A collection of family holiday cards hanging in the bathroom of a Belmont, MA house tell the story perfectly….
2004: “THE YEAR” (family members pictured with Red Sox hats, logo’s, and color schemes brightly painting the 8x11 card).
2007: “2007 Peace” (family members pictured with loved ones, while smaller images of beloved pets assist the empty spaces of the card. A peaceful artistic design serves as a backdrop).
My father’s annual design of the family Christmas card is an event as consistent and unchanging as pitchers and catchers reporting to the sun parched cacti of Arizona and the breezy palm trees of Florida.
Usually the card tells some kind of subtle story. Graduation pictures tell the story of a college career completed; vacation pictures punctuate a serene get-a-way to Mexico; animal pictures illustrate the presence of a new pet in the family, and so on and so forth.
But 2004 was different. 2004 was much simpler. 2004 was the year of the Boston Red Sox.
So in his annual attempt to illustrate, through pictures and design, just what made the year in question special, my father knew the answer was as simple as Beckett for seventh, Okajima for the eighth, and Papelbon for the ninth.
In 2004, the Red Sox stormed back down 3-0 against the hated Yankees, then swept away the Cardinals en route to their first World Series since 1918. That was really all that happened in 2004.
And it made an excellent, poignant card.
Yet the 2007 holiday card hangs on the wall with no visual mentioning of the Red Sox second, and indisputably more dominant, title in the last four years.
Just like in 2004, the Red Sox went 11-3 in the post-season and swept the National League’s best in the fall classic. 2007 also saw the Red Sox boast the league’s best record for much of year, comeback down 3-1 against an excellent Cleveland team, and claim their first AL East division title since 1995.
So why no mention of that championship, Pops? Didn’t that season, culminating in the ultimate barometer of success, send the same ripple of sheer joy through our family?
Before I go on I want to be clear here: any year the Red Sox win it all is a great year to me and my family. I don’t take World Series titles for granted and I don’t feel entitled to success. My childhood as a Red Sox fan/annually crushed adolescent will prevent that mindset from ever creeping in.
But to put it simply, 2004 brought millions of people throughout the New England region a sense of undying happiness for the first time, and that simply can never be matched. Most people still can’t articulate what that World Series and that season meant to them and their loved ones.
2004 was like your first love: it’s a first, it can never really be replaced as an unchangeable part of your memory, and all other loves from that point on will, in some way, be compared to it.
You had millions of die-hahds in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut expecting the worst and fully anticipating failure once more at the hands of the Yankees. Losing was just a matter of when and how.
In 2007, that feeling just wasn’t there. The Sox dominated the regular season, had all the key offensive pieces in place, had a more dominant closer and a better bullpen than in 2004, and had an equally potent, although vastly different, clubhouse chemistry that was infectious in its own unique way. Winning was just a matter of when and how.
In short, 2007 was just as sweet and just as special, but far more expected and far less anxiety driven. 2004 was simply more ground-breaking because it was our first love and a love that we expected far less, and anxiously feared far more. That and it had a sense of revenge to it (see: 2004 ALCS) that will never be duplicated. That is the only way I can reasonably discern between the two greatest Red Sox seasons of my lifetime.
Anyway you look at it, I still think my father’s holiday cards articulate best just how much has changed since Foulke flipped that come-backer to Mientkiewicz in St.Louey: Success is an expected process now, not an unattainable curse looming over everyone from your 88 year-old grandfather to your 3 month-old nephew.
And with that in mind, I offer 5 key developments to monitor as my beloved Red Sox shake those kinks out and tweak the ‘ol motor before breaking from Fort Myers in 4 short weeks, with another title in sight:
1.) Can Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz combine to contribute 350 quality innings?
Pitching, most importantly starting pitching, wins games in October. That is something both 2004 and 2007 showed without doubt. We know that Josh Beckett is an all-world ace, that Dice Matsuzaka is a quality #2 with the ceiling of a #1, and that Timmy Wakefield is a fairly durable, albeit old, knuckler who, over the long haul, is going to give you a predictable and consistent effort every fifth day.
But with Curt Schilling’s early arm trouble affecting rotational depth from the get-go, the first question on most Boston baseball minds is: are the young kids ready to handle the load?
Jon Lester took a step towards answering that question with an emphatic “YES!” last year, capping an inspirational comeback from cancer by notching the clinching win in Game 4 of the World Series. The down side is that he still only has 27 big-league starts under his belt, not even a full seasons worth. The good news is more ample: he has packed on some bulk in the off-season, has the prototypical lefty array of pitches, and has great poise and command on the mound.
Buchholz, too, has made steps to suggest that he is ready for the prime-time. He has dominated the minor leagues, thrown a no-hitter in the major leagues, and has as devastating a curve-ball as any young arm in either league.
But the age-old questions of durability, arm strength, and preparation still linger, and it is yet to be seen whether Red Sox brass will let their gem of a youngin’ pitch much over 180 innings in ’08. They capped him in ’07 with his future in mind, and they might make a similar move in ’08 if Schilling can return in the second half. Also, how will Clay adjust to inevitable rough patches along the road? Is he mentally ready for a 6-month season?
Bottom Line: If either Lester or Buchholz don’t deliver, the Red Sox will have to dig into the farm-system early. This has worked in the past, but it’s still a risky proposition in the American League.
2.) Is the bullpen deep enough, and is another 2007-type year realistic for Hideki Okajima?
Beyond Papelbon, I have some questions in the pen.
Is an ERA of just over 2.00, a WHIP under 1.00, and nearly a strikeout-per-inning really realistic to expect from Okajima in 2008? I say no. He simply has to regress a bit, unless the Red Sox plucked the most legendary Japanese reliever since Kazuhiro Sasaki out of no where last off-season.
Mike Timlin is another over-40 guy who has been incredible in years past, but his age and arm worry me. Manny Delcarmen is a nice farm-hand coming off an excellent year, but one power righty in the pen isn’t nearly enough to survive in the AL East. Bryan Corey, Julian Tavarez, Javier Lopez, and long-inning man Kyle Snyder round out the rest of the arms, with several other camp invites (Dan Kolb and David Aardsma) battling for spots.
Bottom Line: Beyond the shut-down closer, I see a good deal of uncertainty and mediocrity here.
3.) Can 2007 FA signees (and busts) Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew rebound and earn their ridiculous contracts?
When you win it all, a lot of guys get free passes. I understand that.
But I still can’t fathom how in the world J.D Drew- hitting in Fenway Park behind David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez mind you- managed to tally just 11 HRs and 64 runs in 2007. He was so bad at the end of the year that Terry Francona actually started sitting him vs. lefties. That is just where you want your $15 million sitting; on the bench.
What’s more, Drew might not have been the worst Boston free-agent signee of the 2007 off-season. Julio Lugo was batting under the Mendoza line (.200) as late as July 8th and never looked comfortable from the leadoff spot. Despite stealing 33 bags and notching serviceable RBIs from his position (73), Lugo struggled to fit the lead-off role adequately and never looked comfortable. Lugo doesn’t offer much power and isn’t an exceptional fielder, so he must improve in the areas Boston coveted him for: speed and run scoring ability.
Bottom Line: Both guys are capable of much better numbers in 2008. Whether or not they can cash in on that potential production will be essential to the potency of the Red Sox lineup, 1 through 9, in 2008.
4.) Can Jason Varitek have another exceptional season at the age of 36?
With the exception of 2006, when he broke down in mid-August, Jason Varitek has been an absolute rock behind the plate in five of the last six Red Sox seasons. In four of those seasons, the Red Sox have made the playoffs and extended the backstop’s workload, and in two of them he has been the last catcher standing on the field in October.
That is a lot of work for any catcher, even someone as thick and steady as The Captain.
Ask anyone in Boston, from fans to players to organizational personnel, and most will say that Jason Varitek is unequivocally the most essential ingredient to the Red Sox recipe of success. Even if he gives you a .260 average, 17 HRs, and 60 RBIs (his 3-year average), that is a gravy. It’s a bonus. The man’s job is defined by his defense and pitch-calling abilities, and his handling of the staff (from young to old) is impeccable. As 2006 showed, without Varitek the Red Sox simply are not an elite team. He is that important.
Bottom Line: While no imminent signs point to a breakdown, you have to worry about the at bats and extensive workload ‘Tek has amassed over his tenure in Boston, as well as the inevitability of age-related decline. Red Sox fans hope he has anywhere from one to three healthy seasons left.
5.) Will Terry Francona get his much-deserved extension?
The man known as “Tito” has more immunity in Boston than perhaps any skipper in Red Sox history. Since signing on in 2004, Francona has shown an excellent ability to balance emotion, reality, and the sometimes bi-polar Beantown attitudes over the course of a 162-game season and into October.
He is a player’s manager and deals with the pessimistic, paranoid Boston press better than anyone I have ever seen. He also is one of the best at managing late in the game and handling young talent.
Bottom Line: This man deserves however many years and however much money he wants. He has earned that. While most believe Tito will get what he deserves, why hasn’t Theo taken care of business yet? This is not something you want seeping into the season, whether you are a fan, player, coach, or front office executive.