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Alex Cora almost stopped himself before he completed the sentence, but true to his nature, went ahead and said what was on his mind.
“If you guys thought last year was special,” the Red Sox manager teased, pausing just long enough to make his final punch especially powerful. “Wait till this year.’’
This was during the annual offseason Boston Baseball Writers Dinner, while Cora was accepting his Manager of the Year award. There he stood, thick in that heady interlude between past perfection and future potential, the elation over a recently won championship eclipsed only by the excitement for the possibility of doing it again. And as the Red Sox wrapped up spring training this month in Florida, there’s been little to dim the bravado Cora shared at that January dinner. With a potent lineup, stellar defense, and a starting rotation to match any in the majors, only the questions around the bullpen remain, and that’s not nearly enough to derail the train of optimism that this team can repeat.
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“To be honest with you, this ball club looks so good, man, from head to toe,” none other than Sox legend David Ortiz told reporters in Fort Myers. “It’s like you walk into that clubhouse and you can feel the good vibe, you can feel that. If there’s one person who can explain that, it’s myself because I was in the clubhouse for a long time, and I have an even better feeling this year than the feeling I had last year.
“And I told you guys how good I felt about the ball club last year. But it’s because you can see on the players’ faces the experience they went through in the playoffs, what they learned, how confident you feel about how you did and the result and everything. I mean, as a player, I can tell you that plays a big role for the following season.
The Sox deserve to be confident. But they also need to be wary. Baseball, with its sheer volume of teams, with its expanded playoff format and diminishing windows of star talent, is probably the most difficult of the four major sports to repeat as champions. But it’s interesting to note that the last team to do it, the 1999 Yankees, bears a strikingly similar situation to what the 2019 Red Sox face.
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The ’99 Yankees are often forgotten in the Yankees’ dynastic run of four titles in five years. The 1996 team? They were the first, the special ones for breaking a forgettable decade of the ’80s, when mediocrity reigned. The 2000 team? They bested the crosstown rival Mets in a memorable Subway Series, as New York an event as sports had seen in a very long time. And the 1998 team? Well, they were the all-timers, who would win a ridiculous 114 games in the regular season and surge through the playoffs all the way to a World Series sweep.
That leaves the ’99 team, one that struggled for much of the season to find its footing. As then-New York Times beat writer and now ESPN baseball insider Buster Olney wrote late in the season, “all year the Yankees have played in the shadow of what they accomplished in 1998, when they set a record by winning 125 games and finished with a four-game sweep of San Diego in the World Series. Players sometimes griped early in the year that fans and the news media unfairly compared the 1999 Yankees to that standard, but by midsummer it became apparent that the Yankees themselves were trying to live up to their own impossible expectations. Nearly all the Yankees have been guilty of pressing and pushing themselves into ruts of anxiety at one time or another.”
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Some rumblings had been there since spring, when a blockbuster trade on the day players reported changed the roster dynamics. The Yankees acquired former Red Sox ace Roger Clemens from Toronto in a deal that included giving away David Wells. Ultimately, the rotation of Clemens, Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, and David Cone was enough to anchor another title run. The Red Sox foursome of Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Nathan Eovaldi (along with Eduardo Rodriguez) certainly has a chance to be as good. But it wasn’t all rosy in New York. Manager Joe Torre missed a chunk of the early season getting treatment for prostate cancer, which also affected veteran Darryl Strawberry, who’d been treated for colon cancer.
In the end, those Yankees did find their way, clinching the division in late September, their 98 regular-season wins four better than the wild-card finishing Red Sox. They’d sweep the Rangers in the division round, beat the Sox in the ALCS (Bernie Williams’s walkoff homer off Rod Beck in Game 1 set the tone, and not even a memorable Fenway meltdown by Clemens could derail the train), and keep their World Series winning streak alive by sweeping the Braves. An impressive 11-1 record in the playoffs proved both how much they had shed the identity of the previous year and how much they kept the momentum of the previous year.
Can the Sox do the same? That is the challenge — believing in this year’s team while forgetting last year’s. Because the nature of sports demands at least some measure of Belichickian focus. It’s on to 2019, boys, where last year’s 108 regular-season wins, last year’s MVP performance by Mookie Betts, last year’s trump-card playoff pitching heroics of David Price, last year’s unlikely emergence of World Series MVP Steve Pearce, they’re all washed away. Time to start again.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.