Shop for Boston Bruins Gear at Fanatics.com

Happy New Year, Finally!

About a week ago, I was suddenly regretting the thought that 2004 was coming to an end; after all, that was the year for long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans and perhaps I was reluctant to let go so soon after enjoying everything that went the excitement of a World Series championship. From the first day of spring training right, through the trials and tribulations of the regular season and an even wilder post-season, and culminating with the awakening of my 18-month-old son to have him in front of the television when Foulke softly tossed the ball to Mientkiewicz at first, it was almost too difficult to detach myself from the emotions that I felt.

2004 will be a year that no one who was a fan of the Red Sox will soon forget. 2004 was the year that a prodigal son returned to the fold and joined the ace-in-residence to provide a one-two punch that few teams could match. 2004 was the year when Jason Varitek and his teammates collectively shoved their mitts in the face of the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on a warm July afternoon and sent a message that the season would not end that day. 2004 was the year that a young general manager took the biggest gamble of his brief career and traded the Franchise. 2004 was the year that it wasn’t over until Big Papi took one last cut. 2004 was the year that a bloody sock characterized what this “team of idiots” was willing to do to end the years of frustration. 2004 was the year that it was someone else’s turn to choke at the worst possible moment. 2004 was the year that, finally, was the year.

However, perhaps there is much to look forward to with the dawn of 2005. For the first time in our lives as Red Sox fans (making the assumption that none of you reading this truly remember the last time it happened), we will watch our team play a season as defending world champions. For the first time, we won’t be wondering if this will finally be the year but if our team can repeat the feat. For the first time, perennial doubt has been replaced with renewed excitement and we can walk around with our chests held out a little further and our heads held up a little higher.

Am I aware that the other teams in the league will now approach their games against us with the intent of knocking us down from our lofty perch? Am I worried that Pedro Martinez has flown the coop after seven seasons in Boston to nest in the confines of the Mets organization next season? Do I dread the knowledge that Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano will be wearing pinstripes next season, as might Carlos Beltran, and that the Yankees will be looking to administer some payback for what happened in the American League Championship Series? My only response to these and other questions like those is that, if these are the dilemmas that come with being crowned as world champions, it’s good to be the king!

There is no promise that this season will be anything like last season; it would be next to impossible to recapture the essence of that run a year ago. Nevertheless, I look forward to another exciting season of Red Sox baseball as I have every spring since I can remember. Varitek will be back behind the plate as captain of the team and no one will need to see a “C” sewn on his jersey to understand that. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez will be back with their bats to provide that awesome one-two punch at the plate. Curt Schilling will be back on the mound every fifth day to expend every ounce of energy available to keep opposing teams frustrated at the plate. Johnny Damon will be back leading the charge in center field and in the lead-off spot. Terry Francona will be back in the dugout and Theo Epstein will be back in the front office, doing everything they can to assemble and develop another championship team.

Best of all, on the second Monday of April, just a little before three in the afternoon, no matter what happens the rest of this season, a championship banner will be raised high above Fenway Park for everyone to see. The fact that the rival New York Yankees, no matter how many guns have been hired, will get a front-row seat to the festivities only makes it that much sweeter. With no more talk of curses, 1918, the Bambino, or any other ghosts of the past 86 years that always seemed to stand by, waiting for the most inopportune moment, it’s truly going to be a happy new year.

2004 World Series Preview

Well, so far I’m six-for-six in calling these match-ups, but then you won’t see me jetting off to Vegas anytime soon to test my abilities in the World Series of Poker. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the original World Series of baseball where each team needed all seven games of their respective championship series to win the pennants of the American and National Leagues. Now before us, to the excitement of baseball buffs everywhere, are two teams who have met twice before in the battle for the title, once in 1946 and once in 1967. In both instances, St. Louis and Boston went to a deciding Game 7 and the Cardinals won over the Red Sox each time. While the days of Enos Slaughter, Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, and Carl Yastrzemski are long gone, there is no doubt that we have the makings of another Fall Classic.

St. Louis (105-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: No games played

The Red Sox, facing the possibility of getting swept in the American League Championship Series by New York, were down to their last three outs when they rallied to tie the game. From there, they went on to win the final four games, including the last two in front of a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, to clinch the AL pennant for the first time in 18 years. Meanwhile, the Cardinals returned from Houston down 3-2 in the National League Championship Series with the Astros and needed to win both games; they did just that, winning with a walk-off home run by Jim Edmonds in Game 6 and coming back late in Game 7 against Roger Clemens to clinch their first NL pennant in 17 years. On paper, these two teams look evenly matched, so who has the advantage over whom?

For Boston, they have a stronger starting rotation, even with Curt Schilling and his tender tendon that was held in place by two stitches so that he could pitch the Sox to victory in Game 6. The other pitcher of the moment for Boston is Derek Lowe, who pitched brilliantly in the deciding seventh game and, even with a seven-run cushion, allowed just one run on one hit in six innings of work. Of course, there is the arm of Pedro Martinez, who was strong in his two starts as well. Opposing them will be a strong rotation in itself, with Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Woody Williams looking to stifle the Sox. Suppan delivered a clutch performance in the deciding game of the NLCS, out-dueling Clemens and a hungry Astros lineup. Williams is expect to start the first game and has great command, having earned a win in his first start of that series and going seven innings in his second start, allowing just one hit and no runs. Marquis and Morris both won 15 games this season on a staff that, like Boston, had five pitchers win ten or more starts but have struggled slightly in the post-season.

The bullpen match-up is also interesting; Boston has Keith Foulke as its closer, who appeared five times in the ALCS and earned a save in Game 6. His best work came in Game 4 when, with just one out in the seventh and Boston down by a run, he was asked to try and keep New York off the board; he responded by walking just two batters while not allowing a single hit in 2-2/3 innings to set up the late-inning dramatics for the Red Sox. St. Louis counters with Jason Isringhausen, who led the NL in saves with 47; he pitched six times in the NLCS and earned three saves. While he did blow a save, it was when he was asked to get the final nine outs of the ball game but only managed to get the first eight. He also had one loss, but that was on the road in extra frames with the score knotted at zero. The rest of the bullpen is evenly matched and both were key in helping get to this point of the season.

On offense, the Red Sox boasts a strong infield that committed just one error in the ALCS. Bill Mueller gobbles up balls hit anywhere close to him at third base, as does former Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera at short. Late in the game, Boston brings Pokey Reese in at second and Doug Mientkiewicz in at first, giving them three Gold Glove winners in the infield to back up Foulke and the rest of the bullpen. In the outfield, Johnny Damon patrols center field and, while his arm is a little weak, he gets to the ball fast. For the Cardinals, the human highlight reel in center field, Edmonds, who has made enough impressive catches in his career that would make fishermen jealous, leads them on offense. They also have Edgar Renteria playing short and Scott Rolen at third; together, they allowed just 24 errors in the regular season, making it unlikely that a mistake will come from the left side of the infield.

The lineup on either side of the field boasts some heavy hitters. Boston has the dynamic duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez did not drive in a single run in the ALCS but scored three runs and batted .300; Ortiz, on the other hand, was the offense for Boston late in the series, batting .387 with 11 RBI and collecting game-winning hits in Games 4 and 5, good enough for series MVP honors. He also led off the deciding game with a two-run home run and Boston never trailed in that game. Jason Varitek was also money against the Yankees, collecting seven RBI while batting .321, and Damon awoke from his ALCS slumber in Game 7 to plate a record six runs. For St. Louis, they are led by Albert Pujols, the NLCS MVP, who stroked four home runs, drove in nine, and batted .500. They also have Edmonds, Rolen, and Larry Walker launching baseballs into the stratosphere; Edmonds stroked a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 and Rolen stroked a long ball to finish a rally by the Cardinals late in Game 7.

If there is one X-factor to watch in this series, it will be what Boston will do with Ortiz, the everyday designated hitter, when they travel to St. Louis and must play by National League rules. Ortiz did start 31 games at first base this season, so it’s almost certain that he’ll be there for the middle three games at a minimum; his bat is so hot right now that to remove him might psychologically deflate the potent offense. That also means that Kevin Millar will likely sit on the bench and only appear late to pinch-hit for a pitcher, but Francona may give Trot Nixon a rest in one game and let the Millar adventure to right field. If Ortiz can shake the rust, then there shouldn’t be much of a letdown.

Again, this has all the makings of a classic; Boston fans feel strongly that their time has finally come after 86 years of failure. St. Louis fans, though not quite as rabid, are just as loyal and would love to see the Cardinals bring home a championship trophy for the first time in 22 years. It’s almost too close to call, but Boston gets the edge in my book for two reasons. At the moment, they have a stronger pitching staff that proved in the final four games of the ALCS that they are ready to do whatever is called upon them to accomplish; the Yankee lineup was no less strong than what the Cardinals will throw at them. Second, in contrast, Boston has the potential to light up any rotation and have shown the ability this post-season to rally late against an even stronger closer, Mariano Rivera, who blew two consecutive saves for the first time in his experienced post-season career. This series will more than likely go the full seven games but, in the end, New England fans will get a second chance this year to watch a championship parade wind through downtown Boston.

Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus

Sitting in a hotel bar in Dallas for the third straight night along with several colleagues from work, having made sure to sit on the exact same barstool each night while twirling my cell phone on the marble countertop, it was with much satisfaction that I watched Ruben Sierra hit a ground ball right to second baseman Pokey Reese, who simply scooped up the ball and threw with ease to Doug Mientkiewicz, completing a unbelievable comeback and igniting a celebration in that bar that probably woke up people on the eleventh floor of the hotel next door. All at once, the compounded weight of disappointments from the past seemed to lift off the collective shoulders of Red Sox fans from coast to coast and around the world; though the final ascent to the peak must still be made, a tricky, winding mountain passage was finally completed that many before them had tried to pass, only to be turned back at the end.

As had been the case so many times in years gone by, it had not been easy despite the bold predictions of those who knew better. What had seemed certain to the legion of fanatical followers almost turned out, on a cool Sunday October evening in Boston with just three outs to go, not to be, but the gods of baseball decided that long-suffering fans had endured enough heartache. The tables suddenly turned and what appear impossible became possible; a team that nearly had the plug pulled suddenly began to breath on its own and shocked those pundits who thought they had watched the same drama unfold many times over. Suddenly, the naysayers became believers and the faith of a nation was revived, spreading throughout the land like wildfire.

Admittedly, I am only old enough to recall the disappointment of another comeback that spelled doom for the Boston nine. The 1986 Red Sox were up two runs and within one out of staking claim on a championship in the sixth game of that World Series, but that final out never came and millions of bottles of champagne that had been opened went flat as the shock was too much to overcome. Before that, there was the collapse of 1978, which ended with a one-game playoff being decided by a light-hitting Yankees shortstop who hit only 40 home runs in 12 major league seasons. That was preceded by seven-game losses in 1975 at the hands of the mighty Red Machine, in 1967 thanks to three complete-game victories from Bob Gibson, and in 1946 thanks to Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first to score the deciding run in the final game.

There are very few still alive who can actually recall the six-game series in 1918 when Babe Ruth led the last Red Sox team to win a championship over the National League. Since then, the team that he was sold to racked up 26 world championships and went through Boston more than once to accomplish that feat. As Yogi Berra told the young Yankee ballplayers before last season’s league championship series with the Red Sox, somehow New York always found a way to come out on top of Boston when it mattered most. True to his word, in the deciding game of that series, the mystique of the Yankee dynasty prevailed as the destiny of the Red Sox took a turn for the worse again and the Boston faithful watched victory get snatched away by the jaws of defeat.

However, that was just simply not to be this year; even the ghosts of Aaron Boone and Bucky Dent, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the deciding game in the series, were not enough to deflate the spirit of a franchise that felt so strongly that this was the year. The self-proclaimed band of idiots decided at the beginning of this season that there would not be any chance of a New York ticket-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes between the Battery and City Hall and, this time, they collected on that wager. Even with their backs against the Green Monster, the collective spirit of the Boston nine rose above the noise and confusion and delivered themselves into the annals of Red Sox folklore as the team that finally brought down a mighty empire, not just in a regular season battle, but when the money was on the line and another loss meant a dour end to another long season. In the grand scheme of things, New York still owns Boston in the record books but, as of this moment, the Red Sox own the Yankees on the playing field. While this season will not be complete unless a championship parade winds through the cheering streets of Boston in November, for once mighty Casey struck out and those loveable losers of Yawkey Way delivered the deciding pitch.