Red Sox finally seem comfortable in their own skin

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was difficult to tell by employing that time-honored scientific formula of walking around and talking to people at the minor league complex (where the team works out until spring training games begin) whether the Boston Red Sox had swept the Colorado Rockies in October to win their second World Series in four years or won 85 games, just a shade above the Toronto Blue Jays.

Oh, there was the usual applause and squeals from fans for heroes Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and, of course, the great David Ortiz when the Red Sox trotted onto the practice fields for their first full-squad workout Friday. But for the time being, minor bits of New England-style intrigue will keep the news cycles churning (Will this be the last year in Boston for Manny Ramirez? Who dropped the ball on the Curt Schilling injury? Will Coco Crisp be a productive, if not completely happy, fourth outfielder, or will he be the son of Jay Payton, discontented until traded?). The fundamental difference in the collective attitude could be seen only in contrast to the last time the Red Sox opened a baseball season as the defending champions.

After the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, the '05 spring training was literally a circus. Oprah Winfrey's show came to Fort Myers, giving away not a car or a house but one wish. The lucky recipient was James Denton, better known as Mike Delfino, the plumber on the ABC television series "Desperate Housewives." Denton grew up a Red Sox fan, and now that he'd achieved fame by unclogging Nicollette Sheridan's sink, what he really wanted to do was take batting practice with the Red Sox. Oprah made it happen, and the giddy Red Sox were all too happy to oblige.

The cable program "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was next, and the Red Sox were not just champions but if not a little gay (not that there's anything wrong with it), at least comfortably metrosexual. All of which provided sufficient follow-up to the team's original celebrity coronation: Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore running in the outfield the second after the final out of the clinching Game 4 of the World Series was recorded at Busch Stadium as authentic footage for the film "Fever Pitch."

This year, the Red Sox are grown up, and if they wore the crown in 2005 as if they knew it was a temporary piece of property, a bauble to be enjoyed before time expired, it now fits, a custom-made family heirloom. Around owner John Henry and team president Larry Lucchino, the word "vindication" was a common theme. The second title, in other words, ensured that the first wasn't a fluke.

The mention that the Red Sox won the World Series last year elicits a glint of satisfaction and an accepting nod from Lucchino. Mentioning that they won by leading their division every day from the beginning of the season until the final out in Colorado is when the competitive pipelines in his face burst open.

"There were so many times after 2004 we told ourselves that any schlemiel could win it once," he said. "I think this year we've learned from the frenzy. Against the backdrop of what we've experienced before, this year we've spent more time on preparation than on celebration."

Inside the clubhouse, the Red Sox are set. There are no position battles. Barring injury, 22 of the 25 roster slots appear solidified. In 2005, the Red Sox celebrated their title not by defending it but by jettisoning their core: Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera. Nomar Garciaparra, traded that July, already had begun the inevitable breaking with the past. The '04 title team, given no chance to defend itself, was something of an isolated incident, allowed to live joyously and bittersweet in a time capsule while Henry, Lucchino and general manager Theo Epstein reshaped the future.

"I don't know if you get validated in this game because all validations are temporary," Henry said. "But there was more of that feeling instead of 'Thank God, we finally won.'"

For the first time since World War I and winning the World Series four times between 1912 and 1918, the Red Sox are the leaders of baseball over a four-year period. Boston possesses vast financial resources -- not the most, but enough that only one team, the New York Yankees, can consistently compete with it for players. The Red Sox believe that -- at least by leading the league in road attendance (they narrowly outpaced the Yankees as the team most fans want to see) -- they have captured a mandate as "America's team." Most important, these attitudes have been buttressed not with the empty bravado that characterized past teams' proclamations of their "arrival" or supplanting of the Yankees but in the only column where it counts, in the standings.

Over the years, the Red Sox have taken on so many shapes. Under the first decades of Tom Yawkey, they resembled the kid admitted into the elite school only because he had rich parents, waiting inevitably to be exposed by the more accomplished students for not having the grades. In the years after the 1978 and 1986 collapses, they had adopted a tired and self-pitying, organizationwide Calvinism, conveniently expecting to fail without taking responsibility for the lapses in preparation that will doom a franchise every time.

Even in 2004, members of the Red Sox front office saw themselves as not quite worthy of the hardware and title they held. It was as if they knew they could call themselves champions but, to the knowing eyes of their peers, felt the need to acknowledge that winning four games in a row over the Yankees in such bizarre, electrifying fashion was in some sense an unexplainable gift. Mike Timlin still thinks of 2004 as mystical, preordained, written. Henry echoed the unspoken theme, that the 2004 Red Sox certainly were the beneficiaries of their own determination but also aware that winning like that doesn't happen very often, if ever. Somebody up there liked them, in other words. Deep down, despite the outside bravado, there existed a certain sheepishness, a collective fear of winning once, the self-confidence equivalent of a guy who hit a lucky shot now being asked to be team captain.

"To me, it really started in 2003, after Aaron Boone and I thought that the fans of New England would throw up their hands and say, 'We just can't beat the Yankees. Why am I wasting my time?'" Henry said. "But people came back stronger. The fans came back stronger. They really did."

The things we've done, we don't worry about anybody. We've got business to handle. We handle it.

--David Ortiz

On Friday, the Red Sox finally seemed comfortable in their own skin. At the center of the room, naturally, is the easy confidence of Ortiz. There was no baiting of the Evil Empire, no mention of the Yankees, period. Such talk is great for headlines -- a nod to Lucchino's cleverness and savvy -- but is more proof of Boston's historical inferiority complex. In other words, the second title has produced a vindication for the organization that might not be measured in star turns but rather in the cementing of a certain type of mood, the champion's mood.

"The things we've done, we don't worry about anybody," Ortiz said. "We've got business to handle. We handle it."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.