Until winning two World Championships in 2004 and 2007, the Boston Red Sox lived under the shadow of the Curse of the Bambino. Prior to trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in the 1919-1920 offseason, the Red Sox had won five World Series titles. After jettisoning Ruth, nicknamed the Bambino, the Red Sox experienced an 86 year championship drought that demoralized their fan base with a string of crushing defeats, failed trades, free agent busts, and bad luck.
In 2002 the franchise and their new ownership group decided the make their own luck. They put little credence in the curse, which was actually a creation of Boston Globe writer and notorious rabble-rouser Dan Shaughnessy. Instead they put all their effort into finding out why the Red Sox kept losing.
Former general manager Dan Duquette made several successful trades; the most notable was the acquisition of Pedro Martinez in 1997 for minor league pitchers Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr. From 1997 to 2003, Martinez not only unleashed the most statistically dominant stretch in the history of Major League Baseball, but he also made the entire city give a shit about the Red Sox again. The empty seats gave way to sell outs when Petey took the mound and the culture changed. There was hope, but Duquette failed to bring in another formidable starter to compliment Martinez.
The Werner Group took control of the Red Sox in 2002 and inherited some formidable parts from Duquette. With a barren farm system and some bad contracts they'd have to be creative to turn the Red Sox from doomed to destined. Led by the then youngest general manager in the history of baseball Theo Epstein, they began reconstructing the roster using advanced statistical analysis and a new approach. They hired Bill James, the godfather of Sabermetrics, as an advisor, hoping that his unique perspective could fix the team.
Rather than signing former stars running on fumes, they assembled an offense of affordable cast offs that could get on base at a steady clip and hit for extra bases. Of the several scratch tickets they did cash in, the most notable was a then unknown DH/first baseman named David Ortiz.
Released by the Minnesota Twins after the 2002 season, Ortiz was signed as a free agent by the Red Sox and found himself as a regular in the Red Sox line up by June of 2003 after Jeremy Giambi's benching. Big Papi responded by swatting 31 home runs and driving in 101 runs. Ortiz became the middle of the line up threat the Red Sox needed to protect slugger Manny Ramirez. Other low risk signings including Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller and Todd Walker and a newly constructed flame-throwing bullpen took the Red Sox on a Cinderella run that got them within few outs of World Series.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox found themselves facing their rivals the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium in a grueling Game 7. Many, including the Red Sox front office, blame then manager Grady Little for leaving starter Pedro in the game too long and not trusting his lights out bullpen. In the bottom of the 11th inning Aaron Boone lofted a walk off home run off knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield and Red Sox fans were once again lining up on the Tobin Bridge to end their misery.
Rather than focusing on the defeat and giving into to fake curse, the front office focused on improving their starting rotation. The Arizona Diamondbacks were looking to cut payroll and Epstein was soon breaking bread with ace pitcher Curt Schilling at his home on Thanksgiving Day 2003, convincing him pitcher to waive his no-trade clause and accept a trade to the Red Sox.
Upon the announcement of the Schilling trade faith was renewed but the Red Sox weren't done. They aggressively tried to push for perennial All Star Alex Rodriguez, effectively ending fading fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra's tenure in Boston. Garciaparra’s silent leadership and string of injuries were wearing thin with the team's dirt dog fan base. He was unfairly branded a malcontent by the Boston media. Ultimately the Player's Union nixed the proposed deal, the Yankees post-season hero Aaron Boone injured his knee. Suddenly A-Rod found himself in pinstripes and Nomar was stuck on a team that didn’t want him.
While the Red Sox, with their scruffy beards and long hair, might have looked hung over arriving at spring training in 2004, they were anything but. Gone was the clichéd "25 players, 25 cabs" stereotype that defined other Red Sox teams. This squad hunted, drank, talked shit, celebrated, and even fought together. Led by new manager Terry Francona, the team was loose but focused. Francona proved to be a master in-game and personality manager.
Injuries caused them to fall eight games behind the Yankees after an impressive start, but the team found their swagger on July 24th after Bill Mueller impressively hit a game winning home run off Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of baseball. The hit was the exclamation point on a dramatic game where Red Sox captain Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez set off a bench-clearing brawl.
Epstein then made a bold trade involving Nomar Garciaparra, who had completely fallen out of favor after not being available in an extra innings Yankees game weeks prior. The Red Sox lost that game and Jeter added another highlight to his career by making a diving catch into the stands at Yankees stadium while Garciaparra looked on, isolated from his teammates. While many highlight Garciaparra's attitude as the reason why he was shipped out of Boston, the fact was that the team needed an everyday shortstop and his durability prevented this. Garciaparra was traded to the Chicago Cubs in a complex deal, with the Red Sox receiving short stop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Epstein also swapped a minor leaguer for the speedy Dave Roberts. None of these names excited Yawkee way but they'd prove to be integral cogs to the team.
The role players shored up the team’s defense, introduced new handshakes, and fit in seamlessly. They rattled off twenty-two wins in twenty-five games and got the Red Sox back to the post season. With their eyes on their rivals, the Yankees, Boston quickly swept the Anaheim Angels in three games only to find themselves back in Yankee Stadium down eight runs in game one of the league championship series. To make matters worse, Yankees starter Mike Mussina flirted with a perfect game and it was later confirmed that starter Curt Schilling was pitching with a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle.
The Red Sox lost Game 2 and returned to Fenway Park for Game 3. Any hope of a turn around was quickly squashed when the Red Sox were served a 19-8 loss, reminding the superstitious fans of 1918, the last year the team won a championship.
With the media calling the team frauds and the fan base's moral lower than ever post-Buckner, the Red Sox responded by not giving a shit about the pressure surrounding them. They adopted the phrase "Why Not Us?" since in the history of the seven game playoff series no team had rallied from being down three games to none. If any team was loose enough to not care about the odds, it was this bunch.
Facing elimination down 4-3 in the ninth inning, with Rivera on the mound, Kevin Millar worked a walk and was subbed for expert base runner, Dave Roberts. Everyone on the planet knew Roberts was there to steal but this didn't prevent him from safely reaching second base and eventually tying the game after a Bill Mueller RBI. Mueller continued to do one of the most difficult things in sports, hit Rivera's cutter, and David Ortiz hit a walk off in the 12th inning and further established himself as the greatest clutch hitter the team had ever seen.
Less than 24 hour later the Red Sox would find themselves on the brink of elimination again only to have Ortiz rescue them in the bottom of the 14th inning by driving Johnny Damon and his long hair for the win. Game 5 would also set the record for the longest post season game in history coming in a five hours and 49 minutes. Though it can't be proven it's assumed that roughly 74% of the city called in sick the next day.
With Game 6 back at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox would need another miracle to keep their run alive and this time it was up to Curt Schilling. An experimental suturing process mended his ankle just enough so he could pitch an emotional and effective game, creating the "bloody sock" controversy in the process. The controversy didn't end there as in the bottom of the eight inning with Jeter on first base, Alex Rodriguez hit a ball down the first base line and slapped it out of pitcher Bronson Arroyo's glove as he tried to apply the tag. Unfortantely for A-Rod and the Yankees that's completely illegal and he was called out. The Yankees managed a rally in the bottom of the ninth but closer Keith Foulke picked up the save.
The lead up to Game 7, though brief, was legendary. The New York tabloids covers had images of the Bambino's face staring at every Red Sox fan. Yankees fans went to work in full regalia, there wasn't a person in any of the five boroughs who wasn't focused on this game, including Mets fans rooting for a Yankees defeat. Yankees announcer Michael Kay spoke of the rivalry that afternoon on his ESPN radio show telling Yankees fans not to fret as no matter what happens in the game, you can tell a Red Sox fan to look in their rear view mirror and see the pinstripes and curse looming. This was their game to lose.
Kay was absolutely correct, the Yankees lost this game with a poor pitching performance by expensive acquisition Kevin Brown and a heroic performance by Johnny Damon, including a grand slam that provided a much needed break for Red Sox fans. Though most of the game was lopsided in the Red Sox favor, there was some drama when Francona let Pedro Martinez pitch in the seventh inning. He was greeted to chants of "Who's Your Daddy?” a phrase he inadvertently created after a loss to the Yankees. Martinez was less than sharp and gave up two runs but he quickly composed himself, reached back for the extra velocity he was known for and stopped the rally.
Yankees fans were stunned, the Red Sox had shocked the world and done what no team had every done, against their archrivals on their field. Riots broke out all over New England, Boston transplants ravaged the streets of New York City, and bitter Yankees fans back handedly said that “All the Sox needed to do now is win the World Series, baby!”
They did a little better than win it, they swept it in what felt like a formality giving a much needed rest for their fans who were riding an emotional high they never thought they'd feel.