It was October 12, 2005, less than five days after the former defending world champion Boston Red Sox had been swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago White Sox. The consensus began to grow that the Red Sox had run out of magic; that the Curse of the Bambino had indeed been broken and so had their World Series hangover, leaving team executives to pick up the pieces and raise the question of how they could improve to make another postseason run.
Of those senior staff members gathered in Fenway Park's Crown Royal Club, there was one voice that actually opposed the notion of getting better. The shock of it was that the lone voice was from general manager Theo Epstein, recently cast as baseball's Boy Wonder after building a World Series champion in only two years out of a franchise mired in over eight decades of annual heartbreak.
Epstein cited in creation of a list of positives taken from the '05 season a significant growth in player development, potentially producing a crop of Red Sox players that could lead a new generation of championship caliber baseball. But in order for that crop to be harvested, there would have to be a considerable letdown.
In Seth Mnookin's book Feeding the Monster, Epstein was quoted:
"Sooner or later we might need to take half a step backward in return for a step forward. . . . I warned about this in April . What if we win 85 games [in 2006]? We're bringing up some young players that are going to be better in '07 than they will be next year. And they'll probably be even better than that in '08."
Of course, nobody in the room understood Epstein's point then, which eventually led to his vehement defense of his plan to allow the Red Sox to foster their young talent in order to build a winner in the long run, even if it meant losing in the immediate future. It was one of several factors that added to Epstein's frustration, leading him to take a leave of absence as Boston's GM after opting to let his then-expiring contract lapse.
The 2005 season had already shown glimpses of what was to come with the emergence of Kevin Youkilis, once dubbed "The Greek God of Walks" in Michael Lewis' sabermetrically-fueled bestseller, Moneyball, and a young fireballer out of Mississippi State named Jonathan Papelbon, who had grabbed everyone's attention as a possible bullpen force. Epstein had distinct plans for the Red Sox future, and a great deal of it was centered around that year's draft.
After losing Pedro Martinez, Orlando Cabrera and Derek Lowe to free agency, the Red Sox used the compensatory first-round draft picks to select four players that would immediately contribute to their success in 2007-08, ultimately proving Epstein right. Those players were Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz and Jed Lowrie. This quartet of first-round studs was sandwiched by Dustin Pedroia, their 2004 first-round pick out of Arizona State and Justin Masterson, a tall right-hander they took as their second-round pick in 2006. With the exception of Hansen, all of these draft picks are now members of Boston's 40-man roster, all having made the significant contributions their general manager projected them to make a few years before.
Entering Wednesday night's action, Pedroia was hitting .327 with 194 hits and 77 RBI's, prompting whispers of a possible American League batting title and making a case for the AL Most Valuable Player award. Ellsbury is the current league leader in stolen bases with 45 in limited action. Lowrie has stepped in the gap left by third baseman Mike Lowell's injury to hit .272 with 19 doubles and 40 RBI's in only 64 games. Masterson has an impressive 3.20 ERA with 60 strikeouts and only 36 walks in 78 2/3 innings out of the bullpen. Hansen was sent to Pittsburgh along with Brandon Moss in an eleventh-hour trade deadline deal that brought in Jason Bay, and jettisoned the long-since disenchanted Manny Ramirez. (Boston fans are not remiss to lament Ramirez's departure, since Bay has driven in 33 runs since his acquisition, third among all hitters in Major League Baseball over that span.) Epstein used a deep reservoir of talent to repeat his act of making the unpopular trade to re-stock his lineup in pursuit of a championship (see Nomar Garciaparra, circa 2004).
Consider, in addition, the success of those Red Sox players this season who were top prospects in 2005. Jon Lester has a 14-5 record with a 3.23 ERA, and threw a no-hitter on May 19. Reliever Manny Delcarmen has a 3.76 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. Papelbon has earned the widespread reputation of one of baseball's best closers, converting 36 of 41 save opportunities with a 1.89 ERA. Also, in 195 career appearances, he already has 105 saves.
Boston entered Wednesday night's critical matchup against the Tampa Bay Rays just a game and a half behind their opponents for first place in the AL East, but also five and a half games ahead of the Minnesota Twins in the Wild Card race. Barring a meltdown similar to that of the New York Mets last season, the Red Sox are all but guaranteed a spot in the postseason and a chance to defend their World Series title.
A repeat performance would earn them three World Championships in five years, putting them just a whisper away from the New York Yankees of the 90's as baseball's latest dynasty. Franchise cornerstones of yesteryear like Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera could be transcended by Papelbon, Pedroia, Lester, Lowrie and Ellsbury. Such a movement will help transform the Red Sox into the kind of juggernaut that re-writes baseball history in the early 21st century.
And best of all, a Boy Wonder shall lead them to it.