This was more than just a simple playoff victory. As this one unfolded, it was like watching a template of every painful Red Sox playoff defeat from the last 25 years: Scoring chances squandered in the early innings; an agonizing brainfart by Mark Bellhorn on the bases; a defensive lapse on a routine pop-up jumpstarting a rally for the other team; a "Just when I thought I was out ... " homer from Jason Varitek to tie things up; a go-ahead run against the invincible K-Rod just to taunt us; and then the inevitable ...
(Wait a second, the Sox aren't collapsing.)
(Um ... they're not collapsing.)
(The Sox just struck out their best three guys with three different relievers.)
(Now Boston is up 5-3.)
(Wait a second, Cabrera just cleared the bases with a double, it's 8-3.)
(Um, the game's ending, everyone's shaking hands ... )
It was like watching a movie that you've seen a hundred times, only they snuck in an alternate ending. A happier ending. Good teams seize the chance to rip out an opponent's heart "Temple of Doom" style. Good teams take care of business when it matters. Good teams slam the door in dangerous innings, grab that extra insurance run, even blow the game open if it's there. Apparently the 2004 Red Sox are a good team. This game was the litmus test. They failed in late-June during the sweep at Yankee Stadium; they failed again in late-September on Pedro's Friday start at Fenway. This time they passed.
If you're a Red Sox fan, there was a ton of stuff to love. Including ...
(Of course, when he left the game after the dramatic seventh -- when Eckstein and Figgins fouled off a combined 75 pitches -- players were hugging him and congratulating him outside of the dugout. My buddy Hench thought that the players were trying to make it clear to Francona that Pedro was done for the night, leading to a series of "Just to be safe, Ortiz and Millar are stripping off Pedro's clothes in the dugout" and "They're sneaking him out of the stadium in a cab before Francona reconsiders" jokes. All warranted, obviously.)
See, here's the thing: Good teams take care of business in unruly settings -- in this case, a sold-out stadium in Orange County where Kool-Aid drinkers dutifully bang plastic bats together to make noise whenever they're prompted by the scoreboard.
It's like the sports version of a cult. David Eckstein is coming up ... you will bang the Thunder Stix for him until his at-bat is over ... at the end of the inning, you will give $20 to the usher that comes around, and you will not ask any questions. Geez, what's going on with them? This is like the Tomahawk Chop crossed with "Night of the Living Dead." If the Anaheim scoreboard ever flashed, "If there's a Red Sox fan in your section, kill them immediately," we would have all been dead.
The more I'm thinking about it, they're like the Stepford Wives of baseball fans: Everyone wearing red, everyone banging those Stix, nobody actually knowing anything about ins and outs of the game. They would chant "Pedro sucks! Pedro sucks!", but at odd times, like when there were 2 outs in the inning and he had just struck someone out. They would stand and cheer when the scoreboard told them, but they wouldn't stand with two outs at the end of the inning when Colon had two strikes on someone. It was like watching a bunch of foreigners. There was almost something cute about them, like they made you want to say, "Ohhhhhh," like watching a dog wag their tail when they get a treat.
The classic Anaheim fan story: My buddy Hench and I were walking into the game and doing the "Let's go Sox!" routine every time we walked by someone wearing a Sox hat or jersey. I mentioned how there were a surprising number of Sox fans walking around, followed by Hench joking that the number of Angels fans at Friday's game at Fenway would be either zero or zero. So some Stepford fan turns around and sneers, "You gotta get there first!"
Um ... what?
"You gotta get there first!"
Apparently the chip in his skull was malfunctioning.
"We're up 1-0 in a five-game series," Hench said. "I'm pretty sure we're making it to Game 3."
Then the Stepford fan came back with some "You guys have been losers for 90 years" and "19*8!" stuff. About 20 seconds too late. I think they immediately returned him to the factory for repairs.
At least it was a livelier atmosphere -- it felt like a playoff game last night. The Anaheim fans were fiesty enough that I found myself searching around our section for Sox fans, just to see who had our backs in case anything happened. It's almost like being in prison -- you're not sure what might happen, so you want to make sure who's on your side just in case there's a riot during lunch. Throw in the inherent drama of the game -- four hours, something happening every inning -- and Hench and I were luggage leaving the stadium. Happy luggage, but luggage.
Over the years, I learned never to overeact after one game, especially during the playoffs, when the swings from day to day are so debilitating. But you learn a lot about your team during a game like that, much like Yankee fans learned about their team during the grueling 12-inning job last night. You can look fantastic on paper. You can have the longest winning streak on the planet. But until you prevail in a must-win situation for the other team, in a game that you could have easily lost, on the road ... that's when you know for sure.
For me, the scars from last October fully healed last night. It's just a different team. I'm not expecting the other shoe to drop anymore. Some Sox fans reached this point sooner than me, some fans still aren't there. But it's a nice feeling. Even if the manager still scares the hell out of me.
Two more things:
1. There's been a running debate between Sox fans about "Would it be tainted at all if you went to the World Series without going through the Yankees?" People seem pretty split. And I can see both sides. For instance, the '86 Celtics were the best team of the Bird Era, and I always felt cheated that they didn't go through Magic and the Lakers (who they would have swept that year). At the same time, I don't care if the Sox beat the Expos in the World Series with Frank Robinson playing first base. I just want to win one. I'm not looking for a degree of difficulty here.
2. One of my ESPN bosses pulled the "This is the year" routine with me on the phone this morning, then asked what would happen to me (and every Red Sox fan) if we won the World Series. You know, the whole "Wouldn't you lose your identity?" thing. I've gotten this from time to time over the years, and I always thought it was so ludicrous that it didn't even warrant its own column. But since people keep bringing it up, I'll explain it to you once and for all:
Red Sox fans don't define themselves by the fact that the team hasn't won the World Series since World War I. We're defined by the fact that the team hasn't won the World Series since World War I. There's a difference. We hate hearing about the (rhymes with "schmurse"), we bristle at every "19*8" reference ... we just want to reach a point where nobody brings this stuff up anymore. It amazes me how many people don't understand that. All we ever wanted was to be "Just Another Team That Won the World Series Recently."
Nine wins to go. And that's that.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.