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It Was Never About the Babe

The Red Sox, Racism, Mismanagement and the Curse of the Bambino


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It Was Never About the Babe

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The World Turned Upside Down



’m sure my wife Kristie meant no harm when she darted out onto the porch of our home in west central Georgia to attempt to comfort me that chilly October night in 2003. It was either that, or that she wanted to salvage the other lawn chairs, since I’d just smashed one of the inanimate beasts into little pieces.

But her words did nothing but fan my frenzy, because my beloved Boston Red Sox had just thrown away another American League championship—and to the hated New York Yankees, to boot.

Unbelieving Phillies fan that she is, she whispered words that were intended as a salve, but instead cut like razor wire: “It’s only a game.”

“‘Only a game!’” I shrieked. “‘Only a game?’ Do you know how long I’ve waited for this team to win a World Series? How can you say ‘only a game’?”

But, all things considered, unless you were brought up a Red Sox fan, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend what their fans endured from 1919 through 2003.

Neither a lengthy hitch on active military duty nor having spent most of my adult life in print and broadcast news diminished my love for the team that annually broke my heart. And although we haven’t made New England our home since October 1997, I continued to regularly put down my thoughts concerning the Olde Towne Team.

Such as: Who could have known that Sox manager Grady Little’s firing in the wake of the club’s 2003 American League Championship Series collapse would prove to be the beginning of the final, sorry chapter in eighty-six years of perpetual heartache for Sox fans. Perhaps Little’s leave-taking provided the ultimate exclamation point of how futile it’s been for Red Sox fans over those years.

Leaving Pedro Martinez in Game Seven after he was obviously out of gas meant that instead of a solid 5-2 victory propelling the Sox into the World Series, the team suffered an eleven-inning, 6-5 defeat at the hands of the despised Yankees.

I can’t honestly say that as I watched the game on TV, I was screaming at Little to pull Pedro before any more damage was done. When my buddy, Steve (a Chicago Cubs fan), started bellowing that Little should have given Martinez the hook, I countered, “Look, Little just asked him if he wanted to continue, and Pedro nodded.”

Of course, at the time, nobody but the Sox brain trust knew that Little had been ordered to remove Martinez after seven innings or 100 pitches, whichever came first. His refusal to do so cost Little his job, a gaffe one sportswriter characterized as “catastrophically moronic.”

Martinez had been the premiere starter since a very unhappy Roger Clemens coasted during his last several seasons in Boston. Even though Pedro had recently suffered physical problems, he remained the staff ace…so Little left him in the game. At the time I really couldn’t blame him. A multiple Cy Young Award winner on the mound—even if he’s short on gas in a must-win game—deserves to be given enough rope to hang himself. Sad to say, that’s exactly what happened. Although it quickly became apparent that Pedro was finished, Little stubbornly remained in the Sox dugout until the game was tied at 5-5. By then, those of us old enough to remember Bucky (“Bleeping”) Dent’s dying-quail home run off Mike Torrez in the infamous 1978 one-game playoff against the Yanks were frantically searching for the nearest exhaust pipe to suck on. I was having flashbacks of ’78—even after Mike Timlin dodged a slew of bullets to retire the Yankees, and Tim Wakefield followed to throw his dancing knuckle ball. Two innings later, Wakefield threw a knuckle ball that didn’t knuck, and Aaron Boone hit it into the left-field stands.

Better luck next time. Wait ’til next year.

I could’ve screamed. Because that’s what I’d lived with for more than 45 years, ever since I fell in love with the sport of baseball, specifically with Boston’s Back Bay team, the very same club that held a massive fire sale following its last World Series championship in 1918. A fire sale that saw many of the best in baseball sold off, predominantly to the Yankees. Several future Hall of Famers went from Boston to New York over the next fifteen years, but of course the one everyone remembers—the one that no one can forget—is Babe Ruth.

Instead of remaining a perennial pennant contender, the Red Sox became the doormats of the American League. While they had their near-great seasons, Boston always came up short in their quest for another World Series title. True Red Sox fans seemingly never lost heart, telling themselves that another championship would eventually ensue, but not in 2003.

However, a year later it did happen when a self-proclaimed ragtag “bunch of idiots” led by a quartet of big-name stars did something no team in Major League Baseball had ever done. They came back from an unprecedented three-game deficit in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series to win four in a row and capture the pennant.

To this day, Red Sox fans the world over savor that historic milestone, especially because the team that had the Sox in its stranglehold were the Bronx Bombers, otherwise known as the New York Yankees (not to mention countless unprintable names coined in New England).

Sox hurler Curt Schilling put it so perfectly when he prepared to pitch in the ALCS at Yankee Stadium, declaring, “I just want to make 55,000 Yankee fans shut up.” He did that, and then some.

Boston then went on to sweep the 2004 World Series from the St. Louis Cardinals in four games. Finally, after nearly nine fruitless decades, the Sox brought a world championship back to Boston.




Now, maybe my Pop can finally rest in peace.

He was almost five years old when Red Sox owner Harry Frazee shipped an overgrown problem child named George Herman Ruth to the New Yorkers, but my dad didn't live long enough to see another world championship banner fly over Fenway Park. Yet Dad would reminisce of the beauty of watching Ted Williams hit. “That swing,” he'd say in a faraway voice. “That swing.” And he spoke of a chance meeting he had while on a cross-country World War II troop train preparing to ship out for Europe. On the same train was a hulking ex-Red Sox power hitter named Jimmie Foxx. “Old Double X,” Dad would tell us. “He really was a nice guy.”

Pop also stewed over how the Red Sox bungled the handling of a promising young rookie named Jimmy Piersall, who ended up in a mental institution because of the cavalier way he was treated. “What a mess they made of that boy,” he said. “It was criminal.”

There was one other Red Sox ballplayer my dad used to rave about all the time—George Herman Ruth.

Pop used to crack up my friends by grandly announcing, “Sure, I saw Babe Ruth play … (pause … beat … beat) …  for the Yankees.” But after a while it didn't seem so funny. Or set so well.




Between 1919 and 1952, the year of my birth, the Sox would play in one, and only one, World Series. That was in 1946, against the very same Cardinals they beat in the 2004 Fall Classic. Naturally, the Sox lost it in seven.

Yet New England baseball fans cherish the team like no other. In the words of Boston Herald columnist Mike Barnicle, “Baseball isn’t a life-and-death-matter, but the Red Sox are.” And baseball chronicler Roger Angell termed the passion of Red Sox Nation as, “the profound New England seriousness of Following the Sox.”

Growing up in suburban Boston, I was always cognizant that a New England-based sports fan could count on the Celtics to win. Period. As for the Sox, the Bruins, and the Patriots, one-for-four meant you were hitting .250, which was a good enough average to keep you in Major League Baseball at the time.

So I became inured to the trials and tribulations of the Sox, always looking for a silver lining, but never expecting too much. I remember the games I went to with my dad as a kid and—without fail—I never witnessed a Red Sox victory. It was to be expected. But the thing I remember the most was the stoicism we showed in the wake of loss after loss.

Then came 1967, the “Impossible Dream” year, when the Sox won the AL pennant on the last day of the season after battling down to the wire in a four-club slugfest: the Sox, Tigers, Twins and White Sox. The exhilaration was entirely foreign.

Naturally, the Cards beat Boston in a seven-game series for the world championship again. Oh, sure it hurt, but in our hearts the club had finally come into its own, and there was always next year.

The only problem was “next year” didn't come again for eight years. After 1975, we waited yet another eleven years for the next “next year.” And, after 1986, “next year” proved to be 2004. When the Boys in the Red Hose finally brought home the championship.

Now life will never be the same.




I just wish my dear old dad had lived to see it, although he probably would have turned off the television in October 2004 because yet another season seemingly was on the ropes. Like an outclassed, battered prizefighter, the Red Sox were three outs away from closing out another postseason as an American League also-ran.

And once again the Boston nine had been thoroughly humbled by the Yankees, the best team money could buy.

Both of the Sox marquee starters, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, failed to win the first two games of the ALCS. Despite a valiant attempt at a come-from-behind victory in Game One, a late inning Red Sox rally fell short, and Boston lost, 10-7. Then, in spite of a solid outing by Pedro Martinez, the Yankees took Game Two, 3-1.

But the roof really caved in during Game Three. The Bronx Bombers lived up to that name, overwhelming the Sox with 19 runs in the supposedly home-team friendly confines of Fenway Park. Down three games to none with the prospect of being swept at home by your arch nemesis was the ultimate train wreck dreaded—indeed, expected—by every Sox fan.

No team in the history of Major League Baseball had ever rallied from a three-game deficit to win a best-of-seven series. In fact, no team had ever come from being behind by three games to even force a seventh game.

Certainly the star-crossed Sox couldn’t be expected to make history, especially against the New York Yankees, a team that under owner George Steinbrenner proved to be a relentless force constantly re-arming to maintain a perennial stranglehold on the American League.

The morning after the Game Two loss I appeared on a radio talk show with several of the area’s high school football coaches, in my capacity as sports editor for The Griffin Daily News in Griffin, Georgia. Knowing I was from Boston, Kirk Hoffman, the one coach I most respected, turned to me after the broadcast and declared the ALCS all but over.

“Gee, I don’t know, Kirk,” I retorted. “I’m just not ready to throw in the towel yet.”

He reacted as if I required bundling off to the nearest psyche unit. “There is no way the Red Sox can beat the Yankees,” he twitted. “Bet me money.”

I declined, but added, “I’m not convinced it’s over yet.”

He burst out in laughter. “Stick a fork in them, they’re done,” Kirk declared.

“Not quite,” I snapped. “We’ll see how they do tonight.”

That was the night the Yankees took the Sox to the woodshed with the 19-8 drubbing. If ever a team was on the ropes, it was my beloved Red Sox. Not only had Boston’s starting pitchers failed, but the team’s hitting had become spotty at best.

New York had manhandled Martinez throughout the latter part of the season, to the point that he made the statement he may forever be linked with: “I’ve got to tip my cap to them. The Yankees have been my Daddy.”

If that wasn’t enough to make Red Sox fans cringe, the injury Curt Schilling suffered while pitching against the Angels in the divisional series had Sox lovers setting aside one last bullet for the coup de grāce. Moving off the mound after a grounder, Schilling tore the sheath around the tendon on the back of his right ankle. Although no one outside the ballclub was aware of the seriousness of the injury at the time, Schilling’s horrible performance in Game One of the ALCS was the direct result of his inability to push off on that foot. For a power pitcher, the injury was akin to the kiss of death.

And even though Martinez pitched well in Game Two, the Yankees’ Jon Lieber threw the game of his life, shutting down the Sox, 3-1. Yankee fans mercilessly hounded Pedro all evening, chanting, “Who’s your Daddy? Who’s your Daddy?”

But with the debacle in Game Three, even the most stouthearted Red Sox fan had to take pause.

Yet hope rekindled when in Game Four, Boston engineered a miraculous comeback, beating the detested Yankees, 6-4. Three outs shy of elimination, trailing New York 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the somnolent Red Sox bats finally stirred, at least enough to score one run on two walks, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt, an error, and one measly run-scoring single by third baseman Bill Mueller. Even at that, being the fatalist I was, I feared the Sox would still figure out a way to lose.

But I was wrong. David Ortiz, a.k.a. “Big Papi,” rocketed a moonshot into the seats at Fenway to win the game in the bottom of the twelfth inning.

In a flash, baseball pundits repeatedly reminded Red Sox Nation that never in the history of Major League Baseball had a team come back from a three-game hole to even play a seventh game. With virtually nothing to lose, a seemingly relaxed Red Sox squad took the field the following night. And, once again, “Big Papi” came through when the team needed it most, slicing a single to drive in the winning run in the fourteenth inning.

Game Six at Yankee Stadium provided arguably the gutsiest pitching performance in playoff history. Red Sox stalwart Curt Schilling took the mound with the postseason at stake. The sheath in his right ankle had been sutured to hold the tendon in place. Schilling proceeded to shut down New York for seven innings, bad ankle and all. With blood visibly seeping through his sanitary hose, Schilling didn't make a mistake until he gave up a solo home run to Bernie Williams in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Meanwhile, several Red Sox regulars who hadn’t produced all series came through when it counted the most. With the game scoreless in the fourth inning, first baseman Kevin Millar hammered a double, scoring on a single by catcher Jason Varitek. Then, with two runners aboard, second baseman Mark Bellhorn hit a three-run homer into the left-center field bleachers. At first, the umpires called Bellhorn’s hit a ground-rule double, but then they huddled together and determined that the drive didn’t deflect from the field into the crowd, but vice-versa.

Perhaps more critically, the collaboration among the members of the umpiring squad proved to be a portent of things to come, for in the eighth inning, Alex Rodriguez blatantly knocked his batted ball out of the glove of Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo, then threw a tantrum when the umpires correctly called him out. Yankees captain Derek Jeter was obliged to return to first resulting in an argument from both Jeter and manager Joe Torre. Again, Bronx cheers accompanied another Bronx tradition—that of burying the playing field in refuse.

Arroyo had replaced Schilling in the eighth inning. With Sox fans praying he would redeem himself after his abominable showing during the 19-8 massacre the previous Saturday, Arroyo gave up one run to make the score 4-2. But the karate chop Rodriguez delivered to Arroyo’s left wrist ultimately knocked the wind out of the Yankees’ sails. The Yankees did not score again after that play, with Sox closer Keith Foulke striking out Tony Clark on a 3-2 pitch after walking two men in the ninth.

“I don’t think any of us have any idea what [Schilling] went through to pitch tonight,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona declared following the game. “For him to go out there and do what he did, his heart is so big.”

The series was now in the questionable right hand of Derek Lowe, a twenty-one game winner two years earlier, but a disappointment in 2004.

The odds were against him and the Red Sox. Of the previous twenty-five teams that fell behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, twenty lost the fourth game, three lost in five, and the other two in six.

But that’s why they play the game. And this Game Seven would make baseball history.

Johnny Damon, who to that point in the ALCS had hit about as well as slight gymnast Keri Struggs, smashed a grand slam and a two-run homer. Mark Bellhorn homered for the second straight night, and Jason Varitek got a couple more hits. Lowe, who had amassed an earned run average of more than five runs allowed per nine innings pitched during the regular season, mesmerized the Yanks.

Finally, Pedro Martinez pitched the seventh inning and, although New York touched him for three hits and two runs, the Yankees learned they’re not really his Daddy. Indeed, Boston fans remained in the stands chanting, “Who's your Daddy?” again and again, after the Yankees quietly retired to their clubhouse.

Just how unlikely the comeback was is hard to fathom. Only two teams in the history of three major team sports had ever come back from a three-game deficit to win a seven-game series; both were in the National Hockey League. Elsewhere, 73 National Basketball Association teams failed to win a seven-game series after being down by three. And the overall record for comeback seven-game victories in the National Hockey League is 2-138. Before the Sox engineered their historic comeback, the overall total in MLB, the NHL, and the NBA was two wins in 236 tries.

Furthermore, in the history of the franchise the Red Sox had never won a decisive Game Seven on the road. And, since the inception of the seven-game league championship format the Yankees had never lost a seventh game—until 2004.The unprecedented comeback was well-recognized.

Red Sox first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz asserted, “We've been playing Game Seven since Game Four.”

General manager Theo Epstein echoed the sentiments of players and fans alike when he remarked,  “I hope Ted Williams is having a cocktail upstairs.” Williams, who died in July 2002, starred with the Sox from 1939 through 1960, missing five years due to military service in two wars. He never won a World Series ring, playing only in the 1946 Fall Classic against the Cards, and batting just .200.

Finally, Sox president Larry Lucchino, who the previous fall had famously referred to the Yankees as the “Evil Empire,” got in the last word on the matter in the fall of 2004. “All empires fall sooner or later,” he declared.

Indeed, one could almost hear the strains of a British band playing “The World Turned Upside Down.”*

Four games later, the 2004 Red Sox swept the Cardinals and were champions of the world for the first time since 1918.


* After the American Army defeated Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown to secure the country's freedom from Great Britain in 1781, the British band played a song entitled “The World Turned Upside” as the English Army retired from the battlefield following its surrender. The ultimate rout of the British began in Boston in 1775, where the colonists had stood up to British tyranny by taking up arms against the crown at Lexington and Concord.

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