The Red Sox, for whatever cosmic reasons, have proved remarkably championship-prolific at the beginning of centuries. By 1918 they had claimed more World Series titles (5) than any team in Major League Baseball. That they wouldn’t win another until 2004 has been, erm, well documented. But listen: They just had a bad century, like the post-Opium War Chinese. Come the Millennium, Deng Xiaoping had re-established his people in the Middle Kingdom, while the Sox, by 2018, had won another four World Series.
The years between 1918 and 2004 weren’t exactly dark. They were periodically robust and eventful, at times heart rending and/or darkly comic. Yet 20 years ago this week, the Red Sox as modern baseball fans know them today — the post-Curse, billion-dollar-appraised, theme-park-residing, culturally monolithic Sox — first revealed their curiously revived championship character to their fans, to the region, and to the Major Leagues at large.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly lightning is caught in a bottle, but here it’s rather clear — coming back from 2 games down to beat the Oakland A’s in the 2003 A.L. Divisional Playoff. The affable-if-mercurial Derek Lowe emerged from the bullpen to close the decisive Game 5, striking out Terrence Long on a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded to preserve a 1-run victory.
The precise date: 6 October 2003.
Boston would not win the World Series that year. It would lose another, even more dramatic series to the New York Yankees later in October. That epic encounter, and the victory over Oakland, have been further obscured by the Bloody Socks, Idiots, unlikely stolen bases, and fan-enabled 3-run homers of ALCS 2004 — to say nothing of the four World Series that followed. Nevertheless, Boston laid the championship foundation the year prior, with its unlikely victory over the Athletics, long-time nemeses in their own right.
The recent passing of Tim Wakefield, another of this era’s complicated talismen, got me thinking about these emotional building blocks from 20 years ago. It’s only fitting that we celebrate that clinching Game 5, that oft-overlooked Oakland series, its own unlikely heroes, and the hilariously drunken adventure I experienced watching the finale from Spokane.
The Build-Up: Looking back, Red Sox Nation in the fall of 2003 remained hopeful but hopelessly naïve. Unwitting fans actually believed Boston could reverse a century of futility with Grady Little pulling the strings, with Trot Nixon in right, with Nomar at short, with Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson closing games. What’s more, we actually dared to assume the team might win post-season series without David Ortiz performing like a Dominican Paul Bunyan. Ortiz produced a fine 2003 regular season, his first in Boston, but he went 2 for 21 in the Oakland series. Not until 2004 would he cement both his legend and the Big Papi sobriquet, courtesy of the RemDawg.
Accurate foretelling is hard. Even in the direct wake of Oct. 6, 2003, The Nation and its long-suffering citizenry had zero understanding of what was happening, of what was to come. I mean, how could we? The Mo Vaughn Sox made some playoff appearances during the 1990s, including an ALDS elimination game, courtesy of the Albert Belle Indians, on Oct. 7, 1995 (my wedding day). That performance laid the title-winning groundwork for exactly nothing. The acquisition of Pedro Martinez in 1998 did result in an American League Championship Series appearance the following year, but the Yankees proved way too good. Historically dynastic, in fact. And let’s be clear-eyed about those Sox: No team featuring Troy O’Leary batting clean-up was ever that close to winning anything.
The 2003 experience, in the moment, felt similarly competent and perhaps substantial, but never touched by the fates — not until Derek Lowe willed us into the ALCS.
Here’s another important differentiator: Few had realized that a powerful new karma had only recently settled over Fenway and the Red Sox, starting in 2002. That’s the year Ted Williams passed away. As I wrote at the time, Mr. Ballgame had been born in 1918. His all-hit, no-field career didn’t just symbolize Boston’s 80-plus years of championship futility. His carbon-based life form embodied it. The Splinter’s death, however tragic, was tantamount to removing a giant karmic thorn from the paw of Red Sox Nation.
Oct. 6, 2003: Oakland had claimed the A.L. West that season, its creditable follow-up to a chaotic, data-driven 2002 season memorialized by Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball,” then by an eponymous film starring Brad Pitt and Chris Pratt (in the immortal role of former Sox catcher Scott Hatteburg). Boston qualified as a Wild Card entry in 2003, and so, on Oct. 1, 2003 — the 100th anniversary of the club’s inaugural playoff opener, in the first World Series ever played — the Sox traveled to Oakland Alameda Coliseum for Game 1.
Pedro started and Derek Lowe took the loss, allowing Eric Chavez to score from third on a perfect squeeze from Ramon Hernandez in the 12th. This series proved preposterously close, in every respect. Over the course of 5 games, the Sox outscored the A’s 18-17; each team managed 38 hits and committed 5 errors. Even so, when the A’s claimed Game 2 — beating Wakefield, 5-1, on the strength of a 5-run second — it was Oakland’s 10th consecutive playoff win over Boston, following ALCS sweeps in both 1988 and 1990. That’s an MLB playoff record that still stands… The Sox fought back, at Fenway, winning Game 3 with a 2-run, walk-off homer from Trot Nixon in the 11th inning. Game 4 delivered still more drama: Oakland was 4 outs away from advancing when Ortiz won it with one of those two hits: a 2-run double in the 8th off A’s closer [wait for it] … Keith Foulke.
Looking back, Boston showed all the traits we associate with those amazing teams from 2003, 2004 and beyond. To be fair, these were traits we had seen (or thought we’d seen) before, in 1978 and 1986, while waiting around for something terrible to happen. Game 5, played 20 years ago today, appeared to set the stage for exactly this sort of star-crossed whammy.
Back in Oakland, Pedro took the ball and looked untouchable. Jason Varitek’s solo homer and a 3-run shot from Manny Ramirez (both off starter Barry Zito in the 6th) staked Boston to a 4-1 lead. Yet the Sox would not score again and, slowly but surely, the shoes started dropping. The Athletics pushed one across in the bottom of the 6th. Next inning, while chasing down Jermaine Dye’s short fly, Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon collided with second baseman Damian Jackson. It was gruesome: Damon lost consciousness for a time, regained it, then waved to the crowd before an ambulance took him away.
Other teams fail to win deciding games; for 86 years, the Red Sox managed to lose them while simultaneously staging telenovelas. Oakland drew to within 4-3 with another run in the 8th.
The bottom half of the 9th inning played out like a slow-motion train-wreck we’d all seen before. Boston’s Closing Committee — Alan Embree, Timlin and Williamson — had all pitched the chaotic 8th, leaving Lowe to nail down the victory pretty much by his lonesome. As with Wakefield, Boston fans maintained a complicated, love/hate relationship with the lanky right-hander, who arrived from Seattle in 1997 as a] sinker-balling starter before blossoming into a closer. Lowe led the A.L. with 42 saves in 2000, before losing his job to the immortal Ugeth Urbina. In 2002, he went 21-8 as a starter, tossed a no-hitter, then went a more-than-respectable 17-7 in 2003. But he surrendered almost double the runs compared to the previous season, in fewer innings pitched. He was the loser in Game 1, but when Grady Little started him in Game 3, Lowe delivered 7 innings of 1-run baseball.
Whenever Lowe or Wakefield took the mound, almost anything could happen.
Little did start the inning with Williamson, who immediately walked Hatteberg and Jose Guillen. On came Lowe, who allowed another successful sacrifice bunt from Hernandez: 1 out, runners at second and third. Lowe struck out back-up catcher Adam Melhuse, intentionally walked Chris Singleton to load the bases, and up to the plate strode pinch hitter Terrence Long.
A New Era Dawns: In the fall of 2003, my media-marketing agency was a year or two into a business relationship with Henry-Griffitts, a small golf club manufacturing outfit that fairly well invented the modern club-fitting phenomenon. That fateful October, I had traveled to the firm’s headquarters in Twin Falls, Idaho. In order to reach Idaho’s panhandle, one flies in and out of Spokane, Washington, so that’s where I would stay the last night of my trip, Oct. 6. After returning my rental car, I dropped my bags at some unremarkable airport hotel, called a cab, and set about searching for a suitable Spokane sports bar, wherein I would camp out and watch the A’s-Red Sox dénouement.
The name of that fine establishment has been lost to history, in part because I got so thoroughly plowed watching the events described above. I made a half-dozen great friends in the process, however, men whom I would hug repeatedly but never see again. Derek Lowe struck out Terrence Long. Caught him looking on a 3-2 strike, where a ball or any sort of contact might have spun the wheels of destiny in dozens of ill-fated directions. Lowe didn’t just save the game. He rescued it from the proverbial knife edge, thus laying the groundwork for 15 years of golden-age baseball that forever changed the way New Englanders felt about the Sox, their larger sporting fortunes, and themselves.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When The Kid shuffled off this mortal coil in July 2002, it counterintuitively augured well for the Sox. But the planets had started aligning in February of 2002, when the Patriots scored New England’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. The Patriots were so hapless theretofore, far more bumbling and pitiable than their Fenway relations. If the freakin’ Pats could win it all, why not the Sox?
The psychic mood shifted in New England as a result of all these events. Not overnight, but they ultimately transformed the Red Sox and they changed us, too. The anxious, somewhat manic tension we once brought to our sporting fandom dissipated — and the titles have flowed in our direction ever since, like a river metaphysically redirected somewhere upstream. The ancient Greeks believed mythical birds, called halcyons, bred in nests that floated upon the Aegean Sea. Come the winter solstice, these ornithological rearing habits would charm the wind and waves into a state of calm. Much of America hates us for it, but that place of serenity — often mistaken for smug entitlement — is where Red Sox fans especially seem poised to live out our remaining days.
I just wish Tim Wakefield was making the journey beside us. The knuckler died in late September 2023, from a fast-moving brain cancer. He was 57. As I grow older, the passing of these meaningful figures from my sporting and cultural past hit closer and closer to home. I’ll never forget him walking off the mound, later that October of 2003, following Aaron Boone’s ALCS-winning home run. I cursed him when the ball left Boone’s bat, only to dissolve into tears watching Wake stoically leave the mound, head bowed.
If the big historical cycles hold, we’re looking at another 90 years before Boston claims another World Series. The passing of Tim Wakefield may signal that our precious halcyon days have petered out. Still, I am consoled to know that he was there, in 2004, for their onset — for the ultimate on-field catharsis, for the goggled champagne guzzling, for the first of all those duck-boat parades.