I never liked the fact that the 2003-04 Boston Red Sox dubbed themselves "Idiots," particularly because the nickname was created by Johnny Damon, and anything that comes from the depths—and I use that term very loosely—of that man's brain is automatically subject to question.
But you can't deny the fact that the team Theo Epstein pieced together was a highly likeable group of funky dudes. Oh, and they just happened to be good enough to revive championship baseball in Boston.
And you can't have one without the other. Call talent the macaroni and togetherness the cheese, but you don't win in baseball without the proper blend of both.
The momentum that carried the 2004 Red Sox to the World Series title started in 2003, when Epstein and his minions went out and meticulously built a team—not a collection of 25 really good baseball players, but a cohesive, unified, and talented team.
And with little fanfare. When spring training dawned in '03, the clubhouse wasn't exactly full of megastars. Most of the new guys were the kind of players you never heard of until they arrived in your town: Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Mike Timlin. And who the heck is David Ortiz?
Every one of those guys ultimately had a significant role in ending The Curse. Players who looked like scrap-heap pick-ups turned out to be a batting champion (Mueller), a clubhouse leader (Millar), a durable, go-to reliever (Timlin), and the greatest clutch slugger in team history. Not bad.
Meanwhile, in the land of pinstripes, the 2004 Yankees were stashing away such high-profile additions as Jason Giambi (admittedly signed a year earlier), Gary Sheffield, Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, and some guy named Alex Rodriguez. You may not have heard of him if you only watch the MLB playoffs every year. He's had a strange habit of taking October off.
Flash forward to 2009, where the American League East crown has all but been handed to a drooling Brian Cashman (never a more fitting name for a Yankee GM, by the way) and the hated Yankees. But let's wait and see before we start designing the Bombers another ring, shall we?
Mark Teixeira. C.C. Sabathia. A.J. Burnett—it sure looks good on paper. And it took plenty of paper to bring that trio to the N-Y-C. But questions remain.
Teixeira is the closest to a sure thing, but he must replace the production of Giambi and Bobby Abreu. And I'd be concerned about the pitchers. Remember, it was less than a year ago that Cleveland dumped Sabathia, whose ERA had ballooned faster than his pant size. Can he pitch effectively in the American League again? Will his body hold up?
And as for Burnett, until he survives an injury-free season in a year that doesn't lead to free agency, consider me officially unimpressed with his body of work. He'll be on the DL by mid-May.
Meanwhile, while most of the media was writing the Red Sox obituary after missing out on the Teixeira sweepstakes, Epstein has quietly been plugging significant holes. In Rocco Baldelli and Mark Kotsay (who was re-signed), the Sox have a righty-lefty duo of reserve outfielders and pinch-hitters who could play key roles, especially given that their starting right fielder is made of glass.
In Brad Penny and John Smoltz, the Sox have added quality depth to a pitching staff that, at this point, has to be considered more well-rounded than New York's. Penny is two years removed from an All-Star berth, and Smoltz is the perfect no-risk veteran to add to the clubhouse. If this duo doesn't combine for somewhere between 20 and 25 wins this year, I'll be shocked.
By my count, Penny and Smoltz give the Red Sox no fewer than seven Major League-ready starters: Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lester, Wakefield, Masterson, Penny, and Smoltz; eight if you include ready-to-erupt prospect Clay Buchholz.
They've also added reserve catcher Josh Bard, reliever Takashi Saito, traded for flame-throwing reliever Ramon Ramirez, and plucked promising prospect Junichi Tazawa from Japan.
Baldelli, Kotsay, Penny, Smoltz, Bard, Saito, Ramirez, Tazawa—not a household name among them (save for Smoltz and possibly Penny), and all could play significant roles this year. All, also, are likely to slide smoothly into the Red Sox team dynamic. There's something to be said for adding well-respected, quality people.
Granted, the Red Sox could still use a big bat to go along with Ortiz, who is something of a question mark himself coming off an injury-plagued season. And there's no doubt the Yankees are better than they were a year ago, when they missed the postseason for the first time since man first walked on the moon.
Still, you can call me crazy, but I'm not buying the Yanks as the clear-cut favorite yet. Let's see how all the big names and big egos and big wallets fit into the big, new clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. Let's see if Burnett can stay healthy and Sabathia can stay effective. The bottom line is this: Until I've seen otherwise, I will assume any Alex Rodriguez-led team will a) struggle to remain cohesive and b)fold like a tent come playoff time.
It is true the Red Sox haven't made a significant splash with any one offseason signing. But I'm content with the ripples. While the Yankees were pouring money and concrete into the foundation of a fancy new lineup and a fancy new stadium, the Red Sox were laying the foundation for a team that was already one game shy of reaching the World Series for the third time in five seasons.
So who are the idiots now?