Monday, October 29, 2007

Young hungry players led '07 Red Sox


(Editor's Note: This column will not contain one mention of the Yankees or Alex Rodriguez. Neither party deserves to steal the national spotlight (at least for now) from the one and only 2007 World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox.)

The Boston Red Sox have done it again. They've won their second World Series in four years after going dry from 1918 until 2004.

But anyone who thinks the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox were similar teams is kidding themselves. The team on the field Sunday night bore close to no resemblance to the comeback kids of '04.

Sure, there were the stars — David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek — in the field, and the veteran presence of Curt Schilling in the dugout, but all around them were new faces. And the new faces were the main contributors this October, helping to place the city of Boston in a state of utopia (with the Red Sox winning, the indomitable Patriots 8-0, Boston "freakin!" College No. 2 in the BCS and the Celtics about to tip-off the most anticipated season in 20 years).

In 2004 it was closer Keith Foulke shutting down the St. Louis Cardinals and then jumping into the embrace of Veritek after the final out. In 2007, while Varitek remained the catcher, young buck Jonathan Papelbon was the shutdown closer. It was the peppy Papelbon who leaped into Varitek's arms after striking out Seth Smith to finish off the WS sweep after the seven-game, come-from-behind ALCS victory over Cleveland.

Without Papelbon, there's no way the Red Sox would be World Series champions. He was impeccable during the postseason, not allowing a single run — and just five hits — in 10-plus innings. Even after setup man Hideki Okajima allowed a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 4, which cut Boston's lead to 4-3, you knew Papelbon would come in and finish the deal.

No doubt about it. There's one key new guy.

Let's examine the starting pitching. In 2004 it was Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Schilling and Tim Wakefield who shut down the Cardinals. In 2007 Schilling was still a part of the rotation — albeit sans a bloody sock — but Wakefield was left off the World Series roster with an injury, and it was a trio of newcomers who got the job done.

Josh Beckett
, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester, who was the winning pitcher of the clinching game despite going through lymphoma treatment just nine months earlier — an absolutely remarkable feat. Beckett has moved himself alongside Reggie Jackson in the October Hall of Fame with his postseason performances.

First there he was in 2003, pitching a shutout on three days rest to clinch the World Series for the Marlins in Yankee Stadium. Then there was '07, when Beckett was 4-0 in the postseason, including his huge Game 5 outing in the ALCS, which flipped the momentum switch from the Indians to the Red Sox, who didn't lose again.

Three new pitchers, great results.

And how about the Sox' feisty, young lineup. Ortiz and Ramirez didn't get the big hits in this Fall Classic. Rather it was the "other" guys, the players we could have mistaken for supermarket workers in '04.

There was Jacoby Ellsubry, a late-season callup, collecting four hits in Game 3 and sparking his team once again with two hits and a run scored in the clincher. He hit .438 in the series.

There was Dustin Pedroia, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound little squirt who could be mistaken for a UPS driver on the street, knocking the big two-run double in Game 3 that all but ended Colorado's hopes at turning around the series.

There was Julio Lugo, as skinny as a pogo stick, hitting .385 in the series and quietly playing flawless defense at shortstop.

I could name more new, unselfish players who contributed for the '07 Red Sox, but I figure you want me to get to my point.

Well here it is: In team sports today, championship teams (with the rare exception of the San Antonio Spurs) cannot simply bring back the same group of players season after season and expect to win. Yes, even the Patriots' roster this season is drastically different from the makeup of their 2004 championship team.

New blood has to be brought in. Players eager to prove themselves and reach the pinnacle of sports need to become integral parts of the organization. Even if they say they are, most players who have won a championship do not have the same drive to win another one. With their comfortable salaries and their perfectly fitting championship rings, they can live without reaching the zenith of their profession again.

This usually affects their play, even if the difference isn't noticeable. If you examine important members of the '04 Red Sox, such as Martinez, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar, they haven't been the same players since. Of course injuries are a factor — especially when talking about Martinez — but so is desire. When you've already proven that you can buck the odds, that you can become a member of the first team in baseball history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, you don't need to show the world a thing. You have nothing left to prove.

This year's Red Sox had something to prove. Their clubhouse overflowed with players who had never made it to baseball's biggest stage, who were unknown in baseball circles outside of Boston. Even veterans such as Beckett and Mike Lowell, the World Series MVP, had a chip on their shoulder.

Both players had won the 2003 World Series with Florida, but had fallen into oblivion in the following years. Both signed pretty hefty contracts with Boston in 2006, but failed to deliver the Red Sox to the playoffs in their first year. Playing in front of the skeptical eyes of Red Sox Nation, both had to show the organization that it hadn't made a mistake in bringing them to Beantown.

Mission accomplished.

Now the talk amongst RSN is that the Red Sox have the pieces to compete for multiple championships in the years to come. And they do. Papelbon, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Lugo, Lester — they're all young. And Lowell, Beckett and Ortiz aren't too old themselves.

But Boston should also be cautious. Don't become too stagnant. Don't let any player become too comfortable. Just look at what's happened to the White Sox since they won the World Series in 2005. They fell all the way to fourth place in the AL Central this year with many of the same players (but not close to the same production) from the special '05 squad.

The 2007 Red Sox were special in their own way. Just like the '04 Red Sox. And if Boston is to win another championship in the years to come, it will likely occur with several new faces.

Hungry to compete on that grandest of stages. And hungry to hold that trophy and spray that sweetest-tasting champagne on earth.

All for the first time.


Sportsattitude said...

Agreed. That "overturning" of the roster from 2004 to this year was the key to winding up as baseball's best team once more. No doubt you have to "turn over" the personnel at least a bit each year, never forgetting the easiest way to acquire talent is to develop it. Unlike the Yankees, the Red Sox have paid attention to the entire organization from top to bottom and "fed themselves" some players rather than going out and trying to buy an entire roster.

J-bo said...

I do find it ironic though that the Red Sox are gradually becoming everything they hate about the Yankees. They now have the second highest salary in baseball, there is starting to be a lot more player turnover, and they are turning into a dynasty. As impressive as this championship was the 2004 team was far more likeable and down to earth.

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