It’s only been three years since the Red Sox were in the playoffs, but it feels a lot longer. It also feels a lot different.
In 2013, the Red Sox did more than make the playoffs. They won the World Series and won it at home, at Fenway Park, for the first time in 95 years.
It was the feel-good story of a feel-bad year.
The improbable, worst-to-first Red Sox run in 2013 was inextricably linked to the Marathon bombings. The city was still grieving, still reeling, the day after the second bomber was captured, when David Ortiz grabbed a microphone on the infield grass in pregame ceremonies to thank first responders and the police who made the arrest.
“This jersey that we’re wearing today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston,’ ” Big Papi began. “This is our [expletive] city. And nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”
Big Papi’s F-bomb was jarring, but his defiance, his resolve captured perfectly what it felt like back then. From that moment on, the Red Sox were playing for more than themselves. They were playing for everyone hurt, physically and psychologically, by bombs that were meant to tear bodies and souls.
John Farrell, the Red Sox manager, described it as almost a civic compact between the players and the city. They were quite conscious that their run, their unexpected success, was a balm for a city and a region that needed it. It made those days better.
It is impossible to prove that, in dedicating themselves to winning the World Series as something of a gift to the city, the Red Sox played over their heads, better than anyone, including themselves, expected. But you can’t disprove it, either.
In the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox seemed overmatched by the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation. But they found a way to win.
Everybody remembers the turning point in that series, captured in an iconic Stan Grossfeld photo, when Big Papi launched a grand slam into the Red Sox bullpen, leaving his former teammate Torii Hunter and Boston police officer Steve Horgan flashing Vs — Hunter with his legs, as he fell over the wall in futile pursuit of the drive, Horgan with his arms as he worked a detail in the bullpen.
Fewer will remember that a then 7-year-old Jane Richard, who lost her brother Martin and her leg to one of the bombs on Boylston Street, led the St. Ann’s Choir from Dorchester in singing the national anthem before the game that changed everything. Jane walked onto the infield on her prosthetic leg wearing a Dustin Pedroia jersey.
Watching Jane Richard and the St. Ann’s Choir that night didn’t make winning inevitable. It made losing not so big a deal. It put everything in its proper perspective. Perhaps relieved of that burden, the Red Sox went on to one of their most memorable postseason victories.
Red Sox players were visibly moved when they brought the World Series trophy to the Marathon finish line. It felt more cathartic than triumphant, for them and the throngs that lined Boylston Street.
If the 2013 Red Sox became a metaphor for a city’s resilience, the 2016 worst-to-first Red Sox are still seeking an identity. Inevitably, they will be remembered as the cast and Greek chorus in Big Papi’s farewell season.
Ortiz will be remembered not only as one of the greatest Red Sox players, but one of the greatest professional athletes to play any sport in Boston. And as he demonstrated on that April afternoon, five days after lives and legs were lost along Boylston Street, he transcended sports.
Before his last regular season game at Fenway last Sunday, Ortiz received various accolades and honors. But nothing was more moving than when he thanked his late mother, and when three Marathon bombing survivors — Jeff Bauman, Jess Kensky, and her husband, Patrick Downes — walked onto the infield on their prosthetic legs.
The 2013 playoffs, the 2013 Red Sox, were drenched in symbolism. This year’s Red Sox team was simply hoping to be drenched in champagne. If they are merely a distraction from a presidential campaign that gets weirder and more depressing by the day, that’s fine.
It has not started well. Losing the first two games of a best-of-five series in Cleveland has put their backs to the wall. The Indians, managed by former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, have looked the better, hungrier team.
Maybe it’s their year. And maybe that’s okay. If Boston is known as Title Town, Cleveland has for decades been known as Tortured Town. Before the Cavaliers won the NBA championship earlier this year, no Cleveland team had won a professional sports championship since 1964 when the Browns won the NFL title in the pre-Super Bowl era.
The Indians haven’t won the World Series since 1948, and they haven’t appeared in a World Series since 1997. So it’s hard to begrudge them success.
Still, they’ve got to win one more, and they’ll get a chance Sunday at Fenway. By sheer coincidence, the first pitch will be thrown at approximately the same time the Patriots are finishing their game against the Browns in Cleveland. It’s Tom Brady’s first game back from his four-game suspension for . . . well, never mind.
It would be foolish to count the Red Sox out, even though they lost the first two games with their best starting pitchers on the mound. They have the most potent offense in baseball. And they have been here before. In 2004, they lost the first three games of a best-of-seven series against the New York Yankees and stormed back to win, on their way to their first World Series victory in 86 years.
The only one left from that team is David Ortiz, the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history.
There is hope. In life, there’s always hope. I’d warm up the St. Ann’s Choir right alongside Koji. Good karma is as effective as a good splitter.