The change was readily apparent in Boston the morning of Oct. 28, 2004. The fall air seemed crisper, the Dunkin' Donuts coffee pipingly hotter, and the rush-hour slog up the Southeast Expressway surprisingly middle-finger free.
The demarcation line was as clear as the reflection off Don Zimmer's scalp on a sunny day: A little toss from Keith Foulke to Doug Mientkiewicz wrapped up a sweep of St. Louis in the World Series, and all hell broke loose.
It's been almost five years since New England baseball fans ditched the sackcloth-and-ashes routine to celebrate the Red Sox's first title since 1918. In conjunction with the launch of ESPNBoston.com, I've been asked to go all Bill Simmons and reflect upon the moment and the changes that ensued.
A brief disclaimer off the top: I grew up about 100 miles north of Boston in Portland, Maine, where the Red Sox maintain a deep psychic hold. Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are among the future Sox who passed through town with the Eastern League Sea Dogs in recent years. As a youth in Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood, I listened to Ned Martin, Ken Coleman and Mel Parnell on the radio and scoured the local paper for the box scores. My favorite Red Sox player was George "Boomer" Scott, who showed uncommon agility around the first base bag and wore a shell necklace that he claimed was made from "second basemen's teeth."
While attending Boston University, I landed a seat in the bleachers for Carl Yastrzemski's 3,000th hit and the 1978 one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees. I covered the Bill Buckner game as a young ball writer in 1986, and teamed with ESPN's Jim Caple to follow the 2004 American League Championship Series between Boston and New York.
We swapped assignments -- Jim taking the winning clubhouse one day, me the next -- and a look back at our stories reflects the thrill ride the teams provided. After the Red Sox lost 19-8 to fall behind 3-0 in the series, I wrote: "The Yankees are feasting on Boston's pitching, which has been generous enough to qualify as appetizer, main course and dessert. Right now this series belongs to New York, and the Red Sox can only hope to prolong the inevitable."
So much for veteran intuition -- and food references. By Game 6 we were all paying homage to Boston's gritty comeback and the wondrously tense display of baseball we were witnessing.
"It's difficult to put what's transpired the last two nights into perspective, just because of the information overload involved," I wrote after Game 5. "The Red Sox and Yankees played a total of 26 innings over a span of 10 hours and 51 minutes. They threw 887 pitches, left 54 runners on base and didn't leave an emotional vein untapped or a managerial option unexplored."
Or a baseball writer's sleep patterns intact. When Caple and I schlepped up Commonwealth Avenue three hours after David Ortiz's homer in Game 4 and discovered that my car had been towed to make way for the street sweepers, it necessitated a frantic cab ride to an all-night impound garage in Brighton.
In hindsight, that Boston-New York series featured enough memorable moments to make for great theater regardless of your personal allegiance. If Curt Schilling gets elected to the U.S. Senate, his bloody sock will be the baseball equivalent of John Kerry's three Purple Hearts. Dave Roberts, who helped force extra innings in Game 4 with a ninth-inning stolen base, attained folk hero status in Boston by the length of a finger. Roberts later came to realize the impact of his steal when he attended a football game at his alma mater, UCLA, and a Red Sox fan approached him in the stadium restroom to thank him for his contribution.
The '04 Boston team thrived because it was oblivious to the historical burden that preyed upon the psyche of so many Red Sox clubs through the years. Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Kevin Millar, Bronson Arroyo, Ortiz and Curtis Leskanic were free-wheeling and smart enough to understand that it never hurts a ballplayer to be brain-dead on occasion.
The big misconception is that Red Sox fans were "long-suffering" before the Idiots rode to the rescue. Baby boomer Sox fans, sure. To this day, I recall waking up from a tonsillectomy at age 8 and my sister Sharon bringing cheer with news that the Sox had won the previous night to take over eighth place in the American League. I double-checked on Baseball-reference.com, and it's true: In mid-September of 1966, Lee Stange and Don McMahon combined to beat the Angels 5-4, and the Red Sox moved into eighth for the first time since May. A joyous crowd of 5,669 looked on at Fenway.
But once the Yastrzemski-led "Impossible Dream" Red Sox overcame 100-to-1 odds to reach the World Series in 1967, Boston teams were consistently competitive. In 43 seasons since Dick Williams' arrival, Red Sox fans have suffered through the Bucky Dent home run, Buckner's misplay and Grady Little's career-defining managerial hiccup. They've also "endured" a total of six losing seasons. Try telling a Pirates, Royals, Indians or Brewers fan that Boston fans have suffered. Or mention it to Cubs die-hards, who've lived through 25 sub-.500 seasons and one Steve Bartman since 1967.
Boston fans, nevertheless, flaunted their ordeal like a birthright. At one point, Caple and I debated whether Red Sox or Yankees media and fans are more self-absorbed. We concluded that Yankees-watchers have no clue that baseball exists beyond New York. Red Sox-watchers, in contrast, are fully cognizant that another world exists. They just don't care.
Bill Lee used to portray the Red Sox as a force for good in the world and the Yankees as the corporate, soul-less villains. Larry Lucchino perpetuated that notion with his "Evil Empire" comment after the Yankees signed Jose Contreras in 2002.
In reality, most people beyond the Eastern Seaboard have to strain to tell the difference. The Yankees have spent an average of $198 million per season on player salaries since 2004, and the Red Sox $128 million. Many of their 18 meetings a year are nationally televised, and the rivalry has been so incessantly hyped (by ESPN and others) that even the players have developed Armageddon fatigue.
The Red Sox won another World Series in 2007 to become the game's only two-time champion in a decade of parity, and now they're the Bruce Springsteen of baseball. The Sox recorded their 539th and 540th straight sellouts Sunday in a doubleheader sweep of Tampa Bay, and roving hordes of Boston fans still show up in Baltimore, Toronto and other AL cities to root for their team and drown out the home crowd.
Meanwhile, back in Boston, newspaper columnists and die-hards lament the arrival of the "pink hats" -- bandwagon jumpers who flock to Fenway because it's the trendy place to be. Many of the scribes make liberal use of the tired and self-indulgent phrase "Red Sox Nation."
The true fans, obviously, have stayed the course. My friend Steve Buckley, who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and writes a column for the Boston Herald, witnessed the impact of the 2004 World Series victory when he drove past the Cambridge Cemetery and saw countless Red Sox pennants, caps and jerseys adorning gravesites. The thrill of victory was so profound, the living were compelled to share it with the dead.
Now the living -- not to mention the voices who congregate at the Sons of Sam Horn Web site -- are compelled to obsess over Papelbon's rising WHIP and Josh Beckett's recent bout of home-run-itis. "People still go on the radio and complain as much as they ever did," Steve says.
Red Sox fans still grouse with the same degree of passion and zeal they've invested in their team for decades. Since 2004, the only thing missing is the anguish. They save that for the morning commute.