FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s a short walk from the players’ parking lot to the clubhouse entrance at JetBlue Park, just enough time to glance to the left and take in the large blue banner stretched across the back of the ballpark listing the nine seasons the Red Sox won the World Series.
The large blank space next to 2018 serves as a reminder that it’s always about what comes next for a franchise such as the Sox.
For this particular group, which returns nearly intact after winning 108 games and tearing through the playoffs, it’s a chance to make even more history.
No team has repeated as World Series champions since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000.
In the 18 seasons since, only two defending champions have returned to the Series the following season. That’s how difficult it has been.
The Yankees won the pennant again in 2001 but fell to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Series. The Philadelphia Phillies won the Series in 2008 then lost to the Yankees in the Fall Classic a year later.
When compared to other major sports, baseball is the outlier.
The Golden State Warriors have won the last two NBA championships. The Miami Heat (2012 and ’13) and Los Angeles Lakers (2009 and ’10) also repeated in the last decade.
The Patriots won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 2003 and ’04 seasons. The Pittsburgh Penguins were NHL champions in 2016 and ’17.
In college football, Alabama claimed consensus national titles in 2011 and ’12. Florida had two NCAA basketball championships in a row from 2006-07. The University of Connecticut women ran off four in a row before finally being stopped in 2017.
In baseball, sharp regression has been far more likely than repeat success. Nine World Series champions have missed the playoffs the following season since 2001, and four had losing records.
The 2014 Red Sox set an all-time example of how not to handle success. After winning the World Series in ’13, the Sox were 71-91 a year later and finished in last place. Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Andrew Miller were among the veterans traded away that season.
Terry Francona won two World Series with the Red Sox and got the team back into the playoffs the following season. But they weren’t able to get beyond the ALCS.
“There’s the same [challenges] you always have, that it’s really hard to win. And then on top of that you have to fight the human nature of guys wanting to re-live [the previous season],” said Francona, who now manages the Cleveland Indians.
“Is that helping you get better? Probably not. But it’s human nature. So getting them to be as hungry as they were the year before, that can be a challenge.”
Bruce Bochy managed the San Francisco Giants to championships in 2010, ’12, and ’14. They averaged 82 victories the years after winning and failed to make the playoffs all three times.
“To be honest, it is different the next season,” Bochy said. “You’ve got to be concerned about sometimes maybe a little complacency. Guys took it easy in the winter because it was a short winter. And you’ve got to be concerned about pitchers’ arms and things like that.
“Believe me, we talked about all these things, but the following year, for some reason, we had a tough year. That’s a grind of a season when you go to the World Series.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora played for Francona in 2007 when the Sox won the Series. The 2008 team won 95 games but fell in seven games against the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS. They were good but not good enough.
“It’s not that easy,” Cora said.
If there’s a hangover effect in baseball, Cora feels it’s more physical than mental. The Red Sox played 14 extra games over 28 days after the regular season and made three more road trips.
“Last year, health-wise, we were really good,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready. Hopefully everybody stays healthy.”
To the degree he can foster that in spring training, Cora will try. He plans to hold starting pitchers Nathan Eovaldi, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Chris Sale out of games until mid-March to compensate for their playoff workload. Their preparation will largely come in the bullpen or in tightly controlled scrimmages.
The same will be true for the primary position players. Their at-bats will be limited for a few weeks.
“People probably won’t like our lineups in spring training,” Cora said.
Cora certainly has not shied away from the challenge. On Jan. 17, he told a large crowd at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner, “If you thought last year was special, wait until this year.”
Raising expectations, as he did last season, could work for Cora. Placing the focus on repeating will make it hard to dwell on the past.
That turn, the Sox hope, will be made in spring training. Come the season opener on March 28 in Seattle, they will be one of 30 teams with a chance. But the Sox will be the only ones with a chance to repeat.
“It was an extremely special season,” Porcello said. “Ever since I was a little kid, that was my dream. Now the dream is to make it two. This is a new season, a new journey. We’ll have to play our best baseball to make another run. But we’re capable of that if we stick together.”