Party's Just Beginning

By pouring it on the Rockies, the Red Sox confirmed that they were baseball's best team in 2007—and thanks to the relentless scouting and player development program showcased in Boston's World Series sweep, the bash, it appears, just might last for years to come
November 05, 2007

Maybe the Boston Red Sox won the 2007 World Series back in 2005, when general manager Theo Epstein, holding four of the first 42 picks in the draft that June, wrote inspirationally on the front-office whiteboard, IMPACT! and DOMINATE THE DRAFT! Maybe they won it the following year, when their first pick of the '05 draft, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, sat down for his spring-training employee assessment and was told to hone his skills as a leadoff hitter. Maybe they won it at a three-hour meeting on the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, when advance scouting coordinator Kyle Evans spelled out exactly how to neutralize Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday, the biggest bats in the Colorado Rockies' lineup. Maybe they won it in the eighth inning of Game 2 when bench coach Brad Mills, remembering from that same meeting the intelligence that Holliday typically runs on first pitches when he tries to steal a base, called a successful pickoff, which wiped the potential tying run off the bases.

Or maybe, just maybe, they won it when a very large, angry man cleared the clubhouse of everybody but Red Sox players after Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in Cleveland, which Boston had lost to the Indians to go down 2--1.

"Listen," designated hitter David Ortiz began, "we're not just a good team. We're a great team. And don't you f------ forget that. And let's go play one at a time and go prove that. Because let me tell you something...."

Ortiz pulled on the sides of his gray road jersey. "There's a reason why you wear this Red Sox uniform...."

Ortiz paused for a beat, letting the suspenseful silence fill the rapt room.

"Because you're a bad mother------."

The world championship is all of it: the commitment to player development, the obsessive devotion to detail, the fluorescent-bathed nerds who break down statistics and video as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls, the small army of scouts, the bad dudes—yes, especially the bad dudes—who wear the Boston uniform and strip the will from their opponents one grueling at bat after another. The entire thing is a giant Jenga game; remove any one of the interlaced blocks and the whole damn tower might topple.

The Red Sox would lose the night after Ortiz held his players-only meeting, but that was the last time in 2007 that they would be defeated. Beginning with Game 5 of the ALCS, Boston ran the rest of the postseason table with seven consecutive wins in one of the most emphatic October rampages of all time. The Red Sox outscored the Indians and the Rockies 59--15 in those seven games, trailed after only three of the 63 innings, became the first team ever to ring up double-digit runs in three straight postseason games, knocked out every opposing starter before any of them could get an out in the seventh inning and saw an average of 18.4 pitches per inning.

In a postseason format overrun in recent years by flukes, wild cards and Cinderellas, the Red Sox restored order to the baseball universe. They became the first team since the 1998 Yankees to win the world championship after winning the most games in the regular season. The best team won. More tellingly, the best organization won.

At 10:05 Mountain Time on Sunday night, the time of the last out of the 4--3 Game 4 clincher, as closer Jonathan Papelbon heaved his glove in the air, ripped off his cap and let out a shriek that must have set off every car alarm in Denver County, Boston had four homegrown players on the Coors Field playing surface and four acquired by trades and free agency in the past 24 months. "It's an organizational triumph because everybody played a part in it," Epstein says. "The reality is that a Red Sox Way is being cultivated."

Ortiz provided one definition of that new institutional culture, however profanely, when he challenged his teammates. Less coarsely, deferring to live television as he accepted the World Series Most Valuable Player trophy, third baseman Mike Lowell further defined it when he said, "With the Red Sox, people expect you to win."

The Red Sox expected to win? Talk about putting a Bucky Bleepin' Dent in conventional wisdom. These are not your father's Red Sox.

Since taking over the club in 2002, the ownership group headed by John Henry has expanded, polished and branded Fenway Park ("America's Most Beloved Ballpark") into a landmark, cash-spewing destination that is every bit the Boston must-see that Faneuil Hall is. It has encouraged the most fanatical, suitcase-packing, jersey-wearing, card-carrying legion of fans in American sports (Red Sox Nation). It spends more money on players than the Indians and the Rockies combined and, if you count the $51 million it plunked down just to negotiate with Japanese righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka last winter, even as much money as the Yankees. But its most amazing achievement is this: It has supplanted the Calvinistic, multigenerational dread of Red Sox fans with the sunshine of optimists. Boston, which once made a gruesome art of losing, now almost always wins the Big One. The Sox have played 17 postseason elimination games since 2003 and won 15. They are 8--0 in World Series games under Terry Francona, the only manager ever to win his first five Fall Classic games.

When the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, church bells rang out across New England and people rushed under a full moon to the gravestones of their deceased loved ones to pass word of the championship. The Nation enjoyed one big cathartic cry. Funeral parlors braced for a boom in business, the now-I-can-die-in-peace crowd suddenly mortally tranquil.

This championship carried a lightness of being, a baggage-free, hedonistic escape. Behold the sated, if spoiled, Red Sox fan, a species not seen on the planet since Babe Ruth wore the Sox uniform in 1918, the last time Boston won a world title so close to a previous one. "I noticed it when we played the Angels [in the Division Series]," Henry says. "Red Sox fans were extremely confident. The expectation now is that the Red Sox are going to win."

Get used to it. When you factor in option years, Boston controls the contracts of leftfielder Manny Ramirez, ace righty Josh Beckett, shortstop Julio Lugo and first baseman Kevin Youkilis through 2010; those of righty Papelbon, Ortiz and rightfielder J.D. Drew through 2011; Matsuzaka, lefty reliever Hideki Okajima, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, lefthander Jon Lester (the Game 4 winner) and righty reliever Manny Delcarmen through 2012; and Ellsbury and future ace righthander Clay Buchholz through 2013.

The only immediate threats to leave among the key Red Sox are Lowell, 33, and righthander Curt Schilling, soon to be 41, both of who will test the organization's resistance to paying for the declining phases of even its most popular players (see Martinez, Pedro; Damon, Johnny; and Lowe, Derek). The Red Sox will investigate the possibility of signing third baseman Alex Rodriguez, whose agent, Scott Boras, announced during the clincher that his client would opt out of his contract with the Yankees. Boston, however, is interested in Rodriguez "only on our terms," a source said, an indication that it would not be interested in the $30 million annual neighborhood that Boras believes Rodriguez will inhabit.

Members of the newly emboldened Red Sox Nation on hand at Coors Field sent club executives a distinct voice mail as the brass celebrated with players after the last out. "Don't sign A-Rod!" the fans chanted. "Re-sign Lowell!"

WHATEVER THE off-season brings, the Red Sox will continue to emphasize player development as the backbone of their business. Lester, 23, who threw 5 2/3 shutout innings in the clincher, and Buchholz will go into the rotation in 2008. The 24-year-old Ellsbury is likely to displace Coco Crisp in centerfield, as he did in the World Series. And shortstop Jed Lowrie and righthander Justin Masterson, both 22, are next in line among Boston prospects to "make an impact next year," Epstein says.

"The free-agent market has always been an inefficient market," adds the G.M., whose otherwise strong track record includes some questionably expensive free-agent signings. "Now with teams locking up their better players to extensions, it's become a horribly inefficient market. That's another factor driving our player development."

With extra picks in that 2005 draft courtesy of the free-agent departures of Martinez and Lowe, and under Epstein's directive to find impact players, the Sox chose Ellsbury, righty reliever Craig Hansen, Buchholz and Lowrie. With an eye toward finding especially strong-willed players to flourish in the demanding Boston market, they compiled reports that ran as long as 10 pages just on the makeup of potential draftees.

Once in the system, every player meets annually with the farm director and the minor league field coordinator to address individual strengths, weaknesses and expectations, an idea the Red Sox swiped from the Indians. In Ellsbury's case Red Sox officials advised him to improve his pitch-selection and bunting skills, with the goal of developing the speedy outfielder into a classic leadoff hitter.

Last January the Red Sox summoned Ellsbury to Boston to take part in the club's annual rookie-development program, in which top prospects expected to reach the majors that season are schooled in everything from strength and conditioning, to the etiquette of tipping clubhouse managers, to dealing with the Boston media. Catcher Jason Varitek, Schilling and Francona were guest instructors. "The bottom line is, because of the expectations and attention, the young player in Boston has to succeed as quickly as possible," Epstein says. "And this program helps them make that transition. When I look at how the young guys like Jacoby have handled themselves this year, when I listen to them give interviews like they've been here for years, it's really something to be proud of."

Ellsbury batted .438 in the World Series, and in Game 3 he joined Joe Garagiola (1946) and Fred Lindstrom (1924) as the only rookies to get four hits in a World Series game. He and Pedroia, a 2004 second-round draft pick, combined to reach base 16 times in the four games. They are emblematic not only of a generation of Red Sox players that knows nothing about an 86-year curse, but one that also treats hitting as a kind of a martial art, employing a wicked combination of Zen-like patience and blunt-force trauma. "We never go up there just looking for a walk," explains hitting coach Dave Magadan. "We look for a good pitch to hit. The key is, we have guys who are comfortable even if they have to wait until two strikes to get that pitch."

SO ARMED, the Boston attack embarrassed Colorado in a 13--1 Game 1 win. Rockies ace lefthander Jeff Francis, pitching with 13 days of rest for a team that was idle for eight days, needed 103 pitches to get 12 outs. Lefty Franklin Morales was even worse, becoming the first relief pitcher in World Series history to give up seven runs without getting three outs.

In Game 2, Boston wore out Rockies rookie righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, turning two of his five walks into runs for a 2--1 win. The Game 3 defeat belonged to righthander Josh Fogg, who joined Andy Ashby of the 1998 Padres as the only pitchers to give up 10 hits in a World Series game without getting out of the third inning. In that inning alone during its 10--5 win, Boston batted nine consecutive times off Fogg with a runner in scoring position, scoring six runs, before Rockies manager Clint Hurdle mercifully pulled Fogg from the wreckage. The clincher was less bloody, with righthander Aaron Cook lasting until a leadoff homer by Lowell in the seventh gave Boston a 3--0 lead.

"Everyone in their lineup was hitting," says Colorado third baseman Garrett Atkins. "When you've got eight, nine guys swinging a hot bat, there's no such thing as an easy out. "

The Boston attack is aided by its thorough advance scouting system. The Red Sox changed their approach this season to include two advance scouts, Todd Claus and Dana Levangie, who were assigned alternating opponents. Instead of faxing or e-mailing reports as some teams do (some clubs have even done away with advance scouts altogether), the Red Sox had Claus or Levangie deliver the report in person while the other scout watched the next opponent. The Red Sox also assign scouts to watch their own club to look for tendencies other teams might use against them.

For the World Series, 11 scouts contributed to the report on the Rockies. One of the key points of that report, as recalled by a club source, went like this: Colorado's best hitters are young and aggressive, eager to be "The Man" in big situations, especially Tulowitzki and Holliday, so in their eagerness to swing they will chase pitches out of the zone. The two players are aggressive in different ways: Holliday is a great breaking-ball hitter; Tulowitzki is a great fastball hitter. Exploit their eagerness by endeavoring to make balls look like strikes.

A sequence in the third inning of Game 4 demonstrated the effectiveness of the report and how well Boston executed it. Nursing a 1--0 lead, Lester faced Tulowitzki and Holliday with the tying run at second. He struck out both hitters on pitches out of the zone—Tulowitzki on a slider that broke down and in, and Holliday on a high fastball.

Expertly briefed, Boston's starting pitchers earned every win in the seven-game winning streak. Papelbon saved four of those games—three of them in the World Series, and all of them requiring him to go more than one inning—to complete a scoreless postseason.

Before he threw the last pitch, Papelbon walked off the mound, rubbed up the baseball and in his head heard the words Varitek had been telling him all October: Take it one pitch at a time.

"And that's how I wound up the whole postseason scoreless," Papelbon said. "I slowed everything down."

His last pitch was a high fastball. Seth Smith, the Rockies' pinch hitter, swung at it and missed. Papelbon exulted, his face a beacon lit by joy and relief before he fell into the arms of Varitek. Hardly 30 minutes later, standing alone in a clubhouse hallway, Papelbon was asked to put such euphoria into words. He bowed his head for a bit, and when he raised it, tears had welled in his eyes. He waited longer, then finally said, "Hell, I don't know if I can. All of us are a part of this. It's such a surreal feeling. I remember my brother, Josh, came up to me on the field and pinched me. So I guess, yeah, it's real."

The Red Sox expected to win? Talk about putting a BUCKY BLEEPIN' DENT in conventional wisdom. These aren't your father's Sox.

"It's an organizational triumph because everybody played a part in it," says Epstein. "The reality is that A RED SOX WAY is being cultivated."

This championship carried a lightness of being, a baggage-free, hedonistic escape. Behold the sated, IF SPOILED, Red Sox fan.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansSPRAY HITTER Ortiz was in a fizzy mood after the clincher, but only 13 days before he had delivered a most potent clubhouse statement. PHOTOROBERT BECKWHIZ KID Pushed to work on his leadoff skills, Ellsbury went from Double A to World Series star (.438 average) in five months. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSTHE MONSTER Scary thought: Beckett is only 27. Still scarier: The ace is under contract to the Red Sox through 2010. PHOTOROBERT BECKSHORT STORY A pest with power at the top of the order, Pedroia also was a linchpin in Boston's nearly flawless D. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHPILING ON In the end the Sox outscored the Rox by nearly five runs a game and trailed in only three of their last 63 innings.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)