Red Sox, 2013: Why Sports Can Be So Great

Nothing is perfect about sports, but this was pretty damn close. If you wanted history, redemption, post-tragedy soothing, generational bonding, cost efficiency, beard-pulling man love and an enormous bear of a Boston icon who wore a black war helmet and once again shouted “This is our (bleeping) city!” to the adoring masses — all inside a century-old charmbox that hadn’t hosted a World Series celebration by the home team in 95 years — well, there it was.

Fenway Park is a surviving American cathedral, and at long last, the Red Sox rocked it down. A raw narrative that gathered drama incrementally through months of uncommon chemistry, grotesque facial-hair growth and a rare oneness between the players and their fans concluded with the only rightful result, a 6-1 blowout of a few background mannequins from St. Louis in Game 6 of a special Fall Classic. In one memorable swirl, this team not only staged a lifetime party for New Englanders who’d waited forever for the moment, in a region where sons and daughters are welcomed to Red Sox culture straight from the womb, but also helped a community heal after the Marathon bombings that unraveled just a mile up Boylston Street.

“This is for you, Boston. You guys deserve it,” said David Ortiz, Mr. October and reigning local pope, taking the microphone after winning Series MVP honors and addressing a crowd that wasn’t going anywhere. “We’ve been through a lot this year and this is for all of you and all those families who struggled.”

It was, by all accounts, a very loud and very raucous rave, deep into the night, with the drinkers singing “Dirty Water” and the sated going with “Everything’s gonna be all right,” per Bob Marley. “I say I work inside a museum,” said Jonny Gomes, the resident bard, “but this is the loudest the museum has been in a long time.”

To see it all happen so merrily and powerfully, as if predestined, was an astonishing turnabout and a lesson in quick-fix rebounds. A year ago, the Red Sox were a last-place disaster, dragged down by players who hated the manager and fans who loathed the team. It took a series of events — management admitting its errors, dumping $262 million of payroll onto the corporate-bloated Dodgers and firing the unpopular Bobby Valentine as manager — to plant the seeds for a worst-to-first fairy tale. Rather than throw megacontracts at major free agents, general manager Ben Cherington, who grew up in New England and dreamed of running the Sox, suggested divvying up a large sum in seven moderately priced parts. Their names were Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Stephen Drew and Ryan Dempster.

By now, I believe you’ve heard of them all.

Total investment: 12 years, $100.45 million.

The Cherington Plan led to a clubhouse vibe that was closer to the cult movie “Major League” than the mind games Valentine had played, which only angered clubhouse leader Dustin Pedroia. When the Marathon explosions struck just as the regular season began, the players chose to play for a larger purpose. They also had the much preferred equilibrium of the new skipper, John Farrell, the polar opposite of Valentine in temperament and — as the team’s former pitching coach — a guru who could fix the clouded minds of struggling Jon Lester and misery-mired John Lackey. There was enough talent on board, including cornerstones such as Ortiz and Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, to meld perfectly with the newcomers as “a band of brothers,” as management called them. When Pedroia and Ortiz publicly voiced early approval for Farrell, then adopted the challenge of helping a reeling city, the seeds for a championship season were in place.

“When we started rolling, no one ever stopped the train,” said Ortiz, who delivered the powerful April speech at Fenway — “This is our (bleeping) city!” — that established the journey ahead.

“There’s a civil responsibility that we have wearing this uniform, particularly here in Boston,” said Farrell, who wasn’t succeeding in Toronto last year and was allowed to jump to the division-rival Red Sox. “And it became a connection initially, the way our guys reached out to individuals or to hospital visits. And it continued to build throughout the course of the season. I think our fans, they got to a point where they appreciated the way we played the game, how they cared for one another. And in return, they gave these guys an incredible amount of energy to thrive on in this ballpark.”

Well said. The Red Sox are not overloaded with talent, but they maximized the talent on hand like few championship teams in memory. Ortiz’s contributions cannot be overstated — if you’d like to call him the greatest postseason slugger of all time, given his role in busting an 86-year drought/curse in 2004 and becoming the force behind three titles in 10 years, go right ahead. This time, he carried an offense that otherwise struggled to hit — .211 batting average — and struck out more than any other team in postseason history. “Nobody expected this, but we never stopped believing,” said Ortiz, who carried a gigantic champagne bottle. “I think it might be the most special out of all the World Series that I have been part of, to be honest with you, because this is a team that has a lot of players with heart. We probably don’t have the talent that we had in ’07 and ’04, but we have guys who stay focused and do the little things. And when you win with a ball club like that, that’s special.”

Unable to get him out, the Cardinals were forced to walk him four times, three intentionally, in Game 6. His Series numbers, at age 37, are nothing short of superhuman: He reached base 19 times in 25 trips to the plate and finished with a .688 batting average, two home runs, six RBIs and one Game 4 dugout speech that loosened some uptight teammates and turned what could have been a 3-games-to-1 deficit to a three-game victory rally. When the clincher was finished, he grabbed his helmet and goggles and pranced around the field giving bear hugs, though not before throwing Uehara, the unhittable closer, over his shoulder and giving him a ride.

“I know I’m one of the forces for this ballgame and I like to take things personal,” Ortiz said, per the Associated Press. “And that’s been my whole career, a challenge. I wasn’t trying to be The Guy, but I know I got to get something done to keep the line moving.”

The “B STRONG” emblem cut into the center-field grass served as the backdrop for the celebration. The only time this didn’t story didn’t seem perfect was when John Henry, standing at the trophy ceremony with fellow Red Sox owners Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, seemed alarmed at the overhang of smoke. “What is that?” he said, turning around and not realizing the fog was created by fireworks.

“When the fireworks went off, when the ballpark was filled with smoke, it was completely surreal,” Farrell said. “To be in this position, given where we’ve come from, reflecting back a year ago at this time, a lot has happened in 13 months.”

It really was a sweet season, the kind that makes you say, “OK, you win,” when a New Englander insists the Red Sox invented baseball. If this World Series sometimes dipped into a sloppy mode — a walkoff pickoff by Uehara ended one game, an obstruction call on Boston’s Will Middlebrooks ended another — it was a masterpiece to watch because you sensed where it was headed. “At some point,” said Henry, “you just have to think there’s something special happening here.”

“All those that were affected in the tragedy — Boston Strong!” shouted Victorino, whose three-run double off the fabled Green Monster buried the Cardinals early.

“If there was a moment in time that galvanized us, it was the marathon bombing,” Farrell said. “We took it upon ourselves to have a positive impact on a city and the individuals suffering.”

Afterward, per USA Today, a growing crowd gathered at the Marathon finish line in the Back Bay and chanted, “Boston Strong! Boston Strong!” Even when a few idiots stomped on passing cars — police said nine arrests were made — the chant overwhelmed the knuckleheads. Only in Boston would they think of returning to the scene of the tragedy, where three people were killed and more than 260 were injured, as a final cathartic act.

It will be in the script, I’m sure, when the latest and greatest Red Sox movie is made. All of which is one part romance, one part worship and at least three or four parts raw psychosis, all played out in a provincial cocoon where one must hail from New England and speak with a funny, drop-the-R’s accent. The culture of the Red Sox once was characterized by gloom, with tortured fans convinced their team was cursed — by the Bambino himself, Babe Ruth — because they couldn’t win a World Series for 86 years. This is about families going to a tiny ballpark for decades upon decades, waiting for their Olde Towne Team to win.

Now, they’ve won three times. And once at home, even. Think they all can die now?

“As soon as we went to Fort Myers, the movie’s already been written,” said Gomes, referring to spring training. “All we had to do was press play, and that is what happened.”

Press play … for a precious slice of Americana.

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