Don’t look now, but 86 years might be creeping up again.
No, that’s not a reference of a lifespan, well of any one person. It could, however, refer to a stretch of time that the Boston Red Sox endured like no other team in sports, sprinkled with fleeting success and an abundance of failure, and most importantly, a lack of a World Series championship. Yes, the Chicago Cubs also fell short of a title in that time frame, but did not have the overwhelming moments that should have equaled banners at Fenway Park.
Among the many are three standout slides in nearly a nine-decade show for the Red Sox. First was Carlton Fisk’s incredible Game 6 winner in the 1975 World Series that he famously waved fair past the left-field foul pole. It was surely an event that was impossible to recover from for the Cincinnati Reds, but the Big Red Machine returned for a Game 7 victory and the championship.
Second was a ground ball to first base. It was a routine play for a borderline Hall of Famer, but Bill Buckner let it slip under his glove, allowing the New York Mets to gallop to a Game 6 win, propelling them to a comeback win in Game 7 to take the 1986 Fall Classic.
Finally was one of their greatest pitchers ever, Pedro Martinez, attempting to carry them to a much-needed title. It was the eighth inning of Game 7 in the 2003 ALCS, and Martinez looked ready to finally silence the Yankees. They had other ideas, however, rallying to tie the game, only to win it on a walk-off home run by Aaron Boone in the 11th inning.
Their general manager, Theo Epstein, had ideas of progress, not failure, and continued to improve the team by adding leadership in the pitching staff in Curt Schilling. With that acquisition and inspired play by a new manager, Terry Francona, the Red Sox met the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, looking for revenge.
It took the most improbable comeback in sports history to do it, but the “idiots,” as they were self-proclaimed, beat the Yankees and reached the World Series. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals and ended the drought, looking like a team with confidence to win more than one championship.
Francona led them to another title in 2007, certainly making him the most memorable Red Sox manager in recent memory. It was the last triumphant moment for the Red Sox, however, as a steady decline has led to the idea that they’ve “jumped the shark,” a term coined by the famous TV character Fonzi, meaning reaching the beginning of the end.
After falling to the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 ALCS, Boston has made the playoffs just once, progressively becoming the third-best team in the AL East.
Their failures culminated into an implosive collapse at the end of 2011, losing a massive lead in the AL Wild Card in September, and blowing their final game while simultaneously being knocked out of the postseason by a dramatic Evan Longoria walk-off home run.
Rumors of beer-drinking and extra food between games became realities, leading to the end of the Francona era. More symbolic of their fall is the departure of Epstein. Call it smart, or call it egotistical, but to take the job of the only team with a worse reputation of failure can only be a sign that his current position was falling down around him (Epstein took the position as the Cubs’ general manager).
Will the Red Sox make the postseason in 2012?
The team has hired fiery manager Bobby Valentine, a fan favorite and disciplinarian in the clubhouse, two things Red Sox nation may appreciate after their last debacle. Just a new manager will not be enough. Though both Boston and the Yankees have done about equal amounts of change (none), they were not as good before the offseason. Between age and skill deterioration, there are only two elite players left on the Red Sox in Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester may still have a lot of game, but they are not true aces like they once were.
They bolstered their bullpen, a necessary task with the loss of Jonathan Papelbon, who could easily receive Buckner-like blame for his blown save in their last game of 2011. They are aging in the rotation and offensively, even more so than the Yankees. Picking up their option on David Ortiz seems like more of an acknowledgement of past heroics, and not of a plan to win down the road.
Can they win? Yes, but it will be difficult. Their room for mistakes is very slim, where extended losing periods may be irreversible in their pursuit to make the postseason. Imagine if they fail to make the playoffs in 2012, and maybe 2013 as well. It could be a catastrophic period for Boston, one that could send the team into the sunset, returning them to the oblivion they just escaped just seven years ago.