The increasingly buckling shelf of books celebrating all things Red Sox 2004 glory are marked by what I think of as a kind of paeanistic righteousness. You get the full-throated victory shout, once more, but with an overlay of “these guys did it for you, New Englanders, and your forefathers.”
The title of this Saul Wisnia effort suggests that same brand of Joan of Arc-style fervor, but the title is somewhat misleading. What we have here is a fresh take on the merry band that many will always hold as curse-breakers; that is, we are getting their origin story from the truncated would-be glory days of the 2003 season, and even back to the reign of general manager Dan Duquette during the Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn era.
Half of the book predates the 2004 championship run, and while that might disappoint pink hatters wishing to cuddle up next to their plush, David
Ortiz teddy bears whilst reading along, for everyone else this will likely prove fascinating stuff. Ironically, when we get to the “time to slay the Yankees with the most epic of epic comebacks” bit, there’s really not much need to keep going. You know that story. You’re not going to have it greatly enhanced here, unless you count the realization or reminder that Ellis Burks, from way back in the Joe Morgan era, was actually on this team, and that he’s a go-to source for Wisnia.
But that 2003 crew — an absolutely loaded wagon of a team — is given the analysis and context they’ve always deserved. Wisnia argues that this may have been the most accomplished offensive team in baseball history. But as important, they were a unit that possessed the ability to fight back after getting knocked down. Red Sox teams — and remember, core groups used to stay together a lot longer than they do now — were never much good at this. In the end that attribute became a major factor in 2004, a season marked by a long gestation period.
Within his big picture, Wisnia renders some interesting detail. There’s a nice rundown of how the present ownership group emerged from its dark-horse candidacy to steward the franchise; A look at how Kevin Millar, an above-average ballplayer but not exactly Jimmie Foxx incarnate, was pried away from his Japanese team, and why it proved as crucial a move as any the team made, for reasons well beyond the ball field; and Grady Little’s infamous decision is studied from all angles. (And you know what? I would have left Pedro in too. Shoot me.)
One of the key subplots involves Nomar’s exodus and how all of that shook out. Wisnia makes a point of reminding everyone just what the shortstop meant not only to Boston baseball culture, but also the city as a whole. And yet, I cannot think of a career .313 hitter who as quickly went from being the city’s most popular athlete — even Pedro wasn’t as big as Nomar when the latter was healthy — to being an afterthought. But the ’04 Red Sox were like that in that everything that came before, everything that did not factor into the final goal, was swept away like so much detritus by a surging sea.
If prose had a flavor, the bulk of it here would be straight-up vanilla. On the trade of A-Rod to the Yankees: “The deal was met with groans throughout Red Sox Nation.” But then this is not a book readers awaited to partake of flights of voice and style.
This is a fair book, not a rah-rah thing, and while it’s clearly written by a fan, it’s balanced. The more rewarding course — and perhaps someone else will take this up — would be to look at those pre-championship years in greater detail, as they seem to be the real story here. But hey, this is a start. And given that Wisnia’s intention is probably not to get you to don your Red Sox footie pajamas as you relive those punch-the-air times, you’d have to score this a hit rather than an error in Red Sox baseball-book matters.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming “The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From the Abyss.”