The Curse of the Bambino didn’t end with the miracle comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, as cathartic as that was for Red Sox Nation.
“We still have another hill to climb,” reminded club president Larry Lucchino.
Not since 1918, when the War to End All Wars still was slogging on, had Boston won the World Series, and it was fitting that the ball club standing in the way that year had caused autumnal dyspepsia for two generations of Sox fans.
Now, as the worst-to-first Town Team bids for its third crown in 10 years, the Cardinals again are their fine-feathered foes, starting Wednesday night at Fenway Park.
In 1946, Boston had been up, three games to two, going back to St. Louis and had ace Boo Ferris on the mound for the finale. But Johnny Pesky did or did not hold the ball while Enos Slaughter scored from first on an outfield looper, and Ted Williams, who hit .200 for the Series, sobbed in the shower.
In 1967, the Impossible Dreamers came from 3-1 down to take the Series to the limit at Fenway. “Lonborg and champagne,” manager Dick Williams declared when asked about his plans for the seventh game.
But the Cardinals, irked by that prediction, bashed the weary Lonborg, who was laboring on two days’ rest, and claimed the crown by a 7-2 score.
“Now it’s our turn to pop off,” crowed outfielder Curt Flood as he uncorked a celebratory bottle of Mumm’s.
In 2004, St. Louis had the best record in baseball (105-57) and twice came back from the brink to beat Houston for the pennant. But the Sox had a whiff of destiny around them. They’d gone down, three games to none, to New York, having been booed off the Fenway diamond after a 19-8 loss, the worst in the franchise’s postseason history.
But pinch runner Dave Roberts swiped second in the ninth inning of the fourth game and came around to tie the score, then David Ortiz won it in the 12th with a two-run shot into the visitors’ bullpen.
The next night, Ortiz produced another walkoff triumph with a single in the 14th and Boston went to the Bronx to complete the most startling resurrection in baseball annals, winning, 4-2 and 10-3.
“How many times can you honestly say you have a chance to shock the world?” proclaimed first baseman Kevin Millar.
There was karmic satisfaction in killing off their pinstriped tormentors in the same venue where the previous season had ended in shock and “awwwww!” when Aaron “The Boone-bino” Boone lofted Tim Wakefield’s extra-inning knuckler into the left-field seats. This was a different year, and the Sox had a different identity, decidedly more Stooges than Sundance.
“We are not the Cowboys any more,” outfielder Johnny Damon declared. “We are just the Idiots.”
If there were rules, Damon mused, his scruffy mates couldn’t read them. They didn’t know that they couldn’t win four from the Yanks after losing three, so why couldn’t they win four more? “Why Not Us?” became the mantra. The Cardinals, who’d survived their own near-death experience in the NLCS, were understandably wary.
“They showed what they can do, coming back from 0-3,” observed first baseman Albert Pujols. “They never give up.”
There was no precedent for what the Sox had done, so it seemed reasonable to believe that they could do even more.
“I want to see them win because it’s been a long time coming,” said Pesky, who’d first worn the uniform in 1942 and still had a locker in the corner by the clubhouse entrance. “I can die happy then.”
The opener in the Fens began with such euphoric effervescence — a three-run homer by Ortiz and a 4-0 lead in the first inning and a 7-2 gap after the third — that fans became uncomfortable. The Series wasn’t supposed to be this easy.
Indeed, four errors later — two back to-back by Manny Ramirez — it was 9-9. It took Mark Bellhorn’s eighth-inning clanger off the Pesky Pole in right field to produce an 11-9 victory, the most runs by Boston in a Series game since 1903.
“That was not instructional video stuff,” manager Terry Francona remarked after his fifth pitcher (Keith Foulke) was credited with the W.
The second game was, though, despite another four miscues by the home side. It was all about Curt Schilling’s sangfroid and skill, spinning a 6-2 triumph on a sutured right ankle. His Bloody Sock masterpiece in Game 6 in Yankee Stadium had saved the season, but he’d doubted that he could make it through a reprise five days later.
“I honest-to-God didn’t think I was going to take the ball today,” said Schilling, who couldn’t walk when he awoke at 7 a.m.
It was, the righthander said, “the most unbelievable day of my life,” and it sent his colleagues to the Show-Me State with a mission to do what the Astros couldn’t: close out the Series on the road.
Once Pedro Martinez, making his first Series start in his 13th season, was staked to a lead by Ramirez’s homer and wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, the Sox were up and away, leading, 4-0, after five.
“One more game, one more game,” Sox fans chanted behind the St. Louis dugout after the 4-1 decision.
That one game had been devilishly difficult to win for Boston.
The Red Sox had won the first two from the Mets at Shea Stadium in 1986, and were one strike away in Game 6 when Mookie Wilson’s dribbler went between first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs.
“Every time I see that ground ball rolling through the guy’s legs, I change the channel,” said Doug Mientkiewicz, who played the same position for the Sox in ’04. “I don’t want to see that. It plays in your mind.”
As unlikely as it seemed that the Sox could blow a three-game lead, they didn’t have to look back more than a week for a precedent.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” reliever Alan Embree said. “We proved it last series.”
When the moon went into a full blood-red eclipse during the game, some Sox fans took it as a sign of the apocalypse and a Judgment Day that finally might go their way.
When Damon led off Game 4 with a homer, everything in the celestial firmament appeared aligned. As Derek Lowe, who’d won the finale of both the divisional and championship series, posted a string of zeros, 86 years of cosmic trickery appeared to be at their end.
Still, when Edgar Renteria tapped the ball weakly to Foulke and the closer prepared to underhand it to Mientkiewicz, a few middle-aged sportswriters, who’d witnessed an unthinkable moment at the same base 18 years earlier in Queens, stood and shouted, “No!” in the press box.
When Mientkiewicz gloved the ball for the final putout, the planet stood still.
“This is like an alternate reality,” said owner John Henry, as the players sprayed each other with bottles of Mount Pleasant Brut Imperial. “All our fans waited their entire lives for this.”
In the clubhouse, Pesky was savoring the champagne shampoo that had been deferred for 58 years.
“I knew I would see this,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was going to take 20 or 30 or 100 more years, but I knew I’d see it. Heck, I hope I live to see a second one.”
The second one came three years later with a sweep of Colorado but it was the first one, the curse-reverser, that mattered most.
“I can’t wait till next year when we go back to Yankee Stadium,” said Lowe, who’d be a Dodger by then, “and don’t have to hear that ‘1918’ chant again.”
As it happened, the Yankees came to them on Opening Day and applauded politely when the Sox received their diamond and ruby rings.
“It’s better than my wedding ring,” Damon observed. “You can always get wedding rings.”
Where were they then?
Considering David Ortiz is the only member of the 2004 world champions still with the Red Sox, here’s a look at where some of Ortiz’s current teammates were playing during the ‘04 season:
• Craig Breslow -- going 3-1 for independent New Jersey Jackals, at 23, after being released by Brewers.
• Clay Buchholz -- spending his one season at McNeese State, where he was dismissed from the team.
• Ryan Dempster -- transitioning to reliever, at age 27, after signing as a free agent with the Cubs.
• Jacoby Ellsbury -- becoming an first-team All-Pac-10 outfielder as a sophomore at Oregon State.
• Jonny Gomes -- spending five games with Rays at age 23, but mostly with Triple A Durham.
• John Lackey -- winning 14 games with a 4.67 ERA as a 25-year-old Angel in his third big league season.
• Jon Lester -- going 7-6 with a 4.24 ERA as a 20-year-old with Sox’ Gulf Coast and Florida State leagues.’
• Mike Napoli -- driving in 118 runs as 22-year-old with high Single A Rancho Cucamonga (Angels).
• Daniel Nava -- playing for College of San Mateo as a top performer on the junior college level.
• Jake Peavy -- leading the major leagues with a 2.27 ERA while going 15-6 as a 23-year-old Padre.
• Dustin Pedroia -- hitting .357 in his first pro season after being drafted by Sox out of Arizona State.
• David Ross -- playing in 70 games, at age 27, as the backup catcher on the NL West-winning Dodgers.
• Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- hitting .272 as a 19-year-old with Single A Rome (Braves).
• Koji Uehara -- posting a 2.60 ERA (best among starters in Japan Central League) as 29-year-old with Yomiuri.
• Shane Victorino -- hitting .289 at age 23 at the top two rungs of the Dodgers’ minor league system.