By Bill Simmons
Page 2

After Robert Redford's character wins a grueling California senate race in "The Candidate," he mutters one of the famous last lines in movie history:

"What do we do now?"

Red Sox
Aren't we all forgetting something? The Red Sox won it all last year.

Perfect ending to a great movie. And during this 2005 Red Sox season, I found myself repeating those same five words again and again. What do we do now? What happens after a championship season that can't possibly be topped? What happens when your identity gets stripped away, when you get the chance to start from scratch? What happens after you've been released from the sports fan's version of purgatory? For the love of God, what do we do now?

This isn't just an ordinary sports hangover. Only three major professional leagues hand out trophies every year. (Note: I refuse to include the NHL anymore, not after last year's mindless lockout, and not when there's a reasonable chance that next year's playoffs could be televised exclusively on the Game Show Network or MTV2. So there.) These three leagues feature 92 teams in 38 different cities/regions, some of whom have endured title droughts of 25 years (Philly), 26 years (Seattle) and infinity years (New Orleans, Utah, San Diego, Sacramento, Buffalo). So when you're fortunate enough to witness a title season, realistically, you shouldn't complain about anything for five years (my old Five-Year Grace Period rule). When a World Series title doubles as a region-wide exorcism -- as was the case with the overdue Red Sox -- you could argue that the period doubles to 10.

At the same time, decades of heartbreak programmed Sox fans to question every decision, assume the worst and never take anything for granted … the same way you could condition a dog to flinch by repeatedly whacking him in the head. Certain realities will never change. Many Sox fans assume they know more than the current manager, that they could run the front office better than the current GM. Many Sox fans will always be afraid of the Yankees, regardless of what happened last October. And many Sox fans are conditioned to devoting their summers to a star-crossed, ultimately disappointing baseball team. With that last variable suddenly removed from our lives, it feels like winning the lottery and not having to worry about money anymore. You simply lose all perspective.

Do we long for the old days? Of course not. You can't imagine how good it feels to watch a Fox broadcast of a Yankees-Sox game without the obligatory 320 Babe Ruth references, or flip through the Globe during a losing streak without reading a generic Curse column. In my office, I framed two newspapers from last October -- one from the Herald right after Game 7 of the Yankees series, one from the Globe after the World Series sweep -- and find myself glancing at them at least once a day. I'm not even kidding. Did it really happen? It happened, right? Next Tuesday, Major League Baseball releases a 12-DVD set featuring every unedited game of the 2004 ALCS and World Series; not only is mine on order from Amazon, I'm more interested in re-watching those last eight games over any live games this month.

There's a reason for this: Quite simply, I miss last year's team.

When the Celtics won their last title in 1986, that same group battled a staggering number of injuries the following season and somehow came within two games of repeating. To this day, they remain my favorite Boston team. When the Patriots won in 2002, they fought to a deceiving 9-7 record the following season -- in a weird way, they overachieved because all seven losses were legitimate, and they could have blown another four or five -- eventually leading to a 34-4 stretch and two more titles. In each case, the team preserved its core (Bird, McHale, Parish, DJ and Ainge for the Celtics, Brady, Brown, Seymour, Vinatieri, Bruschi, Law and McGinest for the Patriots) while defending its title. And that's why I felt attached to both of those teams, incredibly so. Each team would have done anything to protect its territory … and we knew it. That's the difference between a good champion and a great one.

The Red Sox went a different route. Honestly, I would have been fine with bringing back last year's nucleus, even if that meant four more years of the Derek Lowe Face and "Who's Your Daddy?" chants. I also would have been fine with moving forward, as long as last winter's moves made sense. For instance, we gave up a Human Standing Ovation (Roberts, who wanted to play every day -- like they couldn't have found him 350-400 ABs?) for three stiffs (including a career head case who admittedly staged a dugout argument to get traded two weeks ago). We also paid $40 million for a "29-year-old" All-Star shortstop who appears to be between 34 and 37 years old (no lie). Two other free agent targets (Pavano and Beltre) turned out to be Grade-A busts on other teams, continuing the bizarre ritual of GM Theo Epstein's getting bailed out of dubious offseason moves (Contreras, Vazquez and the A-Rod/Manny/Nomar/Ordonez quagmire) because other teams squashed his plans.

Theo Epstein
More than once Theo has been bailed out of bad contracts by other teams.

Here's the point: The Red Sox tried to have it both ways. And you can't create a "Let's not dwell on past achievements, we need to build the best team possible and keep moving forward" mind-set, then give ninth, tenth, fifteenth and twentieth chances to Bellhorn, Foulke, Embree and third base coach Dale Sveum (who would have spawned a potential riot at Kenmore Square in any other season). Were we moving on from last year or clinging to last year? If we're clinging to last year, why not keep Cabrera and Roberts (two of the most beloved players from that team), and why wait until the last second to sign Pedro (only the most significant pitcher in the history of the franchise)? And if we're moving forward, how could Embree keep getting chances in close games, how could a clearly-injured Foulke keep getting thrown out to the wolves, how could Sveum keep his job when he's clearly incompetent, and how could somebody slumping as painfully as Bellhorn possibly keep playing every day?

(An actual e-mail from Vermont reader Devin Q. two weeks ago: "What about a reality-TV show titled 'I struck out Mark Bellhorn'? You gather random, unsuspecting people from the street to see if they can strike out Bellhorn from a major league mound. As a bonus, anyone who strikes him out gets $10,000 and can then attempt to better him in the field as well for added humiliation. The pilot episode would feature a 90-year-old grandmother with two artificial hips whiffing Bellhorn with 40 mph heaters, followed by Jerry Remy showing up Bellhorn in the field.")

Again, I'm not complaining … just pointing this stuff out. Only one game has upset me all season (more on that in a second). In fact, three groups of Red Sox fans emerged after The Impossible last October, and I'm firmly entrenched in Group No.1 (the easygoing group). Here's the complete list:

Group No. 1: Dutifully serving the Grace Period, secretly wondering what the hell to do when you're not allowed to get mad at your own baseball team

That's me. October 27th turned me into … I mean, I'm not even sure what happened to me. I still watch every game, only they don't feel like life-or-death anymore. I only care about beating the Yankees -- nobody else bothers me or worries me. I keep catching myself in these "Whoops, I can't think that way anymore, we won the World Series" moments, like when I noticed this week that the prospect Theo needlessly threw into the Nomar trade last summer (Matt Murton) is suddenly hitting like .845 for the Cubs. Ready to break out the Bob Lobel Memorial "Why can't we get guys like that?" bitter comment over coffee, I remembered something: Without that trade, we wouldn't have won the World Series last year.

(Just remember, we won last year. We won last year. We won last year … )

During any other year, I would have written at least five columns complaining about this particular team (and we haven't even hit the trading deadline yet). Only Damon, Ortiz and Varitek have been consistently good since April. The bullpen has been so staggeringly incompetent, I keep expecting them to sign Rudi Stein and Nuke LaLoosh for the stretch run. The manager went from "no matter what happens, we can't second-guess him" status to "has anyone ever fired the manager from a World Series champ the following season?" status in the span of four months. Two beloved players from last year's team (Pedro and Roberts) have thrived in new cities, while Boston's winter imports have been a B-minus at best. One 2004 stalwart (Embree) was waived this week, with Bellhorn joining him soon (hopefully).

Terry Francona and Curt Schilling
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Curt may have helped Terry get a job, but there are days everyone wonders how he keeps it.

Even though they're 10 games over .500 -- just like last year's group at the same point in the season -- it's impossible to imagine them competing in October without 2-3 more major moves to upgrade the bullpen and the bottom of the order. And I'm OK with that. Even thinking about a second title makes me feel ungrateful, like the Baseball Gods could say, "Get a load of this jerk!" So I'm quietly supporting them … almost like one of those upbeat Little League parents who's afraid to upset any of the kids.

Group No. 2: Claiming to serve the Grace Period but falling off the wagon every few games, and only because they can't help it

This group includes my father, who flipped out when Francona allowed Alex Cora to bat with the bases loaded against the Yankees on Sunday night -- with John Olerud wasting away on the bench -- leading to the inevitable rally-killing 5-2-3 double play. Indeed, Francona has been the ultimate challenge for grizzled Sox fans like my Dad, the ones who believed that Tito was overmatched until he improbably caught fire over the last two weeks in 2004, almost like a hot craps player who couldn't stop throwing 6s, 8s and 9s. Did that make him a good craps player or someone who's fortunate enough to enjoy one hot streak? Most evidence points toward the latter.

"I don't care if we won the World Series last year," Dad moaned afterward. "Francona has been TERRIBLE. Make sure you put that in your next Red Sox column. He's cost us at least eight games this season, and he cost us 10 last season. We won the title in spite of him."

Now …

That's coming from the same guy who was screamed, "It happened in my lifetime! It happened in my lifetime!" eight months ago and drove the "I don't care what happens, everything else is gravy" bandwagon as recently as April. Now he's practically ready to take Francona out with a BB gun from the Monster seats. And why? Because it's in his blood. You can't stop living and dying with a team just because something good happened to it. Dad toiled for too many years with this franchise -- 38 years and counting, actually. Throw in the intolerable New England weather -- which plays a bigger factor than one would think, by the way, and only because seven straight freezing, snow-ridden months immediately followed by oppressive humidity could turn anyone into a borderline serial killer -- and I can't blame him (or anyone else) for occasionally complaining about this year's team. As long as it's within reason.

(Just remember, we won last year. We won last year. We won last year … )

Group No. 3: Moving forward and treating 2005 like any other baseball season … even if it means ripping certain players and sounding as miserable as they did during any other season

I will never understand these people. For instance, how could anyone boo Foulke? How? Could you really complain that he struggled this season, or that he didn't get knee surgery in time, or that he made that innocuous Burger King joke last month about the fans? After all, this was the same guy who pitched in seven of the last eight playoff wins, throwing 12 innings and 184 pitches over an 11-day span (including 50 in a do-or-die Game 4 against the Yankees). There's no way they could have won the World Series without him. If anything, there's a decent chance his body could have given out because of those innings last October. And some fans forgot this?

Same with Schilling, the World Series hero who took a mild beating from certain media members and Sox fans for his availability and candor (with everyone careful not to openly bash him, for obvious reasons). It's always interesting how this works -- athletes like Tiger and Pete Sampras get lambasted because they never say anything interesting, and athletes like Schilling get lambasted because they won't shut up. The lesson, as always: You can't win. But driving around New England last week, listening to certain WEEI callers complain that Schilling pushed for the closer role (temporarily replacing Foulke) because he was an attention hog, or because he knew it was yet another thing that would augment his Hall of Fame resume … it was sickening, actually. I'd like to believe that most Sox fans fall into Groups 1 and 2, but there are enough Group 3s out there to make me wonder if some people back home are just destined to be unhappy.

(Just remember, we won last year. We won last year. We won last year … )

Then again, nobody sums up the 2004/2005 differences like Schilling, who heroically (and dangerously) pitched on a bum ankle last October and hasn't been the same since. His controversial transition to closer inadvertently spawned the most exciting moment of this season: No. 38 jogging in for the ninth on Thursday, trying to protect a tie game against the Yankees. Other than Opening Day, this was the hottest ticket of the year at Fenway, and only for this reason. Everyone wanted to see Schilling save the day. Everyone wanted to feel like we felt last year again. Other than Damon's Christ impersonation, Manny's weekly brainfarts and the ongoing brilliance of David Ortiz -- who has emerged into one of the more memorable clutch athletes in the history of Boston sports, but that's a whole other column -- there hasn't been much of a connection between 2005 and 2004. Different team, different season, different everything.

Curt Schilling
AP
Before you rip Schilling, just remember what happened last October.

Last Thursday night, for the first time all season, it honestly felt like we were defending the title. I happened to be sitting in Section 29 during the ninth inning, watching a gimpy Schilling emerge from the right field bullpen -- only missing fireworks and some sort of WWE-style smoke explosion -- then screaming and slamming my hands together along with everyone else. Looking back, that had to rank among the most electric regular season moments in the history of Fenway. It was like watching a sports movie. It really was.

Of course, Schilling ended up getting shellacked.

Batting first in the ninth, Sheffield kept fouling off splitters and sliders as we stood and cheered, awaiting a third strike that never came. Finally, Sheffield crushed a hanging spitter against the Monster -- SPLUNK! -- and just as we were coming to grips with Schilling's possible mortality, A-Rod obliterated another splitter over the yellow line in left-center; 8-6, Yankees. Now it was dead silent in the park -- I'm talking cemetery-level silent -- save for scattered Yankee fans whooping it up. We watched Sheffield ambling toward third base, his right arm clenched defiantly in the air. We watched the Yankees jump to the top step of their dugout, shouting out encouragement and pretending they liked A-Rod. We watched Schilling shake his head and stomp around the mound, a shell of himself. And when A-Rod touched home plate, we watched him violently slap hands with Sheffield, so loud you could actually hear the smack from 200 feet away.

"It's over," I muttered to my buddy Sully. "We officially have no bullpen. The season is over."

Normally Sully (one of my more optimistic friends) would have come up with something like, "Come on, we're still in first place" or "Come on, you can't expect Schilling to become Mo Rivera in five minutes."

Not this time.

"It's over," Sully agreed.

Were we overreacting? Absolutely. (For the record, Schilling looked fantastic two nights ago against Tampa.) But you had to be there last Thursday -- had to feel the crest of hope that coincided with Schilling's entrance, had to feel the park deflate after those two bombs. For four straight months, we had been searching for signs that this year's team resembled last year's team. We're still looking. That's the thing about miracles. They don't come around very often.

The question remains … what do we do now? Well, we hope things turn around. We hope that Manny, Schill, Timlin, Wake, Damon and Big Papi emerge as Boston's championship nucleus for the next few years, much like what the Patriots have with Brady, McGinest and everyone else. We hope for some bullpen help before the deadline. We hope to outlast the Yankees for the division crown. We hope for a little magic in October. We hope for a chance to defend The Impossible.

And if this season doesn't work out? There's always the 12-DVD set of the 2004 playoffs.

(Just remember, we won last year. We won last year. We won last year … )

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.



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