitability of a momentous, improbable and historic comeback gave way to a new one: The Red Sox as we knew them are dead.

That is not to say they will not come back, perhaps as soon as next year, but they will never be what they once were. From 2003 to 2007, the Red Sox were one of the great postseason teams in baseball history. Call them a dynasty if winning two championships in four years fits your standard. If not, just say no team was tougher, more dangerous as it edged closer to the death of playoff defeat. No team scared more opposing players, more managers and more fans. No team had more lives, could be more propelled toward a championship charge by an important game.

It had created a mystique so powerful that even if in the aftermath of beer showers and disappointment they refuse to say it, both the Red Sox and Angels players had to be silently wondering just what was going to happen had there been a Game 4 on Monday, with Jon Lester on the mound. If staying alive would have meant what it meant for the 2003 A's and 2004 Yankees and 2007 Indians, if it meant the Red Sox were going to do it again, to an Angels team it had haunted -- again.

In a sense, what the Red Sox of 2003 to 2007 accomplished was even more impressive than the Joe Torre Yankees dynasty of 1996 to 2001, for while the Yankees were truly dominant, the Red Sox seemed only to reach their zenith when faced with permanent extinction. From 1996 to 2001, the Yankees played just six elimination games, and were 4-2. They lost Game 5 to Cleveland in the 1997 Division Series and Game 7 to Arizona in the 2001 World Series while beating the A's both in Game 5 of the Division Series and in three straight after being down 2-0 in the Division Series a year later. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were 11-2 in elimination games from 2003 to 2007. Down 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004, the Sox famously did not lose a game the rest of the season, winning eight straight and the World Series. Three years later, they beat Cleveland and Colorado in seven straight games after being down to the Indians three games to one.

But those days are yesterday, meaning about as much as Dave Henderson's throwing out the first pitch before Sunday's games, or Joey Gathright's being on the Boston roster, waiting for an opportunity to reprise the role of Dave Roberts during the epic 2004 Championship Series. Torii Hunter said as much and backed it up with his ebullient and ferocious play, and in the end, Henderson and Roberts were reduced to ghost images, nothing more.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Elsa/Getty ImagesDavid ortiz was just 1 for 12 against the Angels.
None of this should be news, for eventually all great teams crumble. For a five-year period, the Red Sox were legendary. There were signs last year that were exposed further during this season as Boston played so poorly on the road and finally by the Angels during their impressive three-game sweep. And now the period of transition from the title years -- far more emotionally than physically -- must begin.

Beyond the Angels' outplaying them and just being better this week, there are many salient reasons why the Boston master plan did not work this year: the pitching flameouts of John Smoltz, Brad Penny and -- most chiefly among them -- the enigmatic $102 million investment that is Daisuke Matsuzaka. That Clay Buchholz, making his first postseason start, stood between the Red Sox and elimination represents the severest indictment of Matsuzaka's season.

But the single biggest difference between the 2009 Red Sox and the previous editions under the John Henry regime is that the David Ortiz/Manny Ramirez anchor has given way, finally and completely, with all of its future implications and consequences.

The dismantling of the 2004 championship team took place almost immediately, while the 2007 team was largely intact. The constant was that despite the turnover, Ramirez and Ortiz and what they represented were still there. And now that is gone, too.

Essentially, the Red Sox lost two Hall of Fame-caliber bats in consecutive seasons.

For a time, it appeared that the Red Sox might be able to escape losing Ramirez, when Jason Bay arrived last year, drove in 37 runs in 49 games and then hit .412 against the Angels, .341 for the playoffs last year. Bay was professional in the clubhouse, a proven run producer without Ramirez and his headaches, and seemed unaffected by the maelstrom that is often Boston baseball.

Addition by subtraction never works, and while Bay is a very good player -- someone the Red Sox probably should re-sign in the offseason -- there will never be (not in this generation, anyway) another combination in Boston like Ramirez and Oritz, two players who played at a Hall of Fame level at the absolute height of their powers.

And in turn, even with the addition of Victor Martinez, it was obvious this season and postseason that the Red Sox were that much less dangerous, that much more ordinary. The stirring comebacks never came. No longer needing to calculate when Ortiz and Ramirez would bat, opposing pitchers, once cautious, now challenged the Red Sox order. Boston hit .131 for the series

There are numbers and there are memories, but justice cannot be done to Ortiz and Ramirez without the combination of the two. In 43 postseason games from 2003 to 2007, Ramirez hit .321 (53-for-165) with 11 home runs, 38 RBIs and 29 runs scored. Ortiz during that same period hit .325 (52-for-160) with 11 home runs, 38 RBIs and 35 runs. The Red Sox won 28 of those games, including two World Series titles.

During the first comeback from elimination in the 2003 Division Series against Oakland, Ramirez hit .200 in the five games, but his only home run came in Game 5 off Barry Zito and pushed the Red Sox toward the upset. For five seasons, Ramirez and Ortiz were the most fearsome offensive combination of average, power, pitch selection and clutch hitting of this generation. From 2003 to 2007, Ortiz and Ramirez combined for an on-base percentage of .405.

Throughout the postseason and the later weeks of the regular season, much was made of the Ortiz resurgence. Yes, he had hit just one home run over his first 48 games. Yes, he led the league with 27 home runs since June 6. Yes, he showed tremendous resiliency in overcoming his slow start and the emotional damage he faced in dealing with the addition of his once-untouchable name to the steroid era scandal to finish the season with 99 RBIs, and yes, only he knows the full extent of the effect of injuries to his wrist and his knees.

But for five years, David Ortiz was a Hall of Fame level offensive player, and he is no longer. From 2003 to 2007, Ortiz posted five consecutive top-5 MVP finishes. Ortiz has 317 career home runs in 13 big league seasons, but 208 were hit during those five years.

Even if you remove his slow 48-game start, Ortiz hit .264 the rest of the way, the same .264 he hit in 2008. His power numbers are still impressive, and pitchers may still respect him. But they do not fear him, not as they once did, evidenced by Jered Weaver's late-game fastball challenge in Game 2 that struck out Ortiz in a close game.

In the 14 playoff games since Ramirez left and his wrist and knees betrayed him, Ortiz is hitting .200 (9-for-45) with one home run and five RBIs. And while Ramirez's replacements, Bay and Martinez, have at times produced -- Bay hit .341 last postseason, .125 this year, Martinez .182 against the Angels -- there is no substitution for what Boston baseball enjoyed during those years.

None of this is to say that the Red Sox should have kept Ramirez or that Ortiz is finished as a productive player. Ramirez had run his course in Boston and Ortiz is still a relative 30-homer, 100-RBI threat. But the Angels exploited the end of the old Boston personality, and the reason is simple: What Ramirez and Ortiz did for those five years just doesn't happen. Those five years were a special moment in time in Boston.

Eventually, great teams fade and must subsequently reinvent themselves. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein knows this, which is why he put together what appeared to be a deep and formidable pitching staff in the offseason to help his offense. Josh Beckett and Lester are a twosome no club wants to face in a short series. The Red Sox are in that process now.

There are other examples. The Yankees of 2002 to 2008 had been trying for years to duplicate the magic of the 1996 to 2001 teams and only now, eight years later, do they seem to have created a new personality divorced from the pressures of reliving the magical years when time and chemistry made them unbeatable.

This is what happens to dynasties and dynasty-level teams. Free agency and age, decay and time robs every great team -- evidenced not only by their offensive failings but also by their weary and ineffective captain, Jason Varitek, exposed by the Yankees two weeks ago, not playing a minute in the postseason for the first time -- of their special auras. As the series wore on, it wasn't that the Red Sox couldn't win but that they would not as they once did. Time has run out.

In the end, the Red Sox lost the battle Sunday, but a generation of their fans won, for few teams have given their fans and their region such energy. The identity of the franchise has changed irrevocably and it was one of the greatest of runs, the best New England baseball has seen since World War I. The result moving forward isn't Armageddon, as it may seem, but the inevitable transition. The Red Sox will be back, of course, but it will never be the same.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston and Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant4.

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