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.