Baseball teams don’t write their own stories. Writers write stories. Baseball teams compete, struggle, win some, lose some, swear, laugh, argue, and at the end of the season, one is left standing — the bloodied champion. It is a seven-month, soul-sucking grind.
But if the Bard himself had taken up a pen to write a story with the themes of redemption and forgiveness, of fate and the power of love, he could not have done a better job than to chronicle the 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox, a band of funny-looking bearded hillbillies with an indomitable, emotional leader, who took a city with a broken heart and made it whole again.
Context is everything. This was a team that had little expected of it, coming off a 2012 season that was a disaster: 69-93, last place, the first losing season since 1997, and the worst team record in 47 years. That followed a 2011 season that was, in its own way, even more disappointing. A 7-20 collapse in September that knocked the Sox out of first, and, significantly, revelations that three star pitchers — John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Josh Beckett — were so little invested in the team emotionally that they would drink beer and eat chicken in the clubhouse on days they weren’t scheduled to pitch.
The off-season additions that general manager Ben Cherington made were “character guys” and role players — not superstars — all in their 30s, all, apparently, in the comfortable twilight of their careers. Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli were the two best of the lot, but these were a pair who could help a last place team to respectability, not glory. Other newcomers included 32-year-old Jonny Gomes, he of the .244 career average; 30-year-old shortstop Stephen Drew, a backup the last two seasons; 36-year-old backup catcher David Ross, a lifetime .237 hitter; and 38-year-old reliever Koji Uehara, who had a grand total of 14 saves in his career and, in his one playoff appearance with the Texas Rangers in 2011, gave up three runs without getting an out. That would be an ERA of infinity.
True, the Sox did have Hall-of-Fame bound David Ortiz returning, but Big Papi was 37 and coming off an injury-plagued season. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were proven stars, if they could stay healthy. New manager John Farrell, who was pitching coach for the Sox during the 2007 World Series win, was respected and well-liked by the staff. A classy guy, a good man. But his Toronto teams the last two years had done nothing. This was hardly the wholesale makeover that seemed to be needed for a team to go from worst to first.
Even when the Sox got off to a rocket start — they were 20-8 on May 2 — it was difficult to take them seriously. The beards looked so silly: some players looked like Amish farmers carrying bats, some like teenagers trying to look 21. When they finally fell out of first place at the end of July, we thought…here it comes. Reality. Fun while it lasted.
But this team was different. This team genuinely liked and supported one another. This team really was unified. And the beards were part of it. They looked ridiculous, but they looked ridiculous together. It was the opposite of the Roger Clemens’ teams of 25 players, 25 cabs. So in August it was the Sox that kept winning, and Tampa Bay who fell back. When a September collapse never came, the sins of the past were forgiven — utterly, irrevocably. This unlikely bunch was our unlikely bunch. They finished with 97 wins, tied for the best record in baseball. And we loved them.
But it was in the postseason that individual players found redemption, with performances that, eventually, will define their careers. Jon Lester, long touted as the ace of the Red Sox staff, finally lived up to the billing: 4-1, 1.56 ERA, his only loss a 1-0 gem against the Tigers. He was 2-0 in the World Series, with overpowering stuff. Bob Gibson-like. John Lackey, he of the five-year $82.5 million contract long viewed as one of the worst in team history, suddenly, inexplicably, became the Lackey of old. After missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery and posting a dismal 10-13 record during the regular season, Lackey found his groove. He was 3-1 in the postseason, bested Detroit ace Justin Verlander 1-0 in the critical Game 3 of the ALCS, pitched a gutsy scoreless 8th inning of relief in Game 4 of the World Series, then clinched the Series with a 6-1 win in the finale, giving up nine hits in 6 2/3 innings, but never giving in. It was more will than skill, and Boston’s fans recognized the man’s competitive fire, awarding him a standing ovation when he left the mound in the 7th, receiving a tip of the hat in return.
Offensively, it was a different bearded, slumping hero every night. Victorino…Napoli…Gomes…Ross. Pick your favorite. Everyone struggled. Everyone contributed. Everyone prevailed.
And through it all was the guiding presence of Big Papi, the genial giant, who in April had unforgettably voiced the people’s thoughts when he took the microphone the week of the Marathon bombing and said: “This is our [expletive] city!” and played all season like he meant it. It was Big Papi delivering the big World Series hits, giving the pep talks, running the bases, and even playing in the field, a presence so forceful that the opposing catcher and home plate umpire were overheard admiring his play during the sixth and deciding game. He was bigger than life.
And it was Papi who completed the circle — a writer’s device, the Bard would have been proud — by accepting World Series MVP Trophy and hoisting it over his head. “This is for you, Boston,” he said. Then: “This is our bleeping city.” He really said “bleeping” this time.
It’s certainly his bleeping city. It always will be. Just as 2013 will always be the summer an unlikely band of bearded retreads filled the hole in this city’s heart.
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- Whither Public Scrutiny: Menino’s Sweetheart Deal With The Red Sox Is Shameful
- Complete coverage of the World Series from WBUR