The decade began and ended with the New York Yankees atop the baseball universe, having beat the cross-town Mets in the Subway Series (in 2000) and the Philadelphia Phillies this season. In between, it is arguable the decade belonged to the Boston Red Sox.
I know the Yankees won the most games in the decade (965 wins to the Red Sox 920 wins), the most divisions titles (eight) and the most American League pennants (four); but, in between 2000 and 2009 the Red Sox were clearly the best team in baseball.
It was the decade during which the fortunes of the franchise were changed forever…the organization went from being "cursed" to being perennial contenders.
In 2000, the franchise was in disarray.
Team ownership openly talked about doing away with the most hallowed of baseball ballparks, and it's general manager seemed determined to chase the club’s biggest stars out of town.
As we prepare to turn the calendar on 2010, the team’s ownership is proactive, it’s general manager is amongst the most respected in the game, and Fenway Park has transformed into one of the most sought-after locations to visit in the MLB-universe.
Oh, yeah. And “wait ’til next year” is now said with an eager anticipation instead of constituting a Sox fan’s annual lament.
How did we get here? How did we go from being one of baseball’s also-rans to one of the two Big Kids on the block?
Here are my Top Ten Defining Developments for the franchise during the decade we are about to bid adieu:
Number 10: Acquisition of Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell (2005)
The team was in a bit of disarray. GM Theo Epstein had snuck out of Fenway Park in a gorilla suit on Halloween in the midst of a power struggle with President/CEO Larry Lucchino and no one seemed to know who was in charge of the ballclub moving forward (remember the co-GMs?).
But on November 21st, the team traded shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez, LHP Anibal Sanchez and two prospects to the Florida Marlins for ace right-hander Josh Beckett, 3B Mike Lowell and reliever Guillermo Mota.
The team had sent a message to the baseball world (and, perhaps, to its absentee GM) that outside the box thinking and a willingness to make bold moves still existed on Yawkey Way.
The trade didn’t pay instant dividends in 2006; but, in 2007, Beckett led the team to its first division title in more than a decade and Lowell was named World Series MVP as the Sox won their second world championship in four years.
Number 9: Acquisition of Curt Schilling (2003)
In November, 2003, the Red Sox reached an agreement to acquire one-time farmhand and ace right-hander Curt Schiiling from the Arizona Diamondbacks. However, Schilling’s contract contained a no-trade clause and was reticent to sign off on a deal. He wasn’t sure he wanted to change cities and leagues…and he was troubled by the prospect of pitching in Fenway Park.
So GM Theo Epstein boarded a plane, accompanied by Lucchino and other members of the front office, and traveled to Arizona to make their pitch to Schilling during Thanksgiving week.
Eventually, Epstein and Lucchino and the entourage spent the holiday eating dinner with the Schillings and making their pitch. Schilling signed off on the deal. He said he was coming to Boston to bring a world championship to the city. He talked about the wonders of silencing the Yankee Stadium crowd during the biggest games.
He did both.
Number 8: Trade of Nomar Garciaparra (2004)
The ballclub struggled throughout the summer. Jason Varitek had lobbed a warning shot over the bow of the USS Yankee with his shove of Alex Rodriguez at home plate on July 24th, yet the team still did not play especially well in the ensuing week. Epstein analyzed the team’s weaknesses and determined it had defensive shortcomings. Something had to be done.
The progressive thinking and bold action that had been the hallmark of Epstein’s then-brief tenure as general manager continued.
On July 31st he traded the face of the franchise, Nomar Garciaparra, to the Chicago Cubs as part of a four-team deal. Epstein had purged the clubhouse of a dour personality while simultaneously acquiring defensive standouts SS Orlando Cabrera and 1B Doug Mientkiewicz.
He also sent a message.
The club eventually hit stride in mid-August. Starting on August 16th, the team won sixteen of seventeen games. After the trade, the club went 42-18, then swept the LA Angels in the ALDS, overcame an 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, and swept the St Louis Cardinals in the World Series. It was the club’s first world championship in 86 years and many pundits pointed to the Garciaparra trade as the moment the season turned around.
Number 7: Game 7, 2003 ALCS
The Red Sox were on the verge of heading to the World Series, leading 5-2 after seven innings. The world believed starting pitcher Pedro Martinez was done as the game headed to the eighth inning, in large part due to his diminished effectiveness throughout the season after throwing 100 pitches.
However, to the surprise of many, skipper Grady Little sent Martinez back out to the mound to start the eighth inning. Petey retired the first batter, but then surrendered a double to Derek Jeter and an RBI single to Bernie Williams.
The manager visited the mound, but then compounded his original mistake by leaving the exhausted right-hander in the game. Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada hit back-to-back doubles tie the game. The Yankees won the game in extra innings when Aaron "Bleeping" Boone homered off Tim Wakefield to lead off the bottom of the 11th inning.
The Red Sox front office was incredulous. Their manager had frozen, seemingly paralyzed by the big moment on the biggest of stages. He eschewed reliance upon the statistics that suggested Martinez never should have started the eighth inning. He managed not to lose instead of trying to win. He was fired. In his place, the Red Sox hired former Philadelphia manager Terry Francona, who they believed possessed the ability to manage the team and the temperament to succeed in Boston. (It didn’t hurt that he was close friends with Schilling, who they hoped to acquire during the off-season)
It seems they were right. Francona has led the team to two World Series championships and two ALCS appearances in his six years as manager.
Number 6: Signing of Manny Ramirez (2000)
After winning just 85 games in 2000—and finishing just 2 1/2 games back in the AL East in spite of such a lackluster campaign—the Red Sox front office decided it needed to do something drastic.
In December, GM Dan Duquette wooed free agent outfielder Manny Ramirez, eventually signing him to an eight-year, $160 million contract (with two option years that increased the potential value of the deal to $200 million).
Ramirez paid instant dividends to his new employers, although it would take a couple of years for the club added a sufficient supporting cast to create a championship contender.
Despite performing brilliantly at home plate, Ramirez seemed ill at ease in Boston. He complained. He asked to be traded. At one point, after the 2003 season, he was placed on irrevocable waivers (that would have allowed any team to claim him for only the price of his contract)…there were no takers.
ManRam seemed to get the point. He returned for the 2004 season focused on baseball, rather than the things that had heretofore constituted his sideshow. He hit .308, and led the league in HR (43), slugging percentage (.613) and OPS (1.009), he drove in 130 runs and scored 108 more. After the Red Sox won the championship, he was named World Series MVP.
While his “Manny Being Manny” routine maddened management, Ramirez was highly popular with the residents of Red Sox Nation. His general attitude and approach to baseball and life ultimately caused the front office to terminate his employment in Boston—he was dealt to the LA Dodgers in a three-team swap on July 31, 2008 (the Red Sox ended up with LF Jason Bay as a result of the trade). In spite of the tumult he caused while in Boston, no one can deny that his signing helped the franchise turn a corner that eventually led to a pair of world championships.
Number 5: Acquisition of David Ortiz (2003)
David Ortiz slowly emerged into a solid, power-hitting first baseman with the Minnesota Twins during the first couple of years of the decade, despite battling a series of injuries to his wrist and knees.
In 2002, he caught fire after the All-Star break and finished the year with 20 HR and 75 RBI, in spite of playing in only 125 games due to a knee injury. At the end of the season, the Twins determined they would need to trade him due to his escalating salary, but due to his injury history no team was willing to trade for him.
He was eventually released on January 22, 2003. Pedro Martinez, Ortiz’s friend and fellow Dominican, lobbied the Red Sox front office to sign the burly first baseman. Epstein & Co. listened to Petey’s suggestion and signed “Big Papi” to a one-year contract. The rest is history.
Ortiz has turned into one of the games best sluggers, and along with Manny Ramirez, he constituted one of the great 3-4 hitting combinations in the history of Major League Baseball. He won the Silver Slugger Award in four consecutive seasons (’04-’07) and in those years compiled four of the ten best single-season performances by a Red Sox player during the last decade.
He will forever be remembered throughout New England for his performance during the 2004 ALCS, when he appeared to will his team to the greatest comeback in MLB post-season history (it remains the only time a team has rebounded from an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven series).
Number 4: The Reclamation of Fenway Park
The Yawkey Trust told us that the franchise needed a new ballpark in order to compete in the new age of baseball (the game after the advent of free agency). They said they needed more luxury suites and seats, and declared that Fenway Park was a money pit that could not be renovated.
The new ownership (NE Sports Ventures) has shown the world just how wrong John Harrington was.
President and CEO Larry Lucchino spearheaded the renovation effort. The ballclub hired Janet Marie Smith and wondrous things happened.
Seats were placed atop the Green Monster and the right field roof (and everywhere else they could fit them). The .406 Club was eliminated and replaced by suites. Concourses were widened. Restaurants were added. Seats were replaced (although most still aren’t suitable for the physical dimensions of the taller/wider physical stature of today’s adult population).
But Fenway Park remains one of the great attractions of baseball, even as it approaches its 100th anniversary. How do you like them apples, John Harrington?
Number 3: The 2007 post-season
In the aftermath of the 2004 season, Red Sox fans basked in the glow of a world championship title, but there was fallout.
Nomar Garciaparra had been traded in-season and during the off-season, free agents Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera departed for the greener pastures of Flushing (NY), Chavez Ravine and Anaheim, respectively.
One year later, Johnny Damon exited stage left for the big money of the Big Apple. He was joined in his exodus from Boston by fellow free agents Mark Bellhorn, Keith Foulke, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller. And after 2006, it was Trot Nixon’s turn to seek an alternate employer.
The championship team of 2004 had largely been gutted. While the farm system had been replenished with a plethora of compensatory draft picks (that produced Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz and Jed Lowrie, among others), the big league team underwent a dramatic transformation. Red Sox Nation was left to wonder how many years they would have to wait for another World Series title.
The answer was: not very long.
By 2007, pitchers Martinez, Lowe and Foulke had been replaced by Josh Beckett (see No. 10, above), Japanese free agent Daisuke Matsuzaka and blue-chip prospect Jonathan Papelbon. The everyday lineup had been overhauled with the addition of Coco Crisp, JD Drew, Mike Lowell, Julio Lugo, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. The roster jelled quickly.
The holdovers (Ortiz, Ramirez, Schilling, Varitek and Wakefield) all performed at a high level, and the late-season additions Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester augmented the team’s roster nicely. The Red Sox finished the season at 96-66, winning their first AL East division title since 1995.
Much like three years earlier, the team breezed through the ALDS (sweeping Los Angeles) only to run into trouble in the ALCS.
This time it was the Cleveland Indians that nearly derailed The Olde Towne Team. Once again, the team proved to be extraordinarily resilient, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to take the series in seven games. And just like in ‘04, the Sox swept the World Series to capture the title.
Number 2: The 2004 post-season
You thought this would be No. 1, didn’t you? Sorry, it’s not.
While the 2004 team ended 86 years of frustration, there is one development that served as the catalyst to make it all happen.
The 2004 Red Sox team was unquestionably one of the great Red Sox teams in history.
The rotation produced five starting pitchers who registered double-digits in wins, led by two veteran aces who are worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration: RHPs Curt Schilling (won 21 games) and Pedro Martinez (16 wins).
The offensive assault was spearheaded by DH David Ortiz and LF Manny Ramirez, who combined for 84 HR and 269 RBI (one of the greatest performances by a club’s 3-4 hitters in the history of the game). The team played well in April and May, but floundered through June and July.
Then, two events transpired and served to light a championship fire under the club:
On July 24th, with the Sox trailing the NY Yankees by 8 1/2 games in the standings, the two teams took to the field at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were losing the game, 3-0, in the top of the 3rd inning when Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez was hit by a pitch. When A-Rod started mouthing off to BoSox starter Bronson Arroyo, team captain Jason Varitek confronted him in the area around home plate.
Profanities were exchanged and a shoving match ensued. Both players were ejected. The Sox eventually rallied from a 9-4 deficit to win 11-10 when Bill Mueller hit a walk-off homer off closer Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th inning.
A week later, Nomar Garciaparra was traded (see #8, above).
The playoffs were filled with an abundance of indelible moments.
The rally against the Yankees in the ALCS set the standard by which all future rallies will be measured. Dave Roberts’ pinch-run stolen base off future Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera in the 8th inning of ALCS Game Four with Bill Mueller’s game-tying base hit moments later.
David Ortiz’ game-winning HR off NYY reliever Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning of ALCS Game Four. Big Papi’s walk-off base hit off Esteban Loiaza the next night in ALCS Game Five. Schilling’s bloody sock in ALCS Game Six. Lowe’s brilliance and Damon’s two-homer performance in ALCS Game Seven.
The sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series.
The ‘04 team and its performance in the post-season forever changed the perception of the Red Sox franchise, which transformed from the team you feared would find a way to “blow it” to the team you expected would find a way to “pull it out”.
Number 1: The purchase of the team by New England Sports Ventures
John W. Henry was an investments guru who had owned the Florida Marlins. Larry Luchhino was MLB’s version of a carpetbagger. Tom Werner was a Hollywood mogul. Together they formed New England Sports Ventures.
The Yawkey Trust put the Red Sox franchise up for sale in October, 2000. Fourteen months later (on 12/20/01), Red Sox limited partners voted to sell the franchise (and its interest in NE Sports Network) to Henry’s group. The record-setting, $660 million sale was perceived by many to be a set-up job by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig—a friend of Henry.
The new ownership declared it would put an end to the Curse of the Bambino, and immediately set about breaking ties to the Yawkey regime. GM Dan Duquette was dismissed and replaced with Theo Epstein. The team declared it was not interested in razing Fenway Park and instead poured tens of millions of dollars into the restoration of the ballpark.
They battled the Yankees on the field, in the front office, and in the court of public opinion (coining the phrase Red Sox Nation). GM Theo Epstein proved to have one of the best and brightest minds in the game. CEO Larry Lucchino led the renovation of the ballpark and even found time to taunt NYY owner George Steinbrenner (referring to the Yankees as “The Evil Empire). It was all-out war between the two franchises and The Nation ate it up, especially when the owners delivered on the promise with not just one but two world championships.
For all of these reasons—and for the previous nine reasons—the purchase of the club by John W. Henry & Company ranks as the No. 1 defining development of the last decade.
The new ownership put everything in motion to transform the franchise into a championship organization, and as we look to the next decade there is ample reason to believe the team will raise more championship banners up the flagpole in left-center field.