Sights set on new season

Last October, the Boston Red Sox did what no Red Sox team had done since 1918.

Now, they must do what no Sox team has done since 1916 -- successfully defend their championship.

After a winter in which they made the requisite talk-show appearances, wrote books and generally enjoyed themselves, the Red Sox are back at work, still basking in the afterglow.

Back in New England, Red Sox fans are understandably reluctant to let go of last fall's achievement. The World Series trophy is still making the rounds at senior centers and elementary schools, fawned over by those who weren't sure they would live to see the day and those who can't quite grasp the significance.

"Coming to spring training as defending world champions is very exciting," Tim Wakefield said as pitchers began to file into camp.

In their first week in Fort Myers, Fla., the Red Sox have welcomed new teammates (David Wells, Edgar Renteria, Wade Miller, Matt Clement), saluted those who left (Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Orlando Cabrera) and enjoyed tweaking Alex Rodriguez.

Management, meanwhile, wrestled with when to distribute the World Series rings, wanting to observe, in the words of one team official, "decorum."

But mostly, the Red Sox have tried to distance themselves a bit from what they accomplished last season. Sure, it was historic. But it's also history.

"I'm very proud of what we did last year," said manager Terry Francona as players trickled into camp. "But right now, I care more about what we're going to do this year. For me, living through it was a lot of fun and I'm very proud.

"But I don't want, for one minute, to get lost on what we need to do in 2005. If we lose sight of that, what we did in 2004 isn't going to mean much for very long. I'm proud of what we did, but it's in the past tense."

For all the changes, the 2005 Red Sox bear a striking resemblance to the championship team -- at least in the field. Eight position players -- including DH David Ortiz -- return; only Renteria, who takes over as the shortstop, is new.

It's the pitching staff that has undergone the most drastic facelift. Gone are Martinez and Lowe, who contributed 30 wins and 399 2/3 innings last season. In their place are Wells, Clement and Miller, though Miller's availability for the start of the season is uncertain.

The bullpen has been augmented with lefty John Halama and set-up man Matt Mantei, a right-hander. On the bench, Jay Payton has replaced Gabe Kapler as the fourth outfielder.

Other than that, there aren't many changes. It's likely that 16 of the players on the Opening Day 25-man roster will have been on the field at Busch Stadium on the night of Oct. 27.

But if the personnel has stayed mostly constant, the attitude has changed some. Clearly, the Red Sox are enjoying their status as defending champs, particularly since they knocked off the rival New York Yankees along the way.

In the past, the Sox have had a collective chip on their shoulders, on the wrong end of a long, bitter and ultimately one-sided rivalry. This spring, it's the Yankees who have to answer questions about what went wrong. This spring, it's the Red Sox who can speak with the authority of champions.

But when the two teams meet on April 3 to begin the regular season, the Red Sox's bragging rights will have expired. Other than providing some ammunition to their long-suffering fans, the trophy won't mean much.

Still, the Red Sox are doing their best to approach the season the right way. They've extended a standing invitation to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to address the team, hopeful that Belichick's history -- both successful and unsuccessful -- in defending a title will provide the players with some perspective.

But they also know this isn't football. In Belichick's NFL, teams have a week to gear up for the defending Super Bowl champs. One big win against the title-holders can make a team and a season.

That's not the way it is in baseball, where emotion can be a handicap and the season is a six-month marathon.

"We need to move forward," Francona said. "To [win] again will be much more difficult, so we might as well start now on focusing on that."

"We haven't done anything yet," echoed GM Theo Epstein. "It doesn't really matter how you look on paper. Obviously, we choose the players for a reason and we think this group has a chance to be really competitive. But the great thing about baseball is it doesn't matter how you look on paper."

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.