There is a wonderfully odd moment during Bill Forsyth’s marvelous 1983 film Local Hero in which two elderly gents, sockless drunk at a town céilidh, discuss the proposition made by an American oil company to buy their town for lunatic money that would make them all wealthy. One of them ruefully suggests that the prospect has not made him feel any different.
“You’ll have to buck up, then,” his friend replies. “You’re going to have to face the prospect that … you’re stinkin’ rich.”
Back in 2004, when winning the World Series was neither this easy nor this commonplace, one of the popular fictions in Boston was that the act of doing so would turn out to be so unpleasant and anticlimactic that, deprived of their ability to marinate in their own misery, the great majority of Red Sox fans would find the whole business distasteful and long for the days when karma played first base on busted ankles and slow rollers got past it and rolled into history. I am not kidding about this. Sad people without lives pondered quite seriously the notion of whether or not they would miss the 86 years they spent as the pre-eminent drama queens of American sport. My reply was always that we should let the team win one and then see how we all feel. Now that the Triple A-plus Colorado Rockies and all their personal lords and saviors have been dismissed, I have to admit that it feels awfully good to be stinkin’ rich.
They have won it twice now in the newest millennium. They have done it by salting a veteran roster with brilliant homegrown young talent, especially on the mound, but also among their position players. Manager Terry Francona—who perhaps finally has earned a 20-minute respite from the yowling twits who call radio talk shows—made the pivotal move late in the American League Championship Series when he lifted struggling center fielder Coco Crisp, acquired as a free agent from Cleveland, in favor of homegrown phenom Jacoby Ellsbury, who responded by hitting .360 in the postseason and .438 in the World Series. More to the point, he energized the entire Boston lineup with his speed and enthusiasm on the basepaths. His last big moment came on the next-to-last out of the series, when Colorado’s Jamey Carroll took closer Jonathan Papelbon all the way to the left-field wall before Ellsbury ran down the ball.
The switch to Ellsbury was a demonstration of Francona’s confidence in the younger products of the Boston farm system and, as such, was of a piece with a move he declined to make early in the season. Rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia was struggling over the first couple of months, but Francona refused to bench him, preferring instead to let Pedroia play himself out of his slump. Over the final four months of 2007, there was no position player more valuable to the Red Sox than Pedroia, who played his position like a 10-year veteran and who every time to the plate swung the bat like someone out of Beowulf. For his part, Francona demonstrated that patience can be the most important skill that a manager can have, even if it doesn’t provide Bob on a Car Phone with a loud enough dumbshow to forget what his boss had called him earlier that day.
However, it was on the mound where Boston’s future arrived with a vengeance. Jon Lester, a 23-year-old only one year removed from cancer treatments, stood the Rockies on their ears for nearly six innings, carving out important strikes whenever he needed them, mostly with down-running sliders and inside fastballs. He twice made talented Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki look monosyllabic with the slider. He was followed by Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima, the latter of whom made the two games in Colorado interesting by surrendering late home runs. On Saturday night, Boston simply ran off another rally to win the game. On Sunday, they brought out Papelbon, and that fearsome goofball ended the game by blowing away pinch hitter Seth Smith with some high heat, and by demonstrating some impressive upper-body strength by hoisting the fully armored Jason Varitek off the ground.
(Note to Papelbon: Baseball etiquette requires that the catcher lift the pitcher in such situations.)
It can be argued that the construction of the current Red Sox by general manager Theo Epstein and his brain trust represents an odd combination of identifying young talent and a certain maladroit bungling in evaluating veteran major leaguers. His playoff performance notwithstanding, J.D. Drew is still a $70 million lemon, and Crisp’s time in center field likely has been Ellsburyed out of existence. Ever since shuffling Orlando Cabrera out of town after he’d played brilliantly in the 2004 postseason, Epstein and the front office haven’t been able to settle on a shortstop. Edgar Renteria hated Boston, and Alex Gonzalez didn’t hit enough, and so they overpaid for Julio Lugo, who seems basically a stopgap. Now, they’re going to have to make some serious calls on the veteran core of the team. Curt Schilling is likely gone, and they’re almost at the end of the whopping deal made with Manny Ramirez, whom Epstein would have sold for a bag of beans three years ago. The most important decision is at third base. World Series MVP Mike Lowell, who arrived in Boston as a throw-in on the deal that brought Beckett from Florida, has moved into free agency. He is even more popular inside the clubhouse than he is outside of it. If the Red Sox shuffle him out of town—and worse, if they shuffle him out of town in favor of trying the bring in the Antichrist from the New York Yankees—the good feeling of the 2007 championship is going to dissipate very quickly.
Ultimately, though, it’s the talent nurtured and developed by the organization that belies the latest trope—that the Red Sox have suddenly become the Yankees. Leaving aside the fact that they are not owned by a crazy person, if they were the Yankees, they’d have peddled Lester or Delcarmen or Papelbon years ago for some superannuated right-handed slugger who’d help them win five games in September or knock the Mets off the back pages of the tabloids. The Red Sox heart is now a homegrown one. That this also makes them wealthy enough to hire some better help is part of the fun. Besides, what do you want from us? The NFL team up here is so good, it’s boring.