In the summer of 1976, nine months after the Greatest World Series Ever, the Red Sox acquired an outfielder named Bobby Darwin, and young Dwight Evans greeted his new teammate with, “You’re going to enjoy the Fall Classic.’’
“What Classic is that?’’ asked Darwin.
“The Fall Classic,’’ said Evans. “The World Series.’’
Dewey was 24 years old, full of energy and innocence. He’d enjoyed the 1975 Series immensely. He was surrounded by a cast of All-Stars, most in their athletic prime, and he figured the World Series was going to be part of his annual autumn routine.
He got back there only once, 10 years after his conversation with Darwin.
Which brings us to the 2013 Red Sox and guys like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and David Ortiz. All played a big role in the World Series sweep of 2007. Ortiz was Boston’s Mr. October in the magical fall of 2004.
Five years ago, when the Red Sox made it to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Messrs. Pedroia, Lester, Ellsbury, and Ortiz had reason to believe it was going to be like this every year. Playing baseball in Boston meant that you don’t make plans until after Halloween. Red Sox baseball is Octoberball. Every year.
From 2003-09, the Red Sox made the playoffs six times in seven seasons. They won two World Series and got to the seventh game of the ALCS two more times. They were baseball’s centerfold franchise, with a top-five payroll, a raft of star power, and boffo television ratings both locally and nationally. They were global. Bud Selig paid them handsomely to represent Major League Baseball in Japan in 2008.
It felt like it would go on forever.
And then it stopped. The reigning world champs, America’s Team, were knocked out in a stunning Game 7 at the Trop in 2008. They were swept by the Angels in the Division Series in 2009. They all got hurt and failed to make the playoffs in 2010.
Then Theo Epstein assembled a transcendent team, a team that could win 100 games, dubbed “Best Team Ever” by a Boston tabloid before a game was played. That team folded in September of 2011, triggering the exits of Epstein, Terry Francona, Jonathan Papelbon, and, eventually, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett.
The decay was rooted at the Trop in late October of 2008. Set to appear in their third World Series in five years, the Red Sox took the field for Game 7 against Joe Maddon’s Rays. The music died in the eighth inning when Maddon summoned 23-year-old David Price (the Rays’ fifth pitcher of a scoreless inning!) to face J.D. Drew.
Price worked the count to 1-and-2, then froze Drew with a 97-mile-per-hour fastball on the black. Drew tried to check his swing, but couldn’t. Plate umpire Brian Gorman rang up the Sox outfielder and Boston limped to a 3-1 defeat.
“I thought the ’08 team might have been our best team,’’ Francona said later.
That was the last Sox team to win a playoff game.
Five years later, the Rays are at Fenway and the Sox are still looking for that next playoff victory. Price has a Cy Young Award and is the ace of the Rays staff. Jonny Gomes, a bench guy with the ’08 Rays, is the blood and thunder of the 2013 Red Sox. Maddon is still cobbling together a playoff team with a low payroll. J.D. Drew’s brother Stephen is wearing No. 7 for the Red Sox.
Lester and John Lackey will pitch the first two games of this series against Tampa. Back in 2008 and 2009, when the Sox played the Angels in the ALDS, Lester and Lackey started against one another three times.
They are pitchers who experienced the ultimate baseball event at the very start of their careers. In 2002, rookie Lackey beat the San Francisco Giants in the seventh game of the World Series. In 2007, Lester was 23 years old when he beat the Colorado Rockies in the clinching game of the World Series.
Early success can spoil a guy. It can create the illusion that this is easy, that it will happen again and again.
No. It has been 11 years since Lackey appeared in his only World Series. It has been six years since Lester tasted champagne after the final game of the baseball season.
“Going through what we went through the past couple of years obviously makes even getting to the playoffs, makes you appreciate that,’’ Lester said Thursday. “You don’t take it for granted.
“There’s nothing like playoff atmosphere. You can’t duplicate it. You can’t describe it. It’s just a different beast when you step on that mound. It’s something you have to go through to understand.’’
Lester knows. Pedroia, Ellsbury, Ortiz. They know. Even the manager knows. John Farrell was here as pitching coach when the Red Sox seemed to be in the playoffs every year. And he watched the fall of the Red Sox from the opposite dugout last year.
“With everything that happened, you don’t take it for granted,” said the manager. “There was a strong desire to rewrite what took place. There was embarrassment that was shared by those who remained or that had been here.
“This was a rare and unique opportunity to come in here and put Boston back on the baseball map.”
The Sox are back. The baseball playoffs are back at Fenway. We’ve survived a painful reminder that this doesn’t automatically happen every year. Enjoy the games.