Now favorites, Red Sox radically shift baseball's culture
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Unless you're older than Eddie Joost, older than Dom DiMaggio, older than Zsa Zsa Gabor, you've never lived in a world like this.You've never lived in a world where a baseball season was about to begin and the Boston Red Sox could be described with a word millions of New Englanders were once completely unfamiliar with: Favorites.
"We have guys who are hungry every day. We don't have guys who think one World Series is good enough. Our guys here want to win 10. And that's the kind of guys you need."
-- Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis
"There's always been a fan base," says Mike Timlin, now in his sixth season in Boston. "You know that. But now that we've won a couple of times, it seems like it's exponentially multiplied."It isn't just the numbers that have changed, though. It's that now, when all these people leave the house, they don't take their torture chambers with them. "The big thing that I really get a kick out of," says Wakefield, "is, after we won in '04, I got, 'Thanks for my grandfather,' and it was for all the generations past. But when we won last year, I think that was for the future Red Sox fans. That one was for the future generations of fans who can say they were a part of two World Series, or even younger fans who can say they got to see a World Series when they were young -- instead of [chuckle] the folklore." Ah, that folklore. Does anybody out there miss that folklore? Anybody? Aw, it was mildly entertaining for the first 50 or 60 years, maybe. But it got old. And not just if you were a personal relative of Bill Buckner, either. You might think 2004 would have dispelled that folklore. But you'd be wrong. When 2005 rolled around, and that Red Sox team was tackling the business of repeating, it found itself surgically attached to the legend of the 2004 Red Sox. So it went about its business surrounded by documentary crews, authors, historians, the cast of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and every celebrity in America who even owned a Red Sox cap. Which meant mundane stuff like "pickoff drills" wasn't always the No. 1 item on the old agenda. That's one very sizable reason that this Red Sox team finds itself in such a different place from those 2005 Red Sox, even though both were theoretically trying to accomplish the same thing -- repeating. "It's not a circus here anymore," says Timlin. "There's not 150 media people here, and cameramen taking pictures because it was the first time we'd won in 86 years. Now we can just be normal. We can be a normal team and just go play." Actually, "normal" isn't the best word to describe this group now, either. The Royals are a "normal" team. The Reds are a "normal" team. The Red Sox are always going to feel like an earthquake rolling through your friendly neighborhood seismic fault. But as this Red Sox team tackles the challenge of repeating, at least it can do that within the context of a baseball story -- as opposed to the context of a profound shift in modern American culture. Those larger plot lines still hover. But this team has perfected the art of how to avoid swerving beyond the white lines of that baseball story.
|Gone but not forgotten|
|• Number of players leaving last five World Series winners*:|
|2007 Red Sox||3**|
|2005 White Sox||9|
|2004 Red Sox||8|
|* -- Played in postseason, did not appear in any games following year
** -- Played in 2007 postseason, not on 2008 spring training roster
But every team faces questions like this. And when you look at the other AL powerhouses out there -- the Yankees, the Tigers, the Indians, the Angels -- don't their flaws all seem more glaring, at least on paper, than the Red Sox's flaws?They do. And so, for the first time in about nine decades, the Boston Red Sox have positioned themselves as The Team. The clear-cut favorites. What a thing. We're not sure how much different that felt to Harry Hooper and Stuffy McInnis than it feels now to David Ortiz and Mike Lowell. But it sure feels different to those of us on the outside who are merely trying to comprehend how the planet spins. "See, that never enters my mind," Francona says, "because I don't care. I don't really think it matters, because there are so many good teams out there. I think that's where you can run into problems, by viewing yourself as The Team To Beat. You know, every day we play, I think we expect to win -- but by playing the game, not by throwing your glove out there or making a statement. Go play." Well, at least if this team doesn't win, nobody will blame it on Harry Frazee or any spooky supernatural forces in the universe. At least now, it might be possible to chalk it up to one more example of how "the best team" doesn't always win. "You never know," says Youkilis. "You saw the Patriots this year. They lost, and they had the best team. So you just never know. It's sports. It's not math. It's not algebra. There are no equations. So I know fans get all worked up and think, 'We're the best team. We're going to win it all.' And they get mad [if you don't]. But it's sports. There's no science to it." So can they repeat? Fasten your seat belt. We're about to find out. Only two franchises (1992-93 Blue Jays and 1998-1999-2000 Yankees) have done that in the last 30 years. No Red Sox team has done it since 1915-16. But this Red Sox team seems consumed by the quest to add itself to that list. "The thing about this team is, we don't just want to win one," Youkilis says with a laugh. "We want to try to catch Yogi." Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
'08 PREVIEW: STATE OF THE UNION
In this presidential election year, ESPN.com begins its preview of "Campaign 2008" with a look at baseball's incumbents, the Boston Red Sox.
• Jayson Stark: It's clearly Red Sox Nation
• Jerry Crasnick: Team campaign slogans
• Tim Kurkjian: Key dates on the campaign trail
• SportsNation: Top storylines of '08
• 2008 MLB season preview coverage