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SI 60 Q&A: Tom Verducci on the 2004 Red Sox and the power of sports

In this SI 60 Q&A, Tom Verducci discusses his 2004 Sportsmen of the Year story on the Boston Red Sox as well as the impact that team had on the people of New England, and vice versa.

The Boston Red Sox’ 2004 World Series championship, the first for the franchise since 1918, was more than just a sports story. The day after Boston finished its sweep of the Cardinals, the Red Sox were front-page news across the country, and Time magazine put them on the cover that week, just days before a closely contested presidential election. But the meaning of the team’s triumph went far beyond the events of that day, that week, or even that year, and it was bigger than ending a championship drought or overcoming a 3-games-to-0 deficit to their chief tormentors, the New York Yankees, just to win the American League pennant. No, those Red Sox were the story of an entire region, a Nation even, and about the ways sports can impact and influence people and families for generations. It was for those reasons that Sports Illustrated chose them as the 2004 Sportsmen Of The Year.

There was only one man to write the definitive account of what the Red Sox’ championship meant to their long-suffering fans: Tom Verducci, SI’s longtime baseball writer, who had followed the team closely throughout its unforgettable October. Verducci’s resulting story told the personal accounts of dozens of Red Sox fans and the impact the team’s first title in 86 years had on them and their lives. When it was published in the Dec. 6 issue, it was simply entitled, “2004 Sportsmen of the Year”, but when it was anthologized a few years later in SI’s book, Great Baseball Writing, it was renamed “At The End Of The Curse, A Blessing.”

I spoke with Verducci about the story, the Red Sox and the power of sports.

SI: In retrospect it seems like an obvious choice to pick the Red Sox that year, but this was also an Olympic year, in addition to whatever else was going on in sports. Did you have to stump for them to be Sportsmen of the Year, or were you just told that they had been chosen?

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VERDUCCI: I didn’t have to sell it at all. The editors came to me, and it was a great decision by them. To be honest with you, my first reaction was Oh no. Because obviously the Red Sox were just an incredible story that whole postseason and I had spent the previous four weeks writing about the Idiots, the bloody sock, this great bunch of characters and this great story. I really didn’t know what else I could say about this team. I’m thinking, I actually have to write this story again and have it be fresh somehow.

I was thinking, What makes this team so special? and to me the answer was the connection with the community. It’s much larger than Boston, it’s regional, it’s even national. To me that’s the best thing about sports, when a team -- and it doesn’t have to be professional -- really has a feeling within the community. If you don’t have that connection, it’s just a sport by itself. This was as good an example as I’ve been across where what they did went way beyond wins and losses. I thought, I really need to find a way to let all our readers know about this connection and how special it is.

SI: Just about every Red Sox fan probably had a story to tell about that team. How did you find the ones you wrote about?

VERDUCCI: I pitched this idea to the Red Sox, saying, “This is what I want to write about: Have you heard from Red Sox fans, or any people who have any kind of a story to tell about how important the Red Sox are to them?” They said, “You can come in and look at a general email inbox that we have.” So I did. There were thousands of emails in there, some saying nothing more than, “Thank you, Red Sox.” That was the beginning of it for me, and the ones I found that just tugged on me were the ones where I wanted to tell their story.

SI: How much time did you spend sifting through these emails?

VERDUCCI: It was pretty much a full day at the Red Sox’ offices. There was a lot to go through. After going through a few you think, Maybe this is too repetitious, but I always thought there might be something else that I’d be missing if I stopped too soon. I can’t tell you if there was one that stood out but I wanted to go through them all.

SI: How did these people react when you called them? Were they resistant to tell such a personal story to a large audience?

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VERDUCCI: People were surprised, because they were not expecting any response from the club and now they had Sports Illustrated calling them up. I was very open with them, obviously, saying, “I got your email from the Red Sox and I want to talk to you about it, is that OK?” Nobody felt violated or intruded upon in any way. To this day people just want to tell the story of what it means to them. The people were fantastic. That would have been understandable if they didn’t want to talk, but I don’t remember anyone saying, “No, I’d rather not.” It was cathartic for them to tell their story.

SI: You had been around the Red Sox a long time. Were you taken aback by this outpouring of emotion and genuine feeling?

VERDUCCI: I was surprised at how big it was. I’m not a New Englander but I had a sense of how important the team was. The moment it first hit me, prior to this story, was when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the seventh game of the ALCS that year. Really, it was the face of Theo Epstein, the team's general manager, who grew up in the Boston area. He was the one telling me, “You think you understand but you don’t really understand how big this was for us, especially to do it in Yankee Stadium.” For some reason that always stood out to me. That was, believe it or not, almost like their World Series. Beating the Yankees in New York in the seventh game after being behind 3-games-to-0, I really began to understand how much these people had carried around generationally that they inherited from their parents.

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SI: You had covered the Bill Buckner game in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and the Aaron Boone game in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, too, though, so you must have had some sense of all this. Did you ever think about writing a story encapsulating what it would be like if they won?

VERDUCCI: In 1986, covering that Series against the Mets for Newsday, the Curse of the Bambino wasn’t as big or talked about as much as it was in 2003 or 2004. I remember being in the back of the press box in the ninth inning of Game 6 with my Newsday colleagues and we were kind of dividing up who was writing about what based on the Red Sox winning the championship. I was writing the game story, so that was pretty easy for me. But then everything changed pitch by pitch.

I probably began to think about that in 2003 with the Aaron Boone game. Then you start to think, My goodness there’s really something going on with this team.

SI: You wrote about how even in the 2004 World Series, with one inning to go, fans were still nervous that they’d blow it.

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VERDUCCI: Oh absolutely yeah, that sort of waiting-for-disaster-to-strike. I can remember being at many games at Fenway Park, the quietest you’d hear fans there would be late in the game when they had a lead. How are we going to blow it this time? In some sense it was true even going into Game 4 of the World Series. There would be no bigger championship in sports than the Cubs winning the World Series, but at the time in 2004 it was the biggest possible title you could think of.

SI: Do you think that feeling has been diluted somewhat by the fact that they’ve won two more World Series since then?

VERDUCCI: Oh yeah, I think so. There’s young people who’ve gone to college in Boston or started following the team in the early 2000s that have no idea what the previous 86 years were like. They can read about the Curse of the Bambino, but there’s an expectation now that the Red Sox will be good and maybe even a championship team every year.

I’ve heard it applied to the Rangers in hockey, too, it’s like you lose the identity for who you are because that’s who you’ve been for so long, but the young fans like it this way.

SI: There are diehard fans of every team though. Is the passion for the Red Sox overblown at all, or do you think that passion is actually unique to that team and that region?

VERDUCCI: I think it’s unique. Larry Lucchino, the team president, likes to use the Catholic church as an analogy: You’re kind of born into it; there is a religious attachment between the team and the fans; you’re operating on faith and faith isn’t always rewarded. It is a true regional team covering a lot of states and a different area of the country. Most people who live there are born in that area, live in that area and die in that area. That’s less true now but certainly that area in the Northeast and New England, people tend to put down those long, strong roots. That’s why I think it’s different in New England than any other area.

That’s really the story of the true Red Sox fan: You’re born into it. Even before I wrote the story I thought about all the people who’ve been following the Red Sox all those years who would only half jokingly would say, “I hope I see a title before I die.” I was acutely aware that even if they were joking they can say that seriously now.

SI: Did you hear from other fans after the story came out, or continue to hear from the ones you’d already written about?

VERDUCCI: There were a few of them that I just exchanged emails with. The one lady whose mom was in a nursing home I think, her mom passed away a few years after that and she let me know about her mom passing, which I thought was just so touching that she took the time to write to me about that.

SI: Is there a title that would top that one?

VERDUCCI: A Cubs championship would be bigger but emotionally it will be very different. Red Sox fans suffered a lot, at least that’s the way that they see themselves. Because they had very good teams that lost the worst possible way. Cubs fans have smiled a lot more than Red Sox fans. Yeah we know we’re bad but we’re still going to have a great time at Wrigley Field. It won’t be as cathartic as the Red Sox’ championship was, but Cubs fans seem to be more scattered around the country for some reason and it’s truly a national feeling. It would be bigger than anything you could think of in sports. Certainly there’s no NFL or NBA team you could compare it to. They’ve waited for over 100 years.

I would be more than thrilled to write that story. Not that you root for any team, but you root for good stories to write and I can’t think of a better story to write in sports.

SI: How does that Red Sox story rank for you personally?

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VERDUCCI: It’s certainly the biggest and most meaningful championship I’ve ever covered, put it that way, and that’s taking nothing away from the ‘98 Yankees, who were the best team I ever covered. In terms of meaningfulness, this is it. Sports is about the stories that you write more than the final score. I just think that the connection between the team and the fans was so powerful that, to me, that’s sports at its very best.

Years ago I wrote something about the Mariners after they beat the Yankees in 1995, and that was one of my favorites too because that was the first time Seattle had any reason to celebrate. People started marking their lives by where they were when that happened. When Tino Martinez hit that grand slam, I was here; when Ken Griffey Jr. scored from first I was here. I just thought that was so cool. A similar thing happened with the Red Sox, so when that happened I thought back to the ‘95 Mariners.

SI: Was that partly where you got the idea to tell the Red Sox story that way?

VERDUCCI: Part of it, yeah. I remember there was a story about people showing up for a wedding reception and the Mariners had all these great, late-inning comebacks through August and September, and a guy was listening to the game on the radio but he couldn’t go inside to the reception because he was waiting to hear how the game turned out. They win, and he gets out and closes the door and he hears another car door slam, and then another door and another door and another door. It turns out the parking lot was full of people putting their lives on hold. So I did think of that.

SI: Because it was such a personal story for so many people I would imagine it really struck a nerve with folks when it came out.

VERDUCCI: That was one of the stories I heard maybe as much feedback on as anything I’ve ever written. What was interesting to me, we did an event at Fenway Park with a couple of the Red Sox players to celebrate them as Sportsmen of the Year. Curt Schilling was there and a couple of the other players. What really struck me, and Schilling said this as well as some others, in reading that story they really got the true sense of the meaning of their championship.

Let’s face it, they didn’t grow up in Boston or being Red Sox fans, and so they didn’t grow up carrying the baggage of the Red Sox with them. Of course it was around them, but I don’t know if they really understood it, how much it meant to the fans and the outpouring of emotions of waiting their whole lives for a Red Sox championship. They said, Now I get it. I thought I did before but now I really do. That was some of the most powerful feedback that I got.