· Red Sox Nation: An Oral History
by Kevin Cook
· May 20, 2014 : 04:05
This is the story of a long-suffering franchise. Not the Cubs, Pirates, Padres, Bengals, Jaguars, Wizards, Nuggets or once-mighty Ducks of Anaheim but a baseball team born the Boston Americans in 1901.
Last year that franchise, now known as the Red Sox, won its third World Series since 2004. That sensational run makes up for (or does it?) a tradition of losing that stretches back through the 1990s and 1980s to the disco years, and before that to the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War II, the Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties and earlier. Long before Neil Diamond ever burbled “Sweet Caroline” and even before Neil Diamond was born, the Red Sox chased the American League pennant year after year for almost a century and always lost, usually to the New York Yankees.
Here’s the story of how Boston’s team reversed a curse that was almost as old as modern baseball.
In 1918 the Red Sox ruled the game. After Boston won the World Series to claim its fifth championship, former mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald—John F. Kennedy’s grandfather—declared, “The Red Sox dynasty lives, and there is no end in sight!”
The dynasty was dying as he spoke.
DENIS LEARY, actor, comedian, Sox nut: Yeah, dying because they sold Babe Ruth. Not traded him, sold him. To the New fucking York fucking Yankees.
MIKE VACCARO, New York Post columnist, author of Emperors and Idiots: The Hundred-Year Rivalry Between the Yankees and Red Sox: The Sox wanted to unload Ruth, who’d gotten too loud and obnoxious. And Ruth was a pitcher then—a pitcher who went 9–5 in the Red Sox’s lousy 1919 season. Sure, he also led the league with 29 homers, but to the Sox he would always be a pitcher first. And a jerk.
DOUG VOGEL, Society for American Baseball Research: Ruth could drive a baseball out of any park, but he sucked at driving a car. He swerved around corners, bumping pedestrians, going through cars as fast as he went through women. After one debauched night he tried to drive between two trolleys near Fenway Park and totaled his car. The Babe walked away without a scratch, but his female companion wound up in the hospital.
VACCARO: The day after Christmas 1919, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 plus a loan for $300,000. Do you know what he put up as collateral for the loan?
LEARY: Fenway Park!
VACCARO: Fenway Park. And the “curse of the Bambino” was on.
BILL NOWLIN, author of 17 books on the Sox: Boston was called “baseball’s hometown,” but after the Sox traded Ruth, the losing began. Generations of fans grew up feeling cursed.
VACCARO: The next year, Ruth hit 54 homers for the Yankees. Harry Hooper led the Red Sox with seven. In the next 83 years the Yanks would finish ahead of the Sox 66 times and win 26 World Series titles to the Red Sox’s zero.
The Sox reached the 1946 World Series, only to lose when Enos “Country” Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals dashed all the way home from first base on a single. Boston was known for chowder, baked beans and bad baseball.
NOWLIN: My father was a hot-dog vendor at Fenway during the Great Depression. Bad work for a fan, because the game’s going on behind you. The bosses counted the hot dogs every day but not the buns, so the vendors would grab two or three buns and slop them with ketchup and mustard for a free “Depression lunch.”
My father loved Jimmie Foxx, the great slugger the Red Sox traded for in 1936. Foxx hit 198 homers in five years, but the Sox never finished better than second. Then came the Ted Williams era. Was Williams the best hitter ever? He’s sure the only one to win a Triple Crown without winning the MVP award. Twice. There were two reasons: Williams didn’t play in New York, and he didn’t butter up the writers who voted for the award. In 1942 he led the league in every department—a .356 batting average, 36 homers, 137 RBIs. The Yankees’ Joe Gordon hit .322 with 18 homers and 103 RBIs. Gordon also led the league in bad stats—strikeouts and grounding into double plays—and Gordon won the MVP.
Williams was edgy, touchy. Ballplayers always wore ties on road trips, but he refused to wear a necktie. He’d spit at fans who booed him. But he was a war hero—39 missions as a fighter pilot, shot down over Korea. He spent nights at the Children’s Hospital of Boston. He’d finally get up to go and the kid would say, “Ted, stay with me!” So Williams would have a nurse bring a cot and he’d sleep there, then play the next day. Nobody knew because he had a deal with reporters: “If you write about this, I’ll never do it again.”
LESLEY VISSER, Hall of Fame sportscaster: As a Boston child of the Kennedy years, I was seven when JFK was inaugurated. His first words—“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration”—made me think he was talking about the Red Sox. We’d stumbled through the 1950s with a manager named Pinky Higgins [third place in his best year]. Even with Williams in left, our team ranged from mediocre to lousy. But the Kennedy era promised passion, sparkle, new life. Alas, the Sox stayed awful. They once drew fewer than 100 fans to a game against Cleveland.
My brother and I sat in the bleachers and thought, Well, we might be losing, but we’re getting to see Frank Malzone and Bill Monbouquette and my beloved Ike Delock, who won two games in 1963.
NOWLIN: Then there was Jimmy Piersall, whose psychiatric problems were immortalized in a movie, Fear Strikes Out. Piersall would use a water pistol to wash home plate for the umpire. When he hit his 100th career homer, he ran the bases backward.
Led by Carl Yastrzemski, another Triple Crown winner, the lowly Sox shocked the world by winning the pennant in 1967. But again they lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.
LEARY: My dad became a baseball fan when he came over from Ireland, and I inherited his Red Sox DNA. Their miracle run in 1967 got me hooked. But I didn’t know how disappointing it would be. Sometimes they lost in bizarre circumstances; sometimes they just lost.
NOWLIN: Even in that “Impossible Dream” season they lost Tony Conigliaro. He was 22, the youngest ever to hit 100 home runs. Then that August he got hit in the face, almost killed by a fastball at Fenway. Tony C. was never the same again.
DICK FRIEDMAN, Sports Illustrated baseball editor, Sox fan: Something else symbolized the futility: the black players they didn’t have. The Sox were, infamously, the last big-league team to integrate. A decade after Jackie Robinson, they were still 100 percent white.
When Boston dumped pitcher Earl Wilson in 1966, it was rumored he was banished for sleeping with white women. Wilson went on to win 22 games for Detroit.
FRIEDMAN: They gave Willie Mays a tryout and didn’t sign him. Imagine Mays in the Red Sox outfield with Ted Williams and later with Yastrzemski.…
LEARY: Yaz was my guy. I played left field in Little League with my Yaz Triple Crown glove. I ate Yaz bread. Really, he had bread. Yaz never had Williams’s talent, but he worked his ass off. I’ll never forget the day he came to my school. Carl Yastrzemski walks into my eighth-grade classroom. Total hush. He says, “Kids, stay in school and don’t do drugs.” And leaves. A man of few words.
NOWLIN: In the 1970s they had a great team coalescing: Yaz was at first by then, Carlton Fisk behind the plate, Rico Petrocelli at third, Rick Burleson at short.…
CONAN O’BRIEN, TV host, Sox fan: As a Sox-crazed kid I waited hours at a car dealership to get Burleson’s autograph. He probably got a new car out of it. I said something smartass like “Nice Eldorado you’re getting,” and he’s like, “Move along, kid, so I can get the fuck out of here.”
NOWLIN: Best of all, that team had two phenomenal rookies: Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.
O’BRIEN:You know how you remember snapshots from adolescence? If you say music, I think of the Cars in the 1970s, guys in Ray-Bans on a car hood. My baseball snapshot is Yaz, Rice and Lynn, my hero. I was no athlete, but one day I made a catch, and the Little League coach says, “You looked like Fred Lynn out there.” It’s still the best compliment I ever got.
FRED LYNN, Red Sox center fielder, 1974–1980: The Yankees drafted me out of high school and acted like I was supposed to be flattered. “We’re the New York Yankees. Sign here.” Instead I went to college, and the Red Sox signed me out of USC for a $40,000 bonus. At first Boston was a culture shock for a southern California boy like me. I’d go out to eat and they’d bring me a lobster and a hammer, and I’d say, “Do I have to kill it?”
FRIEDMAN: Lynn and Rice were a godsend. I once saw Rice smash one off the Green Monster so hard the shortstop had a play on the carom back to the infield.
LYNN:How strong was Jimmy Rice? I was 165 pounds and he was 215, big for those days. He looked like he lifted anvils. The ball made a different sound when he hit it. I saw Jimmy break his bat on a checked swing without making contact with the ball! Making me feel bad. I’d check my swing and look at the bat. Is it cracked? No? Damn, I’m a mere mortal.
NOWLIN:That team had bigger stars, but Fisk, the catcher—a tough New Englander known for his run-ins with the Yankees’ Thurman Munson—really defined them.
LYNN: Pudge Fisk was my first roommate. I loved him, but I was a loner, so I paid $1,000 to have my own room on the road. Not per night—$1,000 for the whole season.
Yaz was the senior guy on our team. He and I were similar left-handed hitters. There was no video to study in those days, so I’d stand in the on-deck circle, watching how they pitched him. Game after game they pitched me the same way.
Lynn batted .331 with 21 home runs and 105 RBIs in 1975. Rice hit .309 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs but hurt his wrist and missed the postseason. Still, the Sox swept Oakland in the American League Championship Series, earning a trip to the epic 1975 World Series against Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.” Boston’s game one starter was muttonchopped junkballer Luis Tiant, who had fled Cuba just before Fidel Castro came to power.
BILL LITTLEFIELD, WBUR radio host: I loved Tiant’s intensity and sheer love of pitching. He’d been terrible in 1969, his last year in Cleveland, and terrible his first year in Boston. Then he reinvented himself as an off-speed pitcher. A lovable reclamation project who smoked a big Cuban cigar and horsed around in the clubhouse. One time he was stopped for speeding, and when the officer asked what he was doing, he said, “Bringing some heat.”
Other players would hang their heads during losing streaks, but Tiant said, “Give me the ball.” I saw him throw 170 pitches one day when he had nothing—nothing but guts and his crazy windup.
PETE ROSE, 1975 World Series MVP with the Cincinnati Reds: Tiant liked to screw with hitters’ heads.
LITTLEFIELD: His motion was a triumph of illusion, the illusion that he could still throw hard. He’d go through crazy contortions, cocking his hip to the point of dislocation, his back to the plate.
ROSE: He’d mess you up if you watched his head spin backward like The Exorcist. But his contortions didn’t bother me. Hell, his head could fall off and roll over to first base, and I’d never notice because I’m not looking at his head. I’m looking at his release point.
MARK FROST, co-creator of Twin Peaks, author of Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: For me, Tiant and his father were the emotional center of the story. Luis Tiant Sr., a once-great star of the Negro Leagues reduced to poverty in Cuba, finally got a visa thanks to Senator George McGovern. McGovern hand-delivered a letter to Castro, making a passionate case for why the baseball-loving presidente should allow Tiant to be reunited with his aging, ailing parents.
After an emotional reunion at Logan Airport, Luis Sr. watched his son pitch a masterful shutout of the mighty Reds in game one of the World Series. Later that night, during a joyful celebration at the Tiant home, Luis came through the door and saw his father looking up at him, a sweet proud smile on his face. They held each other without saying a word, both weeping. The dream, passed down from father to son, had come all the way home.
In game four, Tiant nursed a 5–4 lead into the ninth inning. With two on and one out, the Reds’ Ken Griffey sent a rocket to left-center. Lynn made an over-the-shoulder catch. Joe Morgan popped out on Tiant’s 163rd pitch, and the series was tied, two games apiece.
ROSE: That series really helped the game of baseball. The NFL was catching up as the real national pastime, but the 1975 World Series helped baseball take off again. We got rained out three straight times, so these vivid personalities—me, Johnny Bench, Yaz, Fisk, Tiant, Bill Lee—entertained the writers for three days of hype.
Fenway got so wet we had to work out in a gym at Tufts University. But we got lost on the way. Our bus pulls into a gas station and the attendant’s eyes bug out, seeing the Cincinnati Reds in full uniform. The guy’s got a Red Sox cap on, and he gives us bad directions. We rode around Boston for an hour looking for Tufts University.
VOGEL: Game six was one of the great battles in baseball history—tied 6–6 in the 12th inning.
ROSE: I go to bat and there’s Fisk behind the plate. I said, “Isn’t this fun, Carlton? Isn’t this as good as it gets?” He says, “Yeah. Yeah, this is fun.” Maybe I relaxed him.
Bottom of the 12th: Fisk up against rookie pitcher Pat Darcy, a sinkerballer who had allowed only four homers in 130 innings. Reds catcher Johnny Bench called for a low-inside sinker. Fisk sent a towering fly down the left-field line.
NOWLIN: I had an SRO ticket to the game. The ushers let us sit in the aisle between sections 18 and 19, so I’m looking right down the line, following the flight of Fisk’s long fly ball.
TV cameras were supposed to track the ball’s flight too, but NBC cameraman Lou Gerard, distracted by a Fenway Park rat running past his foot, lost the ball. Gerard kept his camera on Fisk and captured an immortal sports moment: Fisk trying to wave the ball fair.
NOWLIN: Fair ball! Sox win!
ROSE: Game six—that was the only loss I ever had fun in.
NOWLIN: After the game, all over Boston, cars honked their horns for hours.
ROSE: But we could still win game seven.
BILL “SPACEMAN” LEE, Sox pitcher, 1969–1978: So could we. The Reds’ lineup was stacked, but I shut ’em out for five innings in the last game.
ROSE: As tough as Tiant was, we thought of Lee as their best pitcher—the Spaceman, the famous flake.
DON NATHAN, Sox fan: One day I was at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, waiting out a rain delay. Rick Dempsey entertained the crowd with a Babe Ruth impression. He stuck a pillow under his jersey, took a big left-handed swing, ran the bases and finished by belly flopping into home. Then Bill Lee came out with a bat, ball and glove. Without a word or a look at the crowd, he placed the glove at his feet, flipped the ball in the air and fungoed it straight up. Leaned down, jammed his hand into the glove and caught the ball. A nice trick.
Then he tossed the ball again. Hit it almost straight up but a step to his left. Hand into glove, one step over, catches the ball. Steps back to where he started and hits one a step to his right. This went on, each pop-up taking him a little farther left or right, till he finally hit one too far away to run and catch. He gathered up his ball and glove and left the field, never acknowledging the cheering fans. That was Lee: skillful, entertaining and completely baffling.
VOGEL: Bill Lee claimed he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes in the morning.
LEE: Some reporters asked me about a so-called drug problem on the team, and I said, “Yes, the Red Sox have been abusing alcohol, caffeine and tobacco for years.” Then they asked about marijuana. I said I used it. So Commissioner Bowie Kuhn calls me into his office and says, “Bill, it says here you smoke pot.”
“Read the story, Bowie. It says I use it.”
“Well, how do you use it?”
“I make my breakfast, add an ounce of marijuana and then run six miles to the ballpark. The pot makes me impervious to bus fumes along the road.” And he believed me. The commissioner said, “I’ll buy that.” Pretty soon I got a letter informing me I was fined $250 for using marijuana “as a condiment.”
ROSE: Yeah, Lee was a flake. But he could get you out.
LEE: Prophets in their own time are seldom embraced.
ROSE: Lee had us down in two games that series until we came back against their bullpen. Now he’s shutting us out in game seven.
And then the Spaceman uncorked the craziest pitch in baseball history.
LEE: Well, I was rolling along till I got a blister. I was what they called a cunny-thumber, a guy who uses his thumb to put spin on the ball. In the fifth inning I got a blister. I’d have been okay if we had somebody who could cauterize a blister, but our trainer was this little SOB who couldn’t give a massage to the Pillsbury Doughboy. The blister pops; now I’m getting blood on the ball. Blood makes the ball rise. I still get Johnny Bench to hit a double-play ball. But our manager, Don Zimmer—“the Gerbil,” so named by me—had told second baseman Denny Doyle to play farther from the bag. Doyle’s late covering; he throws the ball away. Yaz almost snagged it, but he stretched too soon. So instead of being out of the inning, I’ve got one on, two out, Tony Pérez up. That’s baseball—it’s always a cloud of contingencies.
LEARY:I loved Bill Lee, but about once a month he threw an eephus pitch, a big, slow blooper.…
LEE:I threw Pérez a slow curve. A very slow, very high curve. Okay, it was an eephus. Or a leephus, as I called it.
LEARY: That pitch took so long to get to the plate that if you play back the tape you’ll hear me yelling, “Don’t throw that pitch to Tony Pérez!”
LEE: And he hit it hard.
FRIEDMAN: For a two-run homer. The ball reached orbit somewhere over Newfoundland, and the Sox went on to lose.
Lynn was named 1975 rookie of the year. Along with a Gold Glove for his defense in center, he was also named MVP, becoming the first player to win all three awards in the same year.
LYNN: There was no ceremony in those days, no nothing. I found out about the MVP while I was driving from Boston back home to California. Stopped into a motel, flipped on the TV and saw my picture. “Hey, that’s me!” I was thrilled—beyond the honor, it got me a $20,000 bonus.
Three years later, the Sox and Yankees went down the stretch tied in the standings. Both teams won every day for a week, leading a Boston newscaster to announce, “Pope dead, Sox alive, details at 11.” In a one-game playoff for the division crown, the Sox led 2–0 in the seventh—until light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent’s three-run homer sank them. The Yankees went on to win the World Series.
CARL YASTRZEMSKI, Sox left fielder, 1961–1983: [Postgame] Those bastards always have a little extra.
LEARY: I was at Emerson College, totally caught up in the Sox. After the 1975 series I thought we could win five World Series in a row. Until Bucky Dent. That’s when I realized the curse was real—and considered offering my left testicle for a championship.
O’BRIEN: Next thing you know, they trade Lynn to the Angels. It was my first experience with a Red Sox leaving. Pretty soon my hero’s in a Fantasy Island segment. It was upsetting, a very un-Sox thing to do.
LYNN:I faced Radar from M*A*S*H. His fantasy was to face Steve Garvey, George Brett and me, and strike us all out. I went last. My line was “And I thought Nolan Ryan was tough.” So much for my acting career.
O’BRIEN: A few years later I was at Harvard. Being a Sox fan wasn’t cool, but then nobody’s cool at Harvard. If you’re cool you drop out and start a social media empire.
TOM VERDUCCI, Sports Illustrated writer: My first pilgrimage to Fenway was on opening day 1985. I arrived early and walked out to the Green Monster. Seeing it up close, after years of knowing it only from NBC Game of the Week cameras, was a shock. The surface was dented like the dimples of a golf ball. And like a celebrity, the Monster was taller and more imposing than I imagined.
In 1986 the Sox made their fourth World Series since 1918. In game six, leading the New York Mets by two in the 10th inning, the Sox were about to win at last.
LYNN: Late in the game, Johnny McNamara usually brought Dave Stapleton in to play defense at first base. But now he lets emotion creep in. Johnny Mac was a players’ manager, and he thinks they’re about to clinch, change history, reverse the curse. He wants his regulars out there for the big moment. So he made an emotional decision. He left Bill Buckner at first base.
Three singles and a wild pitch brought Mookie Wilson to the plate. Wilson hit a dribbler to Buckner.
VERDUCCI: At that moment Theo Epstein, who would grow up to be the team’s boyish general manager, was 12. He was standing on the back of his sofa, waiting to jump for joy when the Sox won. He had to skulk back down when the ball went through Buckner’s legs.
NOWLIN: Buckner’s error crushed Boston. We were poised to celebrate, then all of a sudden the wind went out of the whole town. I went for a walk and passed three or four other despondent people with their heads down, nobody saying a word.
LEARY: You know what nobody talks about? Bob Stanley, the pitcher, didn’t run to cover first. Buckner’s so far from the bag they wouldn’t get Mookie even if he fields the ball. Everybody blames Buckner and forgets Bob Stanley.
TIM WAKEFIELD, Sox pitcher, 1995–2011: My college roommate and I watched the 1986 series unfold, the ball going through Buckner’s legs. So I knew about the curse before I ever got to Boston.
I was a first baseman when Pittsburgh drafted me. But I was never gonna make the big leagues as a hitter, so I became a pitcher, a knuckleball pitcher.
Wakefield reached the big leagues in 1992. He went 8–1 down the stretch for the Pirates, beat the Braves twice in that year’s National League Championship Series and was set to be the series MVP. Atlanta scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to win the game and the series. Wakefield’s career crumbled. The Pirates released him in 1995.
WAKEFIELD:I signed with Boston, got my confidence back. Had a great year in 1995 [16–8, 2.95 ERA] and loved being there. Fenway’s one of the last remaining citadels of baseball.
FRIEDMAN: Wakefield could be excruciating to watch. If his knuckler didn’t knuckle, it was batting practice. He went 6–11 in 1999, 6–10 in 2000, with hideous ERAs. We’d say, “How can they start fucking Wakefield?” And then, when you least expected it, he’d pitch a gem, and we’d be high-fiving and saying, “Yeah, fucking Wakefield.”
In 2002 a group led by Boston businessman John Henry and former Padres owner Tom Werner bought the team.
WAKEFIELD: Not that the previous owners did a bad job, but the real turnaround came when Mr. Henry and Mr. Werner took over. We got a bigger weight room and a players’ lounge. They even fixed the field. The infield at Fenway had always been crowned for drainage. They paid extra to make it flat, which helped the fielders. You could feel a new time coming. We were proud to be Red Sox, ready to go to war.
O’BRIEN: I lived in New York during my SNL and Late Night days, and it felt like being a Union spy in the Deep South during the Civil War. There always seemed to be a giant parade with Derek Jeter going past the coffee shop I was sitting in.
Before the final game of the 2003 ALCS, a Manhattan water main flooded the George Washington Bridge. The Yankees’ Jason Giambi was sure he’d be late—until police officers saw the steroidal slugger stuck in traffic and gave his Porsche a lights-and-sirens escort. Giambi hit a pair of homers to keep the Yanks close that night. Mariano Rivera pitched three shutout innings, and Wakefield faced Aaron Boone in extra innings.
WAKEFIELD: My confidence was all there because I’d been getting him out.
He owned Aaron Boone. They had faced each other five times in the series; Boone was zero for five, with three lazy flies and two strikeouts. But Yankees manager Joe Torre had noticed Boone stepping in the bucket, pulling balls foul.
JOE TORRE, Yankees manager, 1996–2007: [Pulling Boone aside]Try hitting to right field. That’ll help you keep it fair.
WAKEFIELD: First pitch, I let it go and—
LEARY: Boom! Boone launches a home run and joins an elite club. There are four Sox-killers in the club, all with the same middle name: Babe Fucking Ruth, Harry Fucking Frazee, Bucky Fucking Dent and Aaron Fucking Boone.
AARON BOONE, Yankees third baseman, 2003:[Mobbed by teammates and reporters on the field] What I want to know is, what are all these people doing in my dream?
WAKEFIELD: It was over so fast. You’re totally in the thick of it, and a second later it’s over—the game, the season. That’s when I really felt the curse.As Boone touched the plate, the loudspeakers at Yankee Stadium began playing “New York, New York”—14 times in a row. Not exactly what the Sox wanted to hear.
WAKEFIELD:A media guy told me I would have been MVP if we had won. Instead I was the goat. In the clubhouse, Nomar Garciaparra came over to me. Trot Nixon and Doug Mirabelli too. They hugged me and said, “Hey, man, it’s not your fault.” When the reporters came in, I apologized to our fans.
VACCARO: Roger Clemens and David Wells lugged some champagne out to Monument Park, beyond the left-field fence, and drank to Babe Ruth’s plaque. Wells said, “He’s shining on us. The curse lives!”
LEE: I had a big rat in my house in those days. He dug through Sheetrock, lived in the refrigerator, ate all our cat food. The cat wanted nothing to do with him. That night I put some peanut butter in a trap, and at the very instant of Boone’s home run, snap! Got him! And I realized that rat was a Sox fan. When Boone connected, he didn’t want to live anymore.
VISSER: I wailed as if my dog had died. I had spent so many years in Fenway, so many years listening to Curt Gowdy on cheap transistor radios, so many years covering games, yelling in bars, caring too much. And we were never going to win a World Series.
The day after Thanksgiving 2003 the Sox traded Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon and two minor leaguers for Yankee-killer Curt Schilling. Asked about the Yanks’ mystique and aura, Schilling had scoffed, “Mystique and Aura? Those are dancers in a nightclub.”
CURT SCHILLING, Sox pitcher, 2004–2008: [Trying on a Sox cap]I guess I hate the Yankees now.
O’BRIEN: The doorman in my building taught my son to say “Go Yankees,” which troubled me. One day I’m in a hotel elevator with Ben Affleck. I knew Ben a little; he’d been on the show. But he’s a busy man, probably running late to make an Oscar-winning film, so I just nod and say, “Hey, Ben.” He says hey and then, just as he’s getting off the elevator, I mention the doorman who taught my son to say “Go Yankees.” And Ben stops, spins around, blocking the elevator door, and says, “That’s fucked up. You gotta get that guy fired.”
VACCARO: The hate was real. Red Sox president Larry Lucchino called the Yankees baseball’s “evil empire.” Yanks owner George Steinbrenner called Lucchino’s comment bullshit. “That’s how a sick person thinks,” Steinbrenner said. After that he wouldn’t even say the Red Sox’s name. He called them “that team from north of here.”
WAKEFIELD:I spent the winter in Florida, didn’t read Boston papers or listen to sports radio, so I didn’t know where I stood with the fans. Then I went up for the Baseball Writers’ Association dinner, an annual event full of Sox fans. Was I still the goat? Well, they gave me the longest standing ovation I ever heard. Brought me to tears. That’s when I thought there might be better times ahead.
The Yankees opened the 2004 ALCS by beating the Red Sox three times in a row. No team in baseball history had ever come back from a 3–0 deficit to win a postseason series.
NOWLIN: At batting practice before game four, Kevin Millar went around to the Yankees, warning them, “Better not let us win tonight.” He had a feeling the Sox weren’t done. Sure enough, they got even. Schilling won game six, the famous bloody-sock game, despite pitching with a stitched-together ankle tendon that bled through his sock. One more victory might reverse the curse. Before game seven, I asked Sox fans, “What if we beat them?” Would it ruin us? Would the city fall apart?
LEARY:I got so nervous I had to sit on the same spot on my couch, night after night. I said, “They’re winning. I can’t move.”
LEE: It was sweet, watching the Yankees fold.
FRIEDMAN: David “Big Papi” Ortiz homered in the seventh game. Johnny Damon hit two. The Sox won 10–3—on to the World Series.
WAKEFIELD: It was so cool celebrating on the same mound where I’d given up the Boone home run. We kept the party going in the clubhouse. Champagne’s flowing, guys are yelling, when one of the clubbies [clubhouse attendants] taps my shoulder and says, “You got a phone call.” It was Joe Torre, calling from the other clubhouse to congratulate me. “You deserve it,” he said. “Just make sure you enjoy it.”
VACCARO: Sox fans stuck around Yankee Stadium after the game, chanting, “Thank you, Red Sox! Thank you, Red Sox!” Steinbrenner told his people to leave the lights on for them. He said, “They’ve earned it.”
O’BRIEN: I watched the game on TV and then ran into Central Park, weeping, screaming, jumping up and down. My dog doesn’t know what’s going on, so he starts jumping up and down, barking. And there is nobody else in the park. I’m thinking, I am in the wrong fucking city. Imagine Boston tonight!
LEE: The Red Sox faced St. Louis in the World Series. The Cardinals were the National League version of the Yankees, Boston’s nemesis in 1946 and 1967, the supreme National League power. But it was our year. Naturally the Sox swept the series. Fabulous! All curses off.
LEARY: It was only after we won that I realized something: There was never a curse. It wasn’t Babe Ruth. It was bad bounces, jittery infielders, bad choices, bad luck.
VERDUCCI: I got assigned the story explaining why the Red Sox were SI’s sportsmen of the year. I’d spent weeks writing about “the Idiots,” Manny Ramirez being Manny, the bloody sock, the curse of the Bambino, Johnny, Papi and the greatest comeback story ever. So I turned to the fans. I found the grave of a man named Napoleon A. Blouin, whose headstone read 1926–1986, darn those socks.I found fans who filled cemeteries on the night they won the World Series to share a toast with dead loved ones. Only then did I understand that the Red Sox weren’t about Ted and Pesky and Louie and Dewey and Rice and Lynn and Manny and Big Papi. They are about the people who hold them dear, not just as a sports team but as a civic treasure. It was always true but never more than in 2004.
LEARY: I did a commercial spoof where a guy with hedge clippers comes to claim my left nut. People have thanked me for that sacrifice. I’d like to see the Sox display it at Fenway—not the real thing, a wrinkled grape or something. I would attend the ceremony and have my picture taken next to it.
VISSER: One night I found myself on a red carpet next to Johnny Damon, who’d left in 2005 to join the dreaded Yankees. I said, “Am I supposed to speak to you?” He smiled and said, “Well, I did help bring you a World Series.” Sigh.
Boston swept Colorado in the 2007 World Series, then lost in the playoffs the next two years. In 2011 they swooned down the stretch as pitchers Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester ate fried chicken, guzzled beer and played video games in the clubhouse. In 2012 they finished last.
NOWLIN: The big move the Sox made in the disastrous 2012 season was, at first blush, a salary dump: a late-August trade with the Dodgers, swapping three huge contracts—Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez—plus Nick Punto for, essentially, some prospects. Freeing up about $250 million while ridding the clubhouse of some perceived misfits was the kind of deal most GMs only dream of. Does chemistry matter? The Sox repopulated with “team players” Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Jake Peavy and Mike Napoli.
Then, last spring, the Red Sox and their city were staggered by the Boston Marathon bombing. Before their next home game David Ortiz stood on the field at Fenway and unofficially announced the “Boston Strong” era.
DAVID ORTIZ, Sox designated hitter: [To the crowd and the world] This is our fucking city, and nobody’s gonna dictate our freedom!
LEARY: People said the Sox were ugly—even Ortiz in his baggy uniform. But I like the baggy look. If it’s good enough for Big Papi, it’s good enough for me, which is a philosophy I try to follow in all of life.
JONNY GOMES, Sox outfielder: I was a journeyman. I joined them last year and saw that core group—Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz—with a chip on their shoulder. Guys like that are the rock of the organization, and they wanted to bury the last couple of years. Once we got going, it happened quickly. We went from a team to a brotherhood. That’s what the beards were all about. We had one rule: Don’t shave. Your face gets so itchy you hate it, but you want that man cred—we were a bunch of salty vets getting the team back on track.
NOWLIN: Last year, for the first time in a decade, Fenway wasn’t sold out for every game. But you know what? I never got that old feeling that we were bound to lose. It wasn’t overconfidence—I mean, I didn’t turn into a Yankees fan—but it was like a cloud had lifted.
GOMES: Were we conceited? No. Cocky, yeah. We’re part of something big. I mean, you don’t hear about Cardinal Nation or Yankees Nation, do you? With Red Sox Nation there’s a lot of eyes on you, a lot of accountability. You gotta respect the uniform.
O’BRIEN: I watched the playoffs with my son, Beckett, who’s eight. I used to tell people he was named for Josh Beckett till Josh misbehaved, so I went back to Samuel Beckett, who was never seen drinking beer in the clubhouse. Anyway, playoffs—Detroit had the Sox down by four runs in the eighth inning. Ortiz comes up with the bases loaded. Beckett says, “He should hit a home run. Then they’ll be tied.” I said, “Beckett, baseball isn’t that easy.” Papi hits a grand slam, and Beckett looks at me like, “It’s so simple, you fool.”
LEARY: Last season I wasn’t all that emotionally invested till September. Suddenly it’s the World Series.
LEE: Against the Cardinals—who else?
BEN AFFLECK, actor and director: [On Twitter] I’m filming #GoneGirl in your neck of the woods. Go @RedSox!
In game four, the Cardinals had a chance to take a commanding three-games-to-one lead. Gomes came up with two on and two out in the sixth inning.
GOMES: Everything’s exposed in the World Series. You may not think about the stage you’re on till later, but you don’t want to be the guy who loses the series.
He worked the count to 2–2, then jumped on a Seth Maness fastball.
GOMES: At contact I thought, That one’s got a chance. A couple of their guys had hit balls that looked gone for sure but stayed in the park. I was watching Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday, and he’s looking up like he’s got a bead on the ball, but it comes down a little past his glove—and the fence.
Three nights after Gomes’s three-run homer helped the Sox even the series, they had a chance to clinch at Fenway.
LEARY: It was my first World Series in the ballpark with my son, Jack. He got his Sox DNA from me and my dad. We get to Fenway and wind up in the Yastrzemski Suite, with pictures of Yaz all over the walls. A good sign.
FRIEDMAN: And of course they win. Papi’s MVP and all’s right with the world.
CHRIS EVANS, actor: [On Twitter] CHAMPS!!!!!!! AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!! The last 12 years have been an embarrassment of riches as a Boston sports fan. Thank you, Boston. #spoiled
ELIZABETH BANKS, actor: [On Twitter] Congrats BOSTON!! #RedSox #BostonStrong #beardsbegone
TROY AIKMAN, Dallas Cowboys quarterback, 1989–2000:[On Twitter] My Little League team in the 70s was Red Sox…grew up watching Fisk, Lynn, Yaz, Rice, Tiant…congratulations to the Boston Red Sox.
GEORGE LOPEZ, actor, comedian and TV host: [On Twitter] Papi @davidortiz felicidades #Chingon
ELI ROTH, director: [On Twitter] ALL THE WAY TO LANDSDOWNE STREET!!!!!!! Go @RedSox!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!!!! You made this Bear Jew very very proud to be from Beantown.
JOHN KRASINSKI, actor: [On Twitter] Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! #Red-Sox Nation#WorldSeries#BostonStrong!!!!!
O’BRIEN: Now you look in the dictionary under championship, and there’s a picture of Jonny Gomes.
GOMES: I did my part, contributed some things. There are journeymen who get bitter and ones who know they’re lucky to be in this game. I’m the kind that stays grateful and keeps truckin’.
O’BRIEN: My only problem with the new, winning Sox is their song. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” what’s that about? They couldn’t get the rights to “Afternoon Delight” or Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow”? But I like the beards. These are real, hardcore old-school men. They look like they’re going whaling. In the offseason, they shovel coal. Meanwhile, I’m rubbing moisturizer on my hands.
LEARY: So yeah, we’re winners now. My dad went to his grave wishing for a Red Sox championship, and now, my God, my son and I got three!
You still gotta hate the Yankees. That’s why you’ll never see me wearing a Yankees hat on Rescue Me. I have never put one on my head and never will. If you see me in a Yankees hat, you’ll know I’m either dead or being held hostage—call the authorities.
With boyish GM Theo Epstein rebuilding the Chicago Cubs, his boyish successor, Ben Cherington, has the Red Sox on top of the baseball world.
ROSE: Cherington’s done a great job puzzling that team together with secondary guys like Gomes and Shane Victorino.
O’BRIEN: Other than Papi, they’re not superstars. They’re guys who want to win, guys who’d go through rifle fire, bandage up their wounds and take the guy out at second.
NOWLIN: Cherington was there before Epstein. He, Theo and [former GM] Dan Duquette all valued the Moneyball approach that focuses on on-base percentage. The Sox work the count, grind the pitcher down until they beat him or get to the bullpen.
ROSE: But it’s hard to see them winning again this year. They lost their catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. They lost Jacoby Ellsbury, one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.
LYNN: Ellsbury could have taken a few million less to stay in Boston. But he’s a Yankee now, and the Sox have Jackie Bradley Jr. in center at Fenway, where Jacoby and I used to play. Bradley can play center, but will he hit? As for Ellsbury, he’ll do okay in New York if he gets off to a good start. Johnny Damon had the personality to handle New York, but I’m not so sure about Jacoby. And it’ll sure be interesting when he comes back to Boston.
GOMES: Red Sox Nation would throw rocks at me if I said we weren’t gonna win again. But there’s no chance we will do it the same way again. Our center fielder is gone; we’re all a year older. That’s what hits you on the last day, when some of your teammates have to strip their lockers. You can never really win again because it’s never the same team from year to year. It says red sox on your shirt, but some of the guys are different. So our mind-set’s not “Let’s go back-to-back.” It’s “Let’s turn the fuckin’ page.” One year at a time, one win at a time.
LEE: And life goes on. These days I make maple bats, and they’re beauties. Robinson Cano uses my bats. I’ve also got a wine called Spaceman Red, and now that laws are changing, I may start my own brand of marijuana. Spaceman pot! Believe me, it’ll be out of this world.
O’BRIEN: We’ve won so much that it almost doesn’t matter what happens this year. But talk to me again next year. If the Sox don’t win, I’ll be griping about the curse.