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Cowboy Up-rising

4/6/2004 - Boston Red Sox

Can we even comprehend what life might be like if the Red Sox ever won the World Series?

Would it put an end to curses around the planet? Bambino? Billy Goat? Sports Illustrated? Indian Burial Ground? How 'bout the Sylvester Stallone Oscar Curse?

Would the monuments in Yankee Stadium all be persuaded by Boss Steinbrenner to come to life -- and volunteer to play for the Yankees next year, for the minimum?

Would millions of Bostonians be consumed by so much euphoria, they would grab a shovel and volunteer to finish The Big Dig by hand?

Hey, who knows? If the Red Sox ever win the World Series, it's all possible. Anything.

Roseanne Barr winning the Boston Marathon. Weird Al Yankovic conducting the Boston Pops. Anything.

"I can't even imagine what would happen," says Red Sox first baseman David Ortiz. "I just don't want to be in the city when it happens. I'd be too afraid. If we win the World Series on the road, I'm flying straight from the World Series to the Dominican."

What? And miss the parade?

"I'd just say, 'Send me the tape,' " Ortiz laughs.

Ah, but some tape it would be. If the Red Sox ever win the World Series, imagine that parade. Think about piling the Rose Bowl parade, the Macy's parade and the Disney World New Year's Parade into one big stampede down Boylston Street.

Then triple it.

But the hoopla wouldn't end there.

"It would be nonstop for the whole year," says center fielder Johnny Damon. "The merchandise would be flying off the shelves. I think the whole country is waiting for the Red Sox to win the World Series."

Well, that would be the whole country, minus certain pockets of the New York metropolitan area. But our message to the portion of America that doesn't include those pockets is this:

Clear your calendar for Halloween week, because this is The Year.

The Boston Red Sox are going to win the World Series. Really.

This year, Aaron Boone won't homer. Keith Foulke will let Pedro call it a night after the seventh. Bucky Dent will swing and miss. Bill Buckner will take himself out for defense. Whatever can go wrong, won't go wrong. This is The Year.

"The Red Sox," says one American League GM, "are the best team in baseball."

They might have been last year, too, by the way. Even the Yankees were terrified of them last October. For good reason. There were even people inside the Yankees organization who thought the Red Sox were the better team.

But just as in all those other years, the Red Sox had That Fatal Flaw. And just as in all those other years, it showed up. Because it always shows up.

"I don't know how to explain it," says Johnny Pesky, a man who has been playing, coaching and working for the Red Sox for most of the last 60 years. "We win a lot during the season. And then something always happens."

Yeah, we've noticed that. But not this year. Because this year, there is no fatal flaw.

Go ahead. Try to find one. Good luck.

IT ISN'T OFFENSE -- The Red Sox scored more runs last year (961) than any Red Sox team since 1950. They slashed more extra-base hits (649) than any team in history. Of the nine regulars, eight had at least 30 doubles. If they'd gapped three more doubles as a team, they'd have broken the all-time record for doubles in a season.

But maybe their greatest feat was that they just missed scoring more runs by the All-Star break (573) than the Dodgers did all season (574). And this year, that Boston lineup has everyone back except second baseman Todd Walker.

Not that there aren't chinks. One NL GM says: "They sure had a lot of guys who had career years." And while Nomar Garciaparra's Achilles injury might seem like their biggest health worry, one AL manager says: "The guy they're going to miss is Trot Nixon (out till May with back problems). He's a tough, tough out late in games."

But is this still a team that can score enough runs to win? Heck, yeah.

If they score 100 fewer runs than last year, that would still be more than five of the eight playoff teams scored last season. And even if they score 200 fewer, that would still be more than the team that won the World Series (which would be Florida, if that had slipped your memory). So offense will not be the problem.

IT ISN'T THE ROTATION -- Do 1-2-3 combos at the top of rotations get any better, or more charismatic, than Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe?

Among current AL starters, Pedro and Schilling rank first and second over the last five years in most strikeouts per nine innings and fewest baserunners per nine innings. Since Nolan Ryan retired, just two right-handed pitchers have struck out 300 hitters in a season. They happen to be Schilling and Martinez.

Meanwhile, over the last two years, the only pitcher in baseball with more wins than Lowe (38) is Roy Halladay (41). And over those same two years, since Lowe became a starter, he, Pedro and Schilling have gone a combined 103-39, which computes to a ridiculous .725 winning percentage. The only current threesome even close is the Zito-Hudson-Mulder trio in Oakland (102-51, .667).

"On days 1-2-3, they're as good as any club in the game," says one GM.

Then comes Tim Wakefield, who is more than just a professional No. 4 starter. His flutterballs are the perfect counterpoint to the relentless power of the Big Three.

Yeah, Martinez had a worrisome, low-octane spring. But Lowe (1.78 ERA) was one of the most impressive pitchers in Florida. And Schilling looks so sharp, says one scout, he can "throw any pitch he wants. Change. Split. Two-seamer. Four-seamer. Curve. Slider. Doesn't matter what he throws. He's `strike one' all the time."

So starting pitching won't be the problem, either. In fact, it's the best reason to think this team will be able to dominate anyone in its path in October.

IT ISN'T THE BULLPEN -- Foulke (12.14 ERA) "hasn't thrown well all spring," says one GM. But no one in Boston sounds worried (yet) -- possibly because he is one of the most consistent, dependable bullpen forces alive.

How many active relievers have pitched in at least 60 games and kept their ERAs below 3.00 for the last five years in a row? Exactly one -- Keith Foulke. No other current AL reliever has an active streak longer than two years.

So if Foulke can just do what he always does, it puts all those other bullpen pieces in place, the way they almost never were last year: Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson and Alan Embree look fine setting up. In the ninth inning last year, they didn't look so fine.

It's true, those are three of the same names who helped this team roll up the third-worst bullpen ERA in baseball last season. But manager Terry Francona's theory is: "When you put a guy like Foulke in the back of the bullpen, I think it makes that whole group better, just the way Schilling will make Pedro better."

How much better? Maybe not to level of the most recent AL East standard for excellence -- Rivera-Stanton-Nelson-Mendoza. But the makings are there for a perfectly adequate bullpen -- one that certainly looks no worse, in theory, than the Ugueth Urbina-Braden Looper-Chad Fox group that rode a parade float in Miami last October.

IT ISN'T THE DEFENSE -- OK, so when they slip their gloves on, they're not the Twins. They're not the Mariners. And they're not the Phillies. If the Red Sox win the World Series, it won't be because they lead the league in leather craftsmanship.

But assuming Garciaparra and Nixon get healthy eventually, their defense won't be the Bad News Bosox, either.

"I think they compare (favorably) with the Yankees," says one scout. "Yeah, they've got some holes -- but not up the middle, they don't."

Once Pokey Reese ("best bargain in baseball," says one AL executive) moves from short back to second after Garciaparra's return, this might be the most athletic DP combination in the AL East. Jason Varitek is a pro's pro behind the plate. Damon has always been dependable in center. So there's not a thing wrong with this foursome.

It isn't always pretty at first base, in Manny Ramirez's left-field neighborhood or, potentially, in a Nixon-free zone in right. But considering all the strikeouts this staff will generate, they don't need to be the All-Web Gem team, anyhow.

IT ISN'T THE CHEMISTRY -- We're constantly amazed at the perception that the Red Sox clubhouse is about as harmonious as the Ozzie Osbourne household. That's just flat wrong.

So Garciaparra wasn't happy he was almost A-Rodded out of town. So Ramirez almost got sentenced to five years in Texas. So Martinez sometimes gets a little finicky. So what?

"All I know," Damon says, "is that this group enjoys playing with each other."

Whatever anger boils inside Garciaparra, "he plays the game right," Francona says. Whatever Ramirez thinks of all the strange stuff that revolves around him, "I just know Manny's comfort zone is on the field," Francona says.

And whatever issues arise on a team with this many strong personalities, the other big myth about this group is that Francona won't be able to handle them. If anything, his ability to deal with people is his biggest strength as a manager.

"I don't want to say I can do this or that," he says. "But I'm confident that if something comes up and you need to handle people differently, I can do that. If you just treat people right and explain things, I don't think there will be a lot of problems."

IT WON'T BE THE CURSE -- It would be easy to think the men on this team would feel haunted by what happened to them last year in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.

But if anything, they're driven by what happened to them.

"Most memorable night of my whole career," Damon says now. "We knew we were that close to getting to the World Series. And we knew we had our best pitcher on the mound. And we still knew it wouldn't be easy. ...

"I don't think you can ever get over something like that. That stays with you. I'm going into my 10th year, and I'm hoping that's not my only chance to get to the World Series. But I don't just want to get there. I want to win it. Some guys never get a chance to experience that. And we're not getting any younger as a team. With all the potential free agents we have here, now is the time to do it."

Their list of potential free agents says he's right: Varitek, Garciaparra, Martinez and Lowe head that list. And that's just more fuel for their furnace. But remember this: The furnace would be blazing even without that tidal wave of win-now urgency.

"This club has a lot of meetings in spring training," Ortiz says. "And I still remember one thing that Jason Varitek and Nomar said in the first meeting after I came over here. They said, `Guys, if we win, this city is never gonna forget about you.' They said that on the first day of spring training. And I believe it."

But to get to that place, they are going to have to find a way to topple the two-ton, $183-million gorilla that's always standing in their way -- the Yankees. The beast is more formidable than ever now. But this is also the thinnest Yankees pitching staff in 10 years. And the Red Sox are just the team to exploit that smidgeon of vulnerability.

"The Yankees will always be a presence to the Red Sox," Damon says. "Even if we do go out and win the World Series, you know they'll be right there next year -- with a $300-million payroll. ...

"But you know what? I wouldn't want to play for any other team. We have a chance to win here. And even if we don't, it's been the experience of my lifetime. It's something I'll always remember. There's something about that feeling of being the underdog -- and knowing you could overcome history every year."

But now, Their Year is here. They can score. They can pitch. They can get those last five outs. And they can do more than overcome history. They can make some of their own. They see the prize in the distance. They have even written the script in their heads.

"Here's my script," Damon chuckles. "Winning the World Series -- in four. I want it to be easy, man -- because this Game 7 stuff is killing us."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.