SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 23, 2013

Phil Stacey column: Improbable Red Sox are back in our good graces

On Baseball
Phil Stacey

---- — By my recollection, it all started during the summer of 1975.

I was six years old and first become acutely aware of this phenomenon known as the Boston Red Sox. My dad didn’t like them (never did; he grew up a Boston Braves fan), but a lot of other adults seemed to get very happy when talking about them. Once I found out rookie sensation Fred Lynn threw and hit left-handed like me — I had his batting stance rituals down cold — I was hooked.

Ever since then, I’ve been all in. Through years of heartbreak and disappointment, the cathartic experience of finally watching them win it all in 2004 and tens of thousands of hours spent watching, analyzing, questioning and reading about them, the Red Sox are very much part of my life’s fabric.

But even ever-loyal fans have their limits. The crash-and-burn of September 2011, exacerbated by the sheer embarrassment and pathetic efforts of 2012, left me feeling empty. For the first time in forever, I felt ambivalent as spring training approached eight months ago.

It didn’t help that the Red Sox — which, let’s face it, didn’t seem to have a lot of promise — were trying to make rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. into a folk hero before he had played a single major league inning seemed forced and sad.

Then the 2013 season began, the team started winning.

And kept winning.

And never really stopped.

For a team coming off a last place finish with not much hope of climbing more than a rung or two higher, the Red Sox defied all expectations. With a new manager, some new faces in the everyday lineup and an attitude cultivated in late February in Fort Myers, Fla., that they were going to change the entire culture of the team.

We were going to be part of the ride, too. David Ortiz told us as much on April 20, five days after the Boston Marathon bombings in his now famous on-field proclamation. Boston Strong, all season long.

They won at Fenway Park. They won more than half their games on the road. They blew teams out. They won one-run games. They ran the bases better than perhaps any Red Sox team in our lifetimes. They scored a plethora of runs. They got unexpectedly strong starting pitching, and perhaps even more shocking lost three potential closers to season-ending injuries — yet wound up getting an absolute lights out career season from a 38-year-old journeyman from Japan who wound up winning MVP honors in the American League Championship Series.

Along the way, thoughts such as “when will reality set in with these guys?” or “these injuries will send them crashing back to earth” gradually began to dissipate. With every series that they won or ground they gained on their American League East opponents, the Red Sox gained a few more believers and got an already baseball-crazed region interested in the team again.

They grew beards that would make Rip Van Winkle nod in approval. They made fans forget about chicken and beer and start believing in chemistry and baseball brotherhood. They spent all but 18 days of the 182-day major league baseball season in first place. Tied with Tampa Bay on Aug. 24, they went on a tear and found themselves leading the division by a whopping 8 1/2 games just two weeks later.

Who, I ask you, saw that coming?

They finished with the best record in Major League Baseball, took care of the Rays in four games and dispatched the supposedly-better Detroit Tigers in six to reach the World Series for the third time in a decade.

Did even the most devout fans feel that guys like Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, David Ross and Shane Victorino would lead Boston out of the doldrums, let alone back to the Fall Classic? Did anyone see the most hated man on the team, John Lackey, becoming an enormous piece of the pitching puzzle? Who could’ve guessed that Ortiz would put aside his early season Achilles tendon injuries and put up another monster season offensively?

Jon Lester’s resurgence, Dustin Pedroia playing through pain all season, Clay Buchholz’s mound mastery (despite missing nearly half the season), the timely contributions of Daniel Nava, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, Mike Carp, Jake Peavy and prized rookie Xander Bogaerts ... everyone on the roster, it seemed, had a story of resurgence and redemption in this magical season.

So what will John Farrell’s charges do now that the St. Louis Cardinals are all that stands between them and the eighth World Series championship in team history? It could be anything: Jacoby Ellsbury stealing a few bases and making a spectacular catch in center field to steal a game; Quintin Berry coming off the bench in the late innings to swipe an all-important bag? Brandon Workman proves to be the perfect bridge man to Breslow, Tazawa and Uehera in the latter innings?

At this point you can’t discount anything. If the Red Sox of 2013 have shown us anything, it’s that you can never, ever count them out of any game, in any situation.

They’ve won back our hearts — and now stand four games away from baseball immortality. Again.

---

Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at pstacey@salemnews.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.